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


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.