Monday, May 10, 2010

Sayings / Поговорки: Communist History Class

Victory Day in modern Russia on May 9th.

Regarding Stalin:
  • "With the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, the popularity of Stalin increases."
  • "Stalin's second wife committed suicide. Allegedly, it was because of his rudeness. But he was a rude guy, so maybe it was just the manifestation of his love."
  • "Without his murderous passion, Stalin would have been a great guy."
  • "Stalin was a coward. Nearly all dictators are cowards."

Regarding Gorbachov:
(Note: In the original Russian, the ending of the last name of the General Secretary/First President of the Soviet Union sounds more like the English long "o" sound: Горбачёв.)
  • "In my view, Gorbachov had the talent of being immune to learning. Now, now, you are laughing, but there is such a talent. He simply ignored the learning and never stressed words correctly. And he had a thick Ukrainian accent for being a Russian."
In the height of Gorbachov's anti-alcoholism campaign in the mid-1980s, people began moonlighting their own hard liquor.
  • "Russian especially managed to produce something resembling alcohol out of another substance, but they died from outright poisons. Therefore, Gorbachov failed because more people died from the effects of the anti-alcoholism campaign than before its installation."
During the USSR, vodka production was under strict control of the government; a full twenty percent of the state budget was even due to revenues collected from the consumption of vodka.
Even now in the Russian Federation, it is next to impossible to buy alcohol-based goods such as nail polish remover. It is five times as expensive, and a tenth of its size.

Only in Russia, only in Russia. Hence:
  • "Vodka is a national security issue."
Regarding the "Mysterious Russian Soul":
  • "We asked questions are first, but no one stood up to defend the answers. The machine would simply break them down until they not longer raised their hands."
  • "To be from Leningrad was suspicious. After all, there were revolutions, intellectuals (intelligentsia), and a deep imperial past."
  • "Many things done in Russia do not have a human face, but if there is a face, it is a less-than-human face. In contrast, the Prague uprising represented socialism with a human face."

Sayings / Поговорки: Russian Class

In the picture above, our teacher Nina is taking my friend Ariel's blood pressure to confirm the suspicion that Arie's headaches are due to the difference between her blood pressure and the air pressure outside.

"Children need mothers and fathers. Mothers love with their hearts. Fathers love in practical ways. Children need to know and learn both ways."

"Women are like the weather. They are not stable. Sometimes they are good, sometimes they are bad. Men can never understand them." When I objected to this statement, Nina simply laughed and explained that only American women would oppose such a concept.

"The psychological condition of the contemporary Russian is that they doubt themselves; they do not trust themselves. It is a catastrophe, a parasite."

"I am not propaganda-ing anything. It is just that crime is a part of life." (There is a specific word in Russian for the verbal version of "propaganda"). For some reason, when Yulia brings up something that she considers semi-controversial, including talking about traditional Russian Orthodox religious holidays, she quickly apologizes and tells us that she is not trying to make "propaganda" for anything. Likewise when we went over the theme of crime and punishment in contemporary Russia. However, she did not follow this trend when discussing art and literature. Ah, the interesting manifestations of the Russian mentality.

"Life is too stressful everyday to be able to think of higher things, of philosophical things." A potential answer to my greatest questions about Russia?

While watching a Soviet-era cartoon about two girls out-smarting two boys in hunting mushrooms in a rural area, we asked our teacher why one of the girls had a huge, bloody scratch on her face. After all, these were actors in a children's show. Nina answers with a face indicating the obviousness of it: "Because she lives in the country."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

War and Peace / Война и Мир

Yesterday afternoon a student in our group went for a run near the university. A few blocks into his workout, he shuffled to a halt in front of flashing lights and roped off poles. Through the spectators and police in the area, he could see that there had been a very serious accident. A car was wrapped around a telephone pole. Shattered glass sparkled on the dirty St. Petersburg street. Yet something was not right. Despite the usual characteristics of a car crash (from which 30,000+ people die annually in Russia), today was different. Right there in the street, sprawled on the ground was a "severed hand in an ocean of blood," as the student described. Immediately, others commented on his Facebook status about the incident. Of those living abroad, their responses were of shock and disgust. Of those living in Russia, their responses were basically, "Only in Russia" or simply, "Russia."

Today we watched a clip of the news in our razgovor ("conversation") class. There is was again on the evening news. A bloody glove with part of the wrist hanging off. A crimson-stained jacket of the zhertv ("victim") next to the crash. We all cringed during the clip, even as it was being fast-forwarded. Our professor, a very traditional Russian woman, was horrified by our desire to watch the recap. Explaining that one of the students saw that in person yesterday, she exclaimed, Bozhe Moy ("Oh my gosh!") and continued fast-forwarding as if to erase the images from our minds.

Instead, we took notes on the segment that we were intended to watch, a longer look into the repetitsya ("repetitions") for upcoming 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, or Victory Day, in Russia. Streets have already been decorated extensively with banners, advertisements, and the like, similar to our Christmas season preparations. Orange and black striped ribbons flutter on the antennae of cars. Veterans receive a plate of cookies instead of higher pensions. Millions are spent on updating technika ("technique")--the vast array of tanks, machinery, armed soldiers, and missiles that were once a part of the familiar military demonstrations in the Soviet Union, and yet again, have reintroduced themselves in the Russian Federation.

The fundamental question is whether these months of preparations, parades, and celebrations are to honor the veterans and other notable "defenders of the Fatherland," or it is to show the military might and prowess of a once world power. As we discussed today with our professor, we lean to the latter.

After all, Russian school children cannot even name who "won" the war, why it happened, and why they are celebrating it this weekend. Again, what is more important? The minds of the next generation that may revolutionize the current problems of Russia, or the Soviet-style tanks strutting down streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg this weekend?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Moscow Diaries: Part II / Дневники Москвы: Часть II

During our first day in Moscow, we visited the cemetery in which many of the former Soviet General Secretaries--minus, of course, the wax figure of Lenin--and other famous cultural figures (ex: Chekov) are buried. Of that experience, I can remember only two things: 1) Russians placing fake flowers on graves, and 2) the absolute appalling conditions of the on-site bathroom . I'll begin with the less crude.

Just as the large state cemetery in St. Petersburg exhibited, graves were not garnished with wreaths of flowers or memorabilia in the same way that they are in the US. Russians place fluorescent orange, pink, and yellow flowers on the graves. On one grave, they also placed their cigarette butts. Apparently, the man buried there was a chain smoker and it is tradition to "have a smoke" with him...or at least the bronze statue of him.

The other recollection is of having to go to the bathroom while standing in the bone-chilling Moscow air. I followed two old babushkas into the women's side of the bathroom, carefully using my elbow to prop open the door lest I become even more contaminated. To my surprise, there were stalls! Lots of stalls! That meant no waiting in line, suffocating.

Propping open one of the stalls with my elbow again, I choked in disgust at the "toilet." There was no seat because there was no bowl because there was just a hole--an airplane bathroom-like funnel into the ground with a vertical pipe extending from the ceiling. What am I supposed to do here? My eyes watered from the stench. Okay, just do it. Just squat and get it over with. It adds a whole new dimension to the expression, "It pissed me off."

As I left, I peeked into one of the open stalls to make sure that I didn't just pick the unluckiest one of them all. Nope, they all were the same. I looked for the sinks. Sigh. No sinks. As I elbowed the exit door, I caught eyes with one of the babushkas who had entered before me. Did she just do what I did? How can these women--seemingly refined, sophisticated, middle-aged--accept these substandard conditions?

The next second I saw another girl from our group walking towards the bathroom. "How was it?" she asked. "I don't want to talk about it," I responded gloomily.

Click. That is how they accept these conditions, without asking questions, without complaining. They accept the harsh realities of life because they have resigned to the state of present affairs. It reminded me of an interview with a newspaper editor in the countryside that I read today, in which the editor was asked how people related to the government. His answer? "As long as I don’t get shot in the back of the head, everything is alright.”

The Moscow Diaries / Дневники Москвы

After a restless night on the crampt overnight train from St. Petersburg to Moscow and an exhausting tour of the city's main tourist attractions--including an hour of our tour spent solely on the royal carriages--we arrived at our hotel to check into our rooms for a nap before the state circus (dancing bears!). As soon as the thirty-some of us entered the lobby, we realized with amazement that we were not the only Americans. We heard English--American English--for the first time in what seemed likes ages. After aquainting with some of the students, we understood that there was a group of law students from Northwestern who would be staying at the same hotel for a couple of days before moving on to their next destination. Weary from our long train ride and tour, we left the conversation at that and stumbled up to our rooms to take a refresher nap. To our shock and overwhelming joy, the beds were endowed with thick mattress toppers, multiple clean pillows, and a comforter that when wrapped up in it, felt like what it must have been like in the womb.

The next morning as we delighted ourselves with the buffet breakfast, I chatted with some of the law students. As we talked across the gap between our two tables, one with undergraduate students who had been living in Russia for two months, and the other with several twenty-something young professionals who were experiencing Russia with fresh eyes, it felt as if we were from opposite sides of the world. One of the law students described how they were hoping to interview several native human rights advocates in the Moscow area for their group report. Both pleasantly surprised and partially amused, I asked, "Have you found very many willing participants? After all, Russia is the second most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, especially one reporting on human rights." He nodded in agreement, yet seemed hopeful. He continued to explain that they were particularly focusing on the conditions of Russian detainee centers. Sighing, I replied that unfortunately, Russia has one of the highest pre-trial detainee populations in the world, and of those unfortunate human beings, many die before their trial date due to the dangerously high rates of tuberculosis in the prisons.

He confirmed the information, exclaiming, "Exactly!" with a puzzled look on his face. I explained that I have been intersted in everything Russian for many years, and that the principal focus of my studies on human rights relates to Russia and the former Soviet Union. He seemed impressed, but somewhat confused. I added, "A year or two after I graduate from Georgetown, I would like to enter law school." I asked what tpye of legal career he hoped to enter upon graduating, to which he replied, "Corporate." I asked the other students at the table--"Corporate...corporate."

"What motivated you to come to Russia then?"
"We also work as the school's ambassadors in recruting qualified international students. For this trip, those in the realm of human rights."
"Well, then. I wish you good luck in Russia. It truly is another world."

Monday, April 26, 2010

Finland / Финляндия

  • People smile. It is such a simple joy, but cherished for its rarity in Russia.
  • The transportation system runs on an honor code. Passengers swipe their cards upon entering or exiting, or not. On the metro, daily morning newspapers are gently folded on every seat. Riders fold the paper neatly when exiting the train.
  • Grocery stores are heavenly depots of freshly-baked bread, exotic (by Russian standards) fruits, and helpful clerks. When a friend forgot to weigh her pears, the woman sitting at the cash register walked over to the scale herself to weigh them. She did not scowl upon returning.
  • You can use credit cards. Real credit cards. In Russia, they think debit cards are credit cards and ask for a pin number when you hand them a credit card. They seem very frustrated and confused when you tell them there are no pin numbers for credit cards.
  • You do not need exact change (down to the miniscule kopek in Russia), which limits the amount of stress in the narrow cashier rows that seem to define the Russian neighborhood produkti (food market).
  • You can drink the tap water.
  • Children do not go to school until seven years old. Both women and men are granted a seemingly exhorbitant amount of paternal leave with each child. Yet, school-age children in Finland have the highest test rates in the world.
  • People can actually speak English when they say that they speak English.
  • Good coffee is in constant supply, which triumphs over the Nestle instant freeze-dried chunks mixed with sterilized (boiled) Russian tap water.
  • The bathrooms did not smell like fermented port-o-potties. Toilet paper was available in each stall.
  • Women wear comfortable, cute shoes, not 5-inch spike stilletto heels that lead to tendonitis by age 30. For the first time in 3 months, I saw couples wearing tennis shoes. They looked genuinely happy. In Russia, I am not even sure you can become a couple if you do not wear high heels every day.

  • It seems a lot easier to keep 500,000 people happy in Helsinki compared to 5 million people in St. Petersburg alone (143 million overall).
  • Finnish sounds like a fake fairy language. There are 26 cases in Finnish while there are only 6 in Russian. It took a full 2 years to learn those 6 cases. For reference, English has zero cases.
  • The night that I ordered an "American style" burger with fries and a Miller (seriously) to eat some regulated red meat for the iron, I got food poising. Five hours of rushing back and forth to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Plus, I forgot pajama pants so I had to wrap a sheet around my waist each time I rushed out of my room in the hostel. Classy.
  • They are so efficient that it makes living in Russia seem like living in the Stone Age. For example, the train ride from Helsinki to St. Petersburg lasted 8 hours. Approximately 4/5 of the mileage is in Finnish territory. Ironically, 4 hours were in Finland, and 4 hours were in Russia. This could be a grade-school algebra problem except for the reality of its total absurdity.
Note: When we discussed our perceptions with our professor, Yulia, she noted, "Well, it is easier to keep so few people happy. Finland also has one of the highest suicide rates in the world because people don't know what to do with themselves with how efficient and peaceful life is. In Russia, we constantly are stressed, rushed, and on edge. We do not have time to think of psychological and philosophical things. So our suicide rates are lower."

Fact: Russia is third in the world for highest rates of suicide per 100,000 people. Most of the former Soviet Republics are in the top twenty. Finland is listed at thirteen. Yulia, ne prava (you are not right).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Self-Imposed Blindness: Part II

Lately I have been refusing to take the metro in the morning due to the dinginess and darkness inside of the deep pits underground. Also, I have to walk fifteen minutes out of the way if I take the metro. Instead, on sunny Petersburg mornings, I stand near the bus stop sign waiting for the #40 bus while listening to Russian worship songs or reading Tolstoy. Plus, the bus drops me off right in front of my university.

This morning was different. After waiting for 40 minutes for the bus, I became worried that I might be late for classes. Thankfully, only a few minutes later the bus rolled up to the stop, exhaust blazing in the direction of the sidewalk as the blue sky became hazed above. Sigh. Passengers filed out of the front doors after swiping their passes. The middle and last doors remained closed as to not let fare cheaters escape. The Russians and I huddled near the middle doors to enter as quickly as possible (for some reason). Some Russian man near me repeatedly puffed his burning cigarette into my face. Sigh. Another chugged his beer as I eyed an extra in his jacket pocket. Sigh.

We long-jumped onto the bus over the trash-filled curb and quickly held onto the railings in the bus as it sped off around the traffic circle. But the middle doors did not close. Cold air rushed into the bus. Babushkas, children, young people, and all others stared aimlessly, not saying a word. Tilting along the circle, I feared that a pothole could rocket launch a child through the gaping hole in the wall of the bus. Did they not see what I saw?

I looked into each passenger's eyes. I watched their heads turn towards the open doors. No one said a word.
I considered telling the driver myself that the doors were open. I worked out the correct Russian phrase in my head. No one said a word.
I looked out the doors to people staring inside. No one said a word.
I looked at their pursed mouths, the hollowed-out sockets of their eyes, and their stiff-like postures. No one said a word.

My mind raced with questions and answers of how it was possible that these passengers could ignore such a blatant fact in front of them, affecting them with every draft of cold air chilling their faces. Is it that they are just so burdened by living in Russia that they choose to ignore the insignificant absurdities of everyday life? Are they genuinely not concerned with their personal safety? Do they not want to be the first one to speak up? Anger erupted inside of me. Just say something! You could change the system! You can speak up for yourself! It doesn't have to be this way! Stop being such cowards!

No one said a word. No one asked any questions.

Maybe, just maybe, this is the mentality that permitted legalized slavery in the 19th and even 20th centuries, the expulsion and murder of the royal Russian family, the subsequent civil war, and the six decades of Communist rule in the Motherland. Just maybe. But for now, the Russian themselves are not asking any questions.