Sunday, July 29, 2012

Exploring St. Petersburg's History, People and Culture


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!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Moscow in a Weekend


I made it to Moscow and managed to cover most of the city (territorially speaking) in a weekend. Wow.

The weekend started Friday, 6:00 PM, when my train departed Vladimir. My friends and I rode the "electric train," a traditional commuter-rail line that took us to Moscow in three hours.

In Moscow, I met up with my friend, Maxim (those of you who read my blog last summer may remember Maxim from Almaty). As a native of Kiev who has also lived in Moscow for some time, exploring the city with Maxim provided several advantages. First, he knows Moscow. Second, he taught me how to distinguish between apartment buildings constructed under Krushchev in the 50s, and under Brezhnev in the 60s, 70s and even buildings from the 80s. The trick is to look at the size and quality of the bricks, the size of the balcony, number of windows, and distance between windows and balcony. Finally, he was great for practicing Russian. Thank you Maxim!

First stop, the bazaar of course! We went to Izmaylovo market in Moscow, which is not far from the old Olympic complex. The bazaar is full of fabulous furs, matrioshka dolls, posters, old Soviet goods, and much more. I only saw one retailer selling Uzbek teapots, as the market reflected local, Moscow tastes. As for set-up, the market was a traditional, outdoor market. I found it particularly interesting how there were two sections, the latter of which required a ten-ruble admission cover. This area must be the most coveted by retailers. We spent a good two hours wandering around the bazaar, and I bought some hand-crafted jewelry from a lovely retailer named Alexandra (she even gave me her phone number). I also bought some old Soviet propaganda posters. I also left with two issues of Krokodile, a Soviet satirical magazine, from 1974. 
Izmaylovo Market.

After the market, we took the metro to the center. We walked around Red Square, St. Basil's cathedral, the Kremlin, etc. Amazing. 

Red Square!

Then we walked around the city, crossed the bridge, and visited the Soviet space shuttle and the children's park. From there, we walked around the Moscow Sculpture Garden (formerly called the Park of the Fallen Heroes), which includes old Soviet statues as well as some edgy-artsy pieces. The spectrum of pieces on display, and the scale of the political figures, were impressive. I included some pictures below.

The sheer scale of the sculptures is impressive. In this photo, I (5'3) am unable to reach the finger tips of this statue.  

A monument to those who died in the GULag camps. 

After the Park, we grabbed some lunch, took a metro to the center, and walked around Arbat and New Arbat. During the Soviet era, Arbat was THE HUB for artists and creative individuals. It is now a pretty cool, hip area filled with restaurants and caricature artists.

We ended the day at the White House! A historically profound site, the White House was the site of the failed 1991 coup attempt launched by the Soviet military elites against Gorbachev (you can watch a clip on YouTube). Ironically, the building  is located across the street from the American Embassy. During the Soviet Union, the White House was the home of the Supreme Soviet of Russia. Today, it houses the Russian Parliament. 

The White House. 

What an exhausting Saturday! Sunday, we woke up and went to Lenin's mausoleum, which is also in Red Square. For anyone who studies Soviet history as much as I do, visiting Lenin's mausoleum was definitely an epic moment. 

After paying our respects to Lenin, Maxim and I went to "Moscow City," which reminds me of Astana with its tall, green sky-scrapers. Moscow City is a new business complex, still under construction, and represents the city's future.

Interestingly, many of the construction signs in Moscow city were in Turkish and Russian. This is due to several reasons. First, it is probably a Turkish construction company developing the site, and second, there were many Central Asian construction workers.
Finally, we ventured out to Moscow State University to explore the campus and score a great view of the entire city. 
Moscow State University.

I met up with my friends at the train station and was home by 9 o'clock Sunday evening. After some tea and blueberries (fresh from the dacha) with Olga, I discovered the power adapter to my computer was broken. Great, last thing I needed. Fortunately, Eldorado, a Russian version of "Best Buy," sells Mac computers and I was fortunately able to purchase a new one. In fact, now I can use my Mac power cord with a European and an American outlet. Thank goodness for the globalization of technology, goods, services and Apple computer parts.

Well, that was Moscow! What a weekend! I hope to share more details of the weekend in future posts. For now, I'm going to get some sleep. Tomorrow evening, I'm off to St. Petersburg for four days and will be returning to Vladimir early Sunday morning. I'm sure I will have more stories to share! Thanks for reading and as always, please comment!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Video: Folklore Tuesday


Unfortunately, I came down with a stomach virus Monday morning. Olga has been treating me with the tender, loving-care of a Russian host mother.

In the meantime, please enjoy this short clip from last Tuesday's Russian folklore class where we are singing a traditional Russian song! The instructor cracks me up...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Another trip to the Market


In case you have not yet noticed, I am a huge fan of informal markets and bazaars. They are anthropological playgrounds! Naturally, I decided to spend my Sunday walking around Fakal market, Vladimir's largest.

The market appeared busier than last Sunday. There were more people and not as many vendors closed. Interestingly enough, I peeked into one of the half-open blue containers and discovered it was a storage space for mannequins and inventory.

I enjoy chatting with the vendors, but they will not talk with me unless I am a potential customer so I went into a shop that sells fur coats (шуба). As I admired the selection of fabulous, Cruella DeVille-inspired Muton, Fox and Rabbit-fur coats, the saleswoman offered to assist me. I tried on a black muton-fur coat with a fabulous gray collar that was two sizes too large. I asked if they had it in a smaller size and she said no, as she buttoned the coat and showed me different ways to wear the collar. "All you need now is boots and a hat and you're good," she commented. The coat was pretty big, so I asked for a smaller size and she suggested I try on a gray coat, which fit better.

I was not actually going to buy any coat, as I felt as if I was wearing a 60-pound animal, but I decided to bargain with her. That coat was originally 30,000 Rubles (~$915) during the winter, but was on sale during the summer months for 25,000 Rubles. I asked for 20,000 Rubles and she responded with 23,000 Rubles. I thanked the saleswoman and told her I would sleep on it.

I then went to another shop selling fur coats. I had actually visited this shop last week and tried on a coat, as I recognized the young sales girl. This time, the owner of the shop assisted me as I looked through her collection. The coats were of comparable price and quality as at the first vendor's shop. I asked if she had any collars, and the vendor responded that in a few months she will but right now, fur coats are out of season. She advised I go to the "Market East" (Рынок-Восток) located in the Dobrom neighborhood, which is conveniently where I live. The saleswoman, Sveta, advised me to go to a woman named "Khan" in this market, who offers a wide selection all year round. "Tell Khan that Sveta sent you," she advised.

I was intrigued that Sveta advised me to go to another vendor. I have had many market conversations and this was the first time a vendor encouraged me to go to a different vendor. The competition between vendors selling similar goods is usually so fierce. It turns out Khan and Sveta used to do business together.

"So you now manage this shop?," I inquired. It turns out Sveta runs two shops adjacent to each other, both selling woman's clothing. Sveta appeared to be in her 40s or 50s and was clearly an experienced businesswoman in the market with connections, two shops and an employee (the younger saleswoman who I spoke with last time). Sveta then explained to me how she will have a wider variety of furs in the fall and winter, but right now, t-shirts and shorts are in season.

So what is the point of that story?

Bazaars and informal markets are not a random amalgamation of vendors. It is worth pointing this out as there is a misperception of bazaars and informal markets. Rather, they organized institutions that are comprised of small business owners who, like any good businessmen, select their products based on consumer demand. Sveta, for example, specializes in coats in the winter and t-shirts and shorts in the summer. Businessmen in the markets value connections and know their competitors. They also value the customer, as Sveta was extremely friendly and willing to help me. While everything I outlined here is Business Skills-101, it is worth pointing out that even in a market, these skills are essential. Meanwhile, unsuccessful vendors lack these skills and are probably the ones who lay out their goods on a blanket outside the market, as they are unable to afford the container space.

Policy makers and analysts often underestimate the value of informal markets and dismiss them as a primitive form of economic development. While I agree that informal markets rank fairly low on the "value-added chain," they are far from primitive institutions. For example, at the first vendor, I asked if she accepted a credit card, at which point she laughed and said "No, this is a market." Integrating credit into the bazaar economy would be one tool through which policy makers can "formalize" the market. However,  it is important to keep in mind that markets involve systems and the successful vendors are the business-savvy ones who master the systems. These vendors deserve a tremendous amount of respect.

Eager to continue my market experiment, I ventured to "Market West." Unfortunately, it was already 3:30 when I arrived at the market and the vendors were shutting down for the day. So I walked around and found an old Russian man who smelled of cigarettes, managing a container full of books -- boxes and boxes of them.

I was thrilled! I have searched this city high and low for books Russian-language books on Central Asia. In every bookstore I have entered, none of them had books on Central Asian history, politics or even geography.  Since many of the books appeared to be used, I was hoping he would have at least one book on the region.

Our conversation went roughly as follows:
Do you have any books on Central Asia? Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan...
"What about Central Asia?"
History, politics, geography, USSR-era, anything on the region.
"Lady, tell me what you want books on."
I already said, Central Asia. Anything about it.
"Why do you want books on Central Asia? Everyone there is cookoo," as the salesman gestures with his finger on his forehead (evidently, "great Russian chauvinism" is alive and well). "Are you from there?"
No, I'm American. Central Asia interests me.
"American? Where are you from, New York?"
No, Washington.
"My brother flew through Washington on his way to Las Vegas....Why are you here?"
I'm studying Russian.
"Oh, I have books on Russian grammar," as he sorts through his collection of Russian grammar books. "Here, it is a gift," and he offers me a level-1, colorful Russian book.
I politely declined and said I'm looking for books on Central Asia. He then said he had books but needed time to find them. I agreed to return on Wednesday after 3pm, at which point he will have a collection "yay high" (as he gestures with his hands) of books on Central Asia ready. Talk about satisfying the customer...

So I shall return to the market on Wednesday, and hopefully find Khan selling fur coats and some Russian-language books on Central Asia. Until then, I hope this post brings light onto informal markets and bazaars: they are highly competitive economic institutions comprised of rational, self-interested agents who seek to maximize profits.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

When Ill in Russia


One of the things I have learned when studying abroad is cultural perspectives on hygiene, health and illness. For Russians, naturally, their historical experience surviving the Siberian winter has shaped most perceptions of health. For example, Russians never put ice cubes in their drink as they believe cold beverages will give you a sore throat that will become infected, give you cancer and cause death, as one would never consume a cold drink during the freezing winter. (I am partially exaggerating here)

Another Russian myth on health is to never leave a window and a door to a room open, as the draft flowing through the wind will cause you to catch a cold that will turn into pneumonia and ultimately prove fatalistic. Again, a function of geography.

Let me remind readers that we have bizarre notions of health in the US. If you have a cut on your finger and put a band-aid on it, you are not supposed to let the wound breathe at night and remove the band-aid, but leave the band-aid on until the wound has healed completely.  Bottom line -- in every culture, one can find myths on personal hygiene and health that are not scientifically sound.

Yesterday, my friend unfortunately discovered the Russian cure for nausea. My friend was feeling nauseous and left school after lunch. When she went to the director's office, they gave her charcoal pills (yes, charcoal pills), which subsequently prevented her from throwing up. We've all been nauseous before and know that it is better to get whatever bug out of you then to keep it inside. After all, her body was probably reacting to something she ate -- totally normal when abroad.

After being forced to take a charcoal pill and sent home with another one, her host mother insisted she go to the hospital. After refusing, her host mother then insisted she rub an "antibiotic" liquid on her stomach. My friend's host mother then lifted up her dress and basically forced herself on her.

This morning, my friend read the label, which was in English, and discovered that this magical antibiotic liquid was mouth wash. She told me at the time it smelled minty so she figured it was some random antiseptic. But no -- it was mouth wash (like Listerine). Ironically, her host mom told her to never consume it as it is a very powerful antibiotic.

Fortunately, my friend drank plenty of fluids, took some American over-the-counter drugs, rested and was alive and well today in class.

I could not help but to share this story with you, as it illustrates the painful student experience of being sick in a foreign country as well as foreign perspectives on personal hygiene.

While I have not yet been sick in Russia, I have been sick abroad and was told to drink hot milk with butter and honey. Here in Vladimir, Olga has been treating an ear ache by inserting a cotton swab of vodka into her ear everyday.

The combination of these views on public health and widespread smoking an drinking result in a pretty bleak demographic situation: the average life expectancy for Russians is 60 for males and 73 for females. While I appreciate the Russian perspective on personal hygiene and genuinely love Russian people, it is time Russia incorporates health into public school curriculum.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Back to the Bazaar


One of my favorite things to do while abroad is venture into the supermarkets, boutiques and bazaars and observe all of the unique products. Informal markets (i.e. bazaars) are particularly interesting as they are economic and social structures that have existed throughout history, changing to reflect modifications in consumer tastes and technological innovation. Today for example, farmers selling produce in informal markets compete with supermarket chains for customers. Of course, the experience of going to a local market, admiring the fresh produce and bargaining with the grocer is a unique and valued cultural experience. At the same time, supermarkets are more reliable and offer a calmer shopping experience.

Eager to observe Russian markets (rinok), I ventured on Sunday to the Fakal Market, Vladimir's largest. Having spent last summer regularly visiting bazaars in Kazakhstan, including the international hub-bazaar Baraholka, I was expecting a lively and busy marketplace.

I was so wrong. In fact, at first I thought the market had closed down. When I arrived around noon on Sunday -- "peak time" -- it appeared empty.  So many containers were closed. I had to enter the complex and walk through some empty containers until I found the open vendors. I do not know why these containers were closed -- whether the retailers went out of business or simply not operating that day -- but it is clear that the bazaar economy, the bazaar consumer culture and the bazaar social institution, are not as strong in Russia as in Central Asia.

I asked Olga if she goes to the bazaar and said that only on occasion, when she wants to get a good price for a purchase. Goods at the bazaar tend to be cheaper.

But they are not THAT much cheaper. I walked through the bazaar and saw dresses on sale for anywhere between 300 and 550 rubles, which is comparable to dresses of equal quality in formal retail outlets. I then looked at the produce section and found a five to ten ruble difference between markets and the grocery store. And the same goes for specialty items such as caviar. Yes, the prices are lower in the market and there is more room for bargaining. I guess for pensioners, former soldiers and individuals on a fixed income, shopping at the bazaar, with a wide variety of products at rock-bottom prices, is an easy way to economize.

I was also struck by the ratio of male to female workers in the bazaar. Granted, I did not conduct a methodological survey but there were noticeably more women in the bazaars in Central Asia than in the few bazaars I've visited in Vladimir. I would be curious to visit bazaars throughout Russia and observe this difference. Because so many professions were "feminized" during the Soviet Union, such as accounting, medicine and teaching, women in Russia retained their jobs following the collapse of the USSR to a greater extent than women in Central Asia. Again, I'm just sharing my candid observations and opinions, but perhaps this explanation on professions helps explain the gender composition of workers in the informal bazaar economy.

The bazaar also differed from its Central Asian counterparts in its products. There were various vendors selling fur coats (shuba) and religious Andrei Rublei-style icons. In Central Asia, I saw vendors selling Islamic clothing for women. Markets in both countries are full of shops selling tacky wedding dresses.

It's also worth noting I did stop at other bazaars in Vladimir. One is located inside a brick building not far from the Central Park, but it mostly specialized in foodstuffs. As I saw in Kazakhstan, there were half-masticated cows on sale, as well as hearts, lungs and intestines. While the women sat selling the products, a man was behind them with an ax and a tree truck cutting the meat. I kid you not.

Alas, the moral of the story is that bazaars and informal markets (note I use the word bazaar and market interchangeably here) is that they are dynamic anthropological treasure chests that provide great insights into national cultures and economics. I'm sure I will spend many more Sundays in these markets. For now, enjoy the photos!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Awkwardly Awesome Moments


It has been another long week. I apologize for not updating the blog earlier, but I have been swamped with work. Monday through Thursday, I come home from school and do 3-4, sometimes even 5 hours of homework.

Throughout the week there has been some pretty funny and awkward moments I would like to share with you:

1. So I joined a gym not far from my house as a way to de-stress at the end of the day after all of my homework and to work off all of the calories from my host mother's delicious, yet excessively plentiful meals. The first time I went to the gym I did not realize that some of the weight machines are in kilograms rather than pounds. I usually lift between 20-30 lbs so when I set the machine to 20, not realizing that was 20 kg and not 20 lbs, I lifted the weights for a second before realizing my fatalistic error. I then did that awkward thing when the weights crash and everyone in the gym stares at you....

Another note on Russian gyms...the men exemplify the stereotype of a Russian male weight lifter. I thought the varsity athletes at Georgetown were into weight lifting until I came to Russia. The men congregate around the weights and compare themselves to each other. Quite hysterical.

2. Yesterday was the fourth of July. To celebrate, we attended a traditional Russian choir concert. After that, I came home, studied and prepared for a presentation this morning on Russian-Ukrainian relations (it went splendidly). My patriotic moment, however, was on Saturday night at "Planet Karaoke." After several drinks with Americans, we busted out to "Sweet Caroline." It was a proud American (and English) moment indeed.

3. Today we had a master art class with a local lacquer artist who showed us how to make broaches. I painted a flower because I lack artistic talent. I initially asked him if I could do a Kandinsky-style, abstract image and he laughed and said Kandinsky and lacquer are incompatible styles. (that was a dorkier comment, I realize).

4. I have been asked hundreds of questions about life in America, particularly from my host mom and her grandchildren. I will share some of my favorites that shed light on Russian culture and the Russian mentality on America?

- Do you have cheese in America? Blueberries? Ketchup?

- Does Spiderman live in America? Where? Is he friendly? (asked by a 7 yr old)

- You want chai?
- Sure.
- What do you want to eat?
- I already ate dinner.
- So? Want to eat again?
- No thank you.

5. Some host mom quotes from my friends:

" In the future, how many children do you want to have? Do you want to breast feed your children?..You should, it is good for them." - asked to a 22 year old by a host mom.

"You should eat more cabbage to make your boobs grow so men will find you attractive."

Alright, that's all for now folks. Surely more awkward moments to come.