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.

Self-Imposed Blindness: Part I

It was our first night at a club in Russia. Our whole floor--Americans, French, Germans, Finns, etc.--collided with each other on the crowded metro as we awaited what would hopefully be a fun night of dancing and hanging out. We arrived at the club and immediately felt at ease as we listened to American techno-ized songs.

A few hours later with blistered feet and flushed faces, we exited the club to negotiate a fare for the taxi ride home. As soon as we stepped outside, some kind of movement across the street captivated us. Like blurred focus on a camera lens, it first seemed like the hunched-over woman in high heels was too drunk to walk as she hobbled unnaturally down the street next to a man holding tightly onto her. Seconds later, our vision became clearer. The woman was not too drunk; the man was forcefully dragging her down the street. Despite the distance half-way down the block and across the street, we distinctively saw his arm extended towards her, shoving her into the wall as she cowered in fear. We saw the outline of his hand slap her across the face, clutch her delicate neck tightly.

I felt my own throat close up. I felt like it was happening to me.

We rushed towards the curb as we held each other's hands, as if instinctively feeling what she was feeling. We yelled. We ran to the taxi drivers who stared in the same direction, aimlessly chain smoking their beloved cigarettes.

"Look! Do you see that?" we cry.
"See what?" one driver responds dryly.
"That man and woman. He just hit her!"
"What man? I don't see anything."
"Right there! Across the street. You're looking at it right now! Help!"
"I don't see anything," he spits out.

He sees her. They all see her. We watch as petrified and helpless bystanders on a cold Russian night as the common in private unfolds in the public. She slowly slides down the wall, as if to collapse in a heap on the frozen cement. The man walks away, around the corner. After an excruciating sixty seconds, she stands up, fixes herself, and turns the corner after him.

We get in the cab. None of us speak for what seems like eternity. As we speed down the empty streets, none of us can get the woman off of our minds. None of us will forget what we saw because unlike the majority of Russians, we refuse self-imposed blindness.

In Russia:
  • One woman is killed every hour, every day by a husband or partner. Per year, a minimum of 14,000 women are killed due to domestic violence. In comparison, in the ten years Russians were fighting a war in Afghanistan, roughly the same number of soldiers were killed. (Amnesty International)
  • According to one survey of seven regions in Russia, three out of every four wives experience physical, psychological, and/or sexual abuse during the course of their marriage. The study also noted that "a full 90 percent of respondents had experienced domestic violence in their own relationships and/or had witnessed abuse in their parents' relationships." (Council for Women, Moscow State University)
  • There is no term for domestic violence in the Russian legal code. (United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sayings / Поговорки

Quote #1: "В России только две проблемы: дураки и дороги." / "In Russia there are only two problems: fools and bad roads." (Yulia)

Just read the article about the drunken man who wandered into a pigsty in the middle of the night and was killed by a startled boar. It explains most of the problem.

Quote #2: "The judicial power is the third among equals." (Igor)

According to our political science professor Igor, the Soviet times ingrained the concept of varying levels of equality into the psyche of the Russian people. Twenty years ago, the General Secretary was the first among equals. Today, the "tandemocratic" executive of Medvedev-Putin is the first among equals. Following far behind are the legislative and judicial branches.

Igor classified the Russian judicial courts into "white", "gray," and "black." Namely, the spectrum of "cleanliness," as Igor liked to describe it, runs from "white" (pure) to "black" (completely impure). "Gray," of course, is the average status of Russian courts, meaning that sometimes the judges are bribed beyond the brink of human necessity, but sometimes the court system functions legally.

Quote #3: "We cannot treat people with respect. Let's just get rid of criminals now. But later when we are more civilized, then we can maybe stop killing criminals." (Igor)

Since its entry into the Council of Europe in 1996, the Russian Federation has refrained from utilizing the death penalty. But in the wake of four terrorist attacks in the past week (two in Moscow, two in Dagestan), President Medvedev felt inclined to revisit the death penalty stance, stating, "Nevertheless, those who committed those appalling crimes, will pay for that --with their own lives, regardless of the ban on the death penalty." No one is quite sure what he means by that, but one thing is certain: if the president blatantly refers to using the death penalty regardless of its current illegality, then it is certain that the country has become less law-abiding within the past week.

Quote #4: "The Kalishnakov is the final arbitrator. Not as much now, but for sure in the 1990s." (Igor)

Despite the global notoriety of the so-called "Russian mafia" from Istanbul to Iowa, the most prominent ethnicity within the feared group is Georgian. Not only do Russians consider Georgia to be one of their most difficult neighbors, but it also is the birthplace of former Soviet dictator and mass-murderer Yosef Stalin. As Igor viciously described in class the other day, Stalin "characteristically represented the Georgian people with their inner composition of violence and centuries-old tribal feuds. Of course, it will take centuries to evolve to something more civilized." Biased, yes, but perhaps not entirely inaccurate.

Upon first Wikipedia-ing the "Russian mafia," I was shocked at the extensive list of offenses, from "Fake anti-spyware...Professional sports corruption...Vandalism" to "Human trafficking...Sexual Slavery...Prostitution...Child Pornography" to "Illegal sale of Plutonium...
Illegal trading of nuclear materials." The last two send shivers down my spine. By the end of the aphabetical list, I was horrified. Even before living in Russia, I joked with people about the widespread corruption in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Needless to say, sometimes the stories of criminality spark a smile, such as reading how there are laws against "hooliganism" in Russia. Or comparing the least corrupt country in the world, Finland, to one of its nearest neighbors, Russia, which struggles for 147the place out of 200. Yet, seldom now would I dare to smile at the reality of the crimes listed above. They are real. Very real.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Young Women, Old Men / Девушки, Cтарики

The young woman stands with her high heels glued to one another as she shifts back in forth in the smoke-infested, testosterone-infused night club. With characteristic straight-cut bangs across her forehead, long dark blonde hair, and a pretty face frozen in a partial smile, she resembles a Precious Moments doll. But she is not. She is a human being.

The young woman stands with a bouquet of individually-wrapped roses. Her task for the night is to sell the flowers, most likely to old men seeking young women. In Russia, flowers are an ironic, yet essential, part of the courting process. It is ironic because the men who are checking out the women--a full, 360-degree physical assessment of privileged lust--range from thirty to fifty-something years old (and remember, the average life expectancy of a male in Russia is just around sixty-years-old) while the women are sometimes barely legal. It is essential because relations between men and women are still very heteronormative, traditional, and gender-stratified, which in practice means only that men are expected to give flowers while women are expected to give sex.

My friends and I sit at the next table over from what echoes a perverted father-daughter relationship. The young woman cannot be over nineteen-years-old; the man, at least forty-years-old. We begin to analyze the all-too-common situation that occurs regrettably on "Ladies' Night" tonight at the club. She leans over to him, enticing him with at this point, only vocal affection. He is postured sturdily in his chair, posturing to the young woman. She continues to reel in his attention, albeit with difficulty. I think to myself, Is this de facto prostitution? She understands that she will make roughly 50% of what this man makes after she graduates from university (the average monthly salary for a woman in Russia is ~$360; for men it is ~$720). She knows that she needs security and someone to support her. He knows that she is willing to go to lengths to ensure that. Yet is it exploitative? Is the choice one of complete freedom, or are there dire economic and social consequences to not behaving in this manner? Who is benefitting the most from this perverted version of there being "plenty of fish in the sea," but few fishermen?

The young woman stands with contemplative, searching eyes. In contrast to her lighter hair and carefully foundation-ed face, her dark eyes are striking. As my two girlfriends and I rest our feet at the table next to her, I catch her eye a number of times. I smile, hoping to extract a similar expression. She seems to be smiling a little, but maybe I am just being optimistic. I remember that her original expression also was a slight smirk. Either way, she continues to hold the flowers daintily while circling the club. No one talks with her. When people push through the croweded room, no one seems to mind that they knock the fragile doll-like creature over. If it phases her, she does not show it.

As almost everyday in Russia, my heart breaks. I begin to pray silently for her. An hour later we leave the club.

The young woman continues to stand alone, hoping to sell a few more flowers to make ends meet. The nineteen-year-old is throwing up violently in the bathroom.

Superstitions and Common Traditions / Суеверия и общие традиции

  • Number thirteen, as in the US, is an unlucky number. It is referred to as the "Devil's dozen;" however, when buying flowers, you must always buy an odd number since even numbers of flowers are only presented at funerals. In this case, thirteen roses are better than a dozen roses.
  • If you drop a knife, then a male guest will come.
  • If you drop a spoon, then a female guest will come.
  • If your nose itches in the morning, then you should drink alcohol at night.
  • If a fly lands on your food, then you will have good luck.
  • If you seat near a heater and your bottom half is warm at the same time you are near a window and your top half is cold, you will get sick.
  • If you have a sinus infection, fry an egg and hold it on your forehead. (Seriously, we asked her to repeat this one just in case we misunderstood the absurdity of it. Nope, we heard it right the first time.)
  • If you do not wear hats, gloves, scarves, heavy coats, and boots as it is warming up in springtime, you will get sick. (Even if you are sweating profusely on the 80-degree metro ride.)
  • If you do not clean off your boots once you arrive at your destination, you will be considered "uncultured," the highest insult in "cultured" St. Petersburg. This includes barrelling through the slush, dog poop, ciggarette butts, mud, and black snow to and from everywhere you go.
  • If someone in a group is singled out with a compliment, the recipient will brush off the compliment immediately as to not incite envy among the others.
  • Last week, my professor confirmed my suspisions about the Russian language that have been lingering in the back of my mind for three years: The reason why Russian is so hard to learn with all of its inconsistencies, illogical grammatical constructions, and complicated case endings is because the people living in this region wanted to keep outsiders out until the country began to westernize under Peter the Great, albeit forcefully (as usual in Russia).

Friday, March 26, 2010

Christians in a God-forsaken Country / Христиане в медвежьем углу

The English above does not do the Russian equivalent justice. In the Russian language, the English phrase "God-forsaken" is equivalent to медвежий угол, which literally translates to "a bearish corner." Now, I do not understand the logic of this phrase in Russian; however, the fact that a bear is a national symbol of Russia seems to fit the present state of affairs. Quite accurately, Russia often feels like it is living in a "bearish corner," almost as if it has been in hiberation for too long. Yet, as I found out Wednesday night, the oppressive spirit that you feel clinging to you as you stroll around the city is not a grim combination of the pollution, incessant cigarrette smoke, sunless skies, and frowns on typical passerbys. Rather, this country has not put its hope in the eternal. They have either been put or have put themselves in the bearish corner.

The group consisted of Pastor Dave and his wife Hannah (UK); Sasha, Zhena, Sveta, and Nadya (Russia); Johann (South Africa); Kyra, Kristin, and I (US). Sveta, Kyra, Nadya, and Kristin are around my same age. Sasha and Zhena are around 40 years old. Johann has already finished seminary so he may be in his mid-twenties. Nevertheless, it was an international group of students, young and older professionals, and commmitted church planters. Nadya served as our brilliant translator, who could fluently switch back-and-forth from translating our English/incomplete Russian to quick, gentle Russian equivalents, and then the other direction.

For the three hours that we did ice-breakers, prayed together, and read Scripture together, I continually was amazed at how much I have missed being in Christian community. We even went around to each person and used two words to describe his or her gifts, presence, and/or character. Surprisingly, from the facts that we gave about ourselves previously in the night, it was not difficult to come up with an adequate description. An hour into meeting everyone, the combination of words that were used to describe me were determination and patience. Pastor Dave commented on the latter due to the willingness to remain strong despite being separated from my "other half." It brought tears to my eyes. As I write this, it brings more. I miss my future husband.

After talking with Kyra and Kristin, who are pursuing master's and bachelor's degrees in Russian, respectively, we realized that it could not be a coincidence that we are each the only follower of Christ in our different program groups (with some thirty to fifty students each). It was both encouraging and discouraging at the same time to come to that realization. We talked about how since arriving in Russia, we have felt the joy of the Lord more than ever before, almost as if He knew that we would need the extra support in the "bearish corner" of once "Holy Russia." After two months, these brothers and sisters in Christ were the first people that felt like a piece of home, even if we were from different corners of the globe, spoke many different languages, and had just gotten to know each other.

On the second floor of a reclusive apartment in the heart of the city, it felt like we were in the upper room as in the early church. Incidentally, that night we read from Acts about what the first church was like:

"And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all people, as every one had need. And they, continuing daily, with one accord in the church, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart." (Acts 2:44-46)

In the midst of reading depressing news articles related to the violence, bigotry, and polarity in the United States over the health care legislation and greater fractures in the Church (denominations are up to some 32,000 now), I ached for both the concept and reality of singleness of heart.

Shortly after I arrived home, Kristin sent me an encouraging message on Facebook: “May you be strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” (Colossians 1:11-12)


The Meaning of спасибо/spasibo ("Thank You")

The origin of the word for "thank you" in Russian relates to why Russia really fascinates me. The old customs. The traditional, ancient lifestyles. The people (народ) themselves. The full integration of simple Christian facets in everyday living.

Spasibo (спасибо) comes from two words: spasi (спасать/спасти = to save; to rescue) and Bog (Бог = God). Although it is a very old remnant of when Russia was a wholly Christian nation, each time someone said thank you, the person was saying, "God save you" or "God will save you." The combination of heartfelt gratitute and deep appreciation for God's saving grace is an encouraging reminder, although long forgotten now among Russians, of why I love Russia.

In the Western Christian tradition, the week preceeding Easter is called Holy Week. In contrast, in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the week proceeding Easter is called Holy Week. Instead, Orthodox Christians celebrate "Suffering Week" leading up to Resurrection Sunday. In fact, the work for "Sunday" (Воскресенье) in Russian literally means "Resurrection" (Воскресение). As our professor explained the other day in class, our "Sunday" is a pagan tradition, whereas their "Resurrection" celebrates the life, death, and resurrection of Christ every week. I didn't have the heart to tell her that attending church on Sunday (a rare concept in the former atheist Soviet Union) celebrates this as well.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Father and Daughter / Отец и дочь

A little girl in a puffy pink jacket sits between her parents and rests her head on her father's shoulder on the metro. She seems restless. Lifting her fur-lined hood over her head, she nuzzles her father's arm as he sits stoicly with empty eyes. I contemplate her age as I assess the situation. Maybe eight, or ten years old. Either way, she is a precious child of God seeking her father's attention. Her mother seems distant from her child and even further away to her husband. The husband and wife have not looked at each other for the entirety of the metro ride--doors open, doors close, they remain.

The little girl in the pink jacket clutches her father's arm. He wrestles it away. She pulls her hood over her head and lays down in his lap. He does not move an inch. It is like he is cemented to the beige metro seat.

The little girl in the pink jacket suddenly sits up, reaches for her father's face, and attempts to rub noses. Silently, assuredly, swifty, he shakes his head away. She holds on more tightly and turns her head back and forth, trying to show a cute gesture of affection to her father. This time, he cannot brush it off. He forcefully holds her arms, tilts her facing forward, and rests her hands in her lap.

She gives up.

My heart breaks.

The little girl int he pack jacket turns to her mother, who blindly swishes the hair out of her daughter's eyes. Watching across the metro, I feel the exhaustion of the mother, the disappointment of the daughter, and the thirstiness of the father. Maybe he just needs a beer to relax. Or maybe that beer may be the start of an even more heartbreaking night.

Memories of my father and me overcome me with a sense of gratitute as I compare these sets of relationships. I remember how my siblings and I would "call who got to lay on Dad's arm" during a long flight on our family vacations. Oftentimes, my father would sacrifice his comfort and space as he was smothered by two children--one on each arm--as he sat in the middle airline seat. Even now, I consider him to be the actual embodiment of Atticus Finch from my favorite book of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird. And I am sure my siblings would agree--and even now, call who gets to sleep on his arms.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Problems / Проблемы

Quote #1: "Karamzin said that Russia only has two problems: fools and (bad) roads. If we fix these two problems, we will be the biggest and the best country in the world. But, we still have these two problems and will forever."

Our conversation professor Yulia shook her head as she spoke the words above. She lamented that after a few hundred years, nothing has really changed because the two problems still exist. When she discussed the "fools," she pointed upwards into the air. Later she explained that it was the people in charge--now in the "democratic" government--who were fools. When she discussed the "roads," she referred to how you shouldn't buy too expensive of a car in Russian because the streets will break it no matter what. I tend to believe her.

An anecdote from this previous weekend reflects this simultaneously ancient and modern problem. On Sunday morning, my friend and I ventured to the neighborhood around the Vladimirskaya metro station in order to attend Hope Church (Nadezhka Tserkov'), a Christian church I had found through the English-language newspaper The St. Petersburg Times. We gave ourselves ample time to find the location and arrive on time, but eventually gave up our search.

Why? Because when we finally saw the second-story stained glass windows with a cross on it, indicating the church, we could not find the door to enter. Several times we walked from the alleyway with its snow drifts, hall of mirror-like doors, and random shovelers. For over an hour, we walked from the alleyway doors, out onto the street, turned left at the intersection, and searched along the same building's walls for an entrance door.

During our final search in the alley (entranceway?), we asked a passerby where the church could be. (Translated from Russian.)

"Excuse me, do you know how to get to the church around here?"
Looking quizzically, "What church? There is the big yellow one down the street. It's big. You'll see it."
"No, not the Orthodox one."
"Then what kind of church?"

Sigh. I pointed to the second-story window with the stained glass cross. He appeared to be even more puzzled. Similarly, the problems in Russia are oftentimes just slightly above the natives' heads. Even if you can see the solution, point at it, and seek the path to it, you will not be able to achieve the goal because there are just too many absurd barriers that prevent it.

Eventually we gave up, and went to the international grocery store Lend to buy ingredients for burritos instead. Later on I e-mailed the pastors of the church to notify them that my friend and I attempted to attend church, but were unable to find an entrance. They apologized and invited me to a small group later on in the week.

Quote #2:"Turkish men love Russian women. And Ukrainian and Belorussian. Italian men, also. So Russian women go to Turkey and to Italy illegally. When they get caught, the men try to blackmail them, saying 'We know that you are illegal. You have to do whatever we say.' And well, you know what they're doing."

Our grammar professor Nina also shook her head as she spoke the words above. There was a smirk of disdain. A look of disapproval. A conveyance of "they got what they deserved." After all, they chose to go abroad; therefore, they must have "chosen" to be sentenced to sexual servitude.

The 2009 Annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which issued by the State Department office in which I will be working this summer, listed Turkey as the first (but not necessarily primary) country to which Russian (and Ukrainian) women are trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), some quarter of a million people have been trafficked into Turkey within the past ten years, most of whom were from the former Soviet Union. Organized crime groups operating in Turkey, whether Turkish or Russian, reportedly earn up to $360 million per year in revenue from prostituted women and girls, or about $750,000 per woman. The women get nothing.

A link to reports from 2001 - 2009 can be found at:

Nina reminded us that while the West has had some 200 years to democratize, Russia has had only 20. She invited us to be patient with the country lest we fall into the same ideological trap that some Russian have in their desire to leave the former Soviet republic for a freer, more comfortable, and more progressive land. I understand her old-world mentality, even if I cannot and will not agree with the contemporary discriminations.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Unclean Woman

There are some five million people in the city of St. Petersburg. There are sixty-three stations in the metro system. Every day, some 3.43 million people utilize this transportation. A train arrives approximately every sixty seconds. There are at least ten cars to every train. I am not a statistician, and I gave up on math long ago, but imagine the (im)probability of the situation that ensued this afternoon. Truly one in a million...or billion.

Three friends and I walked down towards the far end of the metro station in order to enter a less crowded car. As the metro zoomed nearer, we stood normally, not anticipating anything abnormal for another venture into the city.

Двери открываются. We heard the familiar voice of the automated message tell us that the doors have opened. Двери закрываются. The doors shut forcefully as we find a seat.

I pick a seat near a mother and toddler. Across from me, there is another mother and toddler. How unusual, I thought. It is always such a blessing (and surprise) to see young children in Russia. But something does not seem right. The mother and child across from me begin to shift more towards the left. After a few seconds, they stand up and move to the other end of the train car.

My eyes squint and start to burn. Something in the air is irritating my eyes, my nose, my breathing. What is that? I turn to my friend next to me and comment, "It smells like a port-o-potty. What is that?" We do not know. Yet.

The mother and child next to me also begin to shift in their seats, noticeably uncomfortable as everyone else in this part of the car. I turn to her and ask her what that odor is. "
Пахнет чем?" She does not say a word. She nods her head in the direction of the woman across from me. I am shocked. Horrified. Saddened.

The smell intensified in the cabin each time the train sped off from a stop. The flowing air circulated the odor. I breathed out of my mouth as much as possible. It felt suffocating.

Двери открываются. The doors open. A sea of people flood into the car, searching for seats. A woman sits down next to this woman, whose face is completely stuffed into the top of her winter jacket, whose head is covered with a puffy hood, hiding her eyes, her face, her hair.

Двери закрываются. I watch the woman's face who has just sat down. Moments later, she wrinkles her nose, gets up, and moves to sit next to me. I am suffocating again. This time it is from the profound sadness welling up inside of me. I feel completely helpless.

Двери открываются. Not again. The doors open. People pack in like sardines. The crowd disperses away from the woman. One, two, three times I see people attempt to sit next to her in the three empty seats surrounding her (of a total six in one row). Two on one side, one on the other. My heart breaks, and I begin to pray, remembering the story of the Bleeding Woman.

Двери закрываются. An older woman walks down towards the empty sets from the end of the car. This time, the woman sits directly in-between the hooded woman and my friend even though there is a seat available two spots away from her. Nonetheless, she walks triumphantly over to the woman, whose bag is somewhat strewn over part of the seat. The older woman snatches the bottom and pushes it onto her neighbor's lap. She sits. Not two seconds later, she gets up, scowling.

The hooded woman clutched her bag with red and white knuckles. She lowered her head deeper and deeper into her coat. She puts her head to her bag on her knees. No one can see her eyes, her face, her hair. I pray harder as I stare at her black boots, turned inwards towards one another.

Oh Lord, You are the only One who can see her face. Even though we turn away and even move away, You move closer. Even though we close our eyes and we turn our faces, You see her. I imagine you sitting right next to her, holding her hands, looking into her eyes, speaking her language in a prayer. Somehow, God, show her that you love her.

A few minutes later, she looks up. I see her face. The piercing green eyes, similar to those of the famous Afghan girl on the cover of National Geographic. She looks around to those who have moved away. She shifts her boots. She lowers her head to her knees. When the trail jerks back and forth, she lets it shuffle her in her seat.

I think, What was in those eyes? Vengeance? Sorrow? Suffering? I have no idea, and I am ashamed and saddened as I continue to pray for this woman. After all, she may be unclean on the outside like the gray-black slush of the streets, but she may also have a clean heart as white as fresh snow on the frozen Neva River.

Двери открываются.
Двери закрываются.

The Bleeding Woman (Mark 5:24-34)

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, "If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed." Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, "Who touched my clothes?"

"You see the people crowding against you," his disciples answered, "and yet you can ask, 'Who touched me?' "

But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, "
Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Black ice / гололедица

Warning #1:
The Russians have a single word to describe "black ice"

This morning as I ventured out into the warm morning (some 30 degrees!), I stumbled...quite literally...over how to get to the metro. Although the metro stop is only a few blocks away, there are a number of significant road blocks to get there. First, with the warming weather lately, the snow has begun to melt; however, overnight, it freezes again. Second, workers have yet to remove any of the old snow, so there is now a foot of snow on the "sidewalk" with several more inches of slush/ice on top. Third, none of the roads from my new home to the metro are paved in the least.

Warning #2: The natives were slipping, too

As I continued to geisha-walk through the streets, I became overheated due to a combination of the warmer weather and my heightened sense of panic. Every five to ten seconds, my arms would flail, my feet would skid underneath me, and my heart would start racing. Somehow, I managed to not fall during the entire trek...minus one incident.

Clutching my binder of worksheets from class, I attempted to cross from the icy "sidewalk" (where people can walk, but sometimes cars drive) to the more ridden-path of the "street" (where cars can drive, but sometimes people walk). Even with a 2-inch incline from one side to another, I attempted to slide out of control, almost hitting a car. Papers went flying. My binder slid under part of the car. The wind carried away a paper as I struggled to run after it on the icy ground. Fortunately, a man stopped to help me pick up one of the sheets. Unfortunately, he picked up the only English one, marking me not only as someone who cannot walk in the streets, but also as a foreigner, which usually go hand-in-hand anyways.

Warning #3: The rain boots are sold out

Nina, our Russian grammar teacher, explained to us that all day yesterday she was looking for rain boots at various shops in town, but could not find them anywhere, a tribute to the Soviet days apparently. Thankfully Mike will be able to bring me some rain boots so my feet are not soaking wet after walking outside every day!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

First Day in Homestay

Getting There
The heaps of snow are finally beginning to thaw due to the "warm front" (20s-30s degrees Fahrenheit), which means that despite the more pleasant weather, the streets are not covered in grimy, gray slush. As usual, people pretend that the elements do not exist and continue to invent make-shift solutions, such as a wooden boards to walk the plank over icy/watery lakes on the sidewalks.

When the cab driver saw my large suitcase, she exclaimed, "Oh! What a nightmare!" Somehow, we got my three pieces of luggage in the trunk and drove off to my new home about two miles away from the university. A few minutes later we arrived near Ploshad Mushestva and I attempted to direct her to Apartment #22. In Russia, the apartment buildings are nightmares. Built mainly during the Krushev era, they are run-down, stained, and crumbly pieces of Soviet architecture. Nevertheless, the homes inside are often quite comfortable (by Russian standards).

We struggled to find a way to approach my new home due to the side streets covered in snow. My driver even attempted to drive through a children's park on the sidewalk; however, the delineation between sidewalks and streets are often overlapping, a fact incomprehensible to foreigners. We have lived here a month, yet we still are shocked when cars suddenly veer off the main path to park or get closer to a storefront. Plus, there are no designated parking spaces, let alone parking meters (in Chicago that would save hundreds of dollars).

After some swearing, getting stuck in the snow, and feeling like I was on the brink of having to lug three heavy suitcases through the snow to the apartment, the driver found #22 and exclaimed, "Hurrah!" My hostess mother was waiting expectantly outside the entrance door.

Just another example of how a simple task in the US takes 2-3x more effort in Russia.

Settling In
My hostess mother is a lively, expressive Russian woman with dark hair, dark eyes, and perpetually purple-lipsticked lips. When we went to dinner here the other night, she explained that she loved to swim, work, and go on vacations. She has even been to Chicago and Milwaukee before, although she explained that Milwaukee was too small of a city for her; she likes lots of people all the time. She speaks minimal English, but I had asked her not to speak any to me in order to learn the maximum amount during the next couple of months.

As she helped me carry my luggage from the elevator ("lift"), she did not seem to understand that the suitcases have wheels. Instead, the semi-plump, shorter woman hurled my suitcases from one side of the threshold to another, all the while wearing her stockings (you must take off your shoes upon entering a Russian home, which is highly contradictory to Dad's policy of wearing shoes in the house).

Tea Party
After unpacking, my hostess prepared some tea for me. However, this "tea" she offered actually included bread, cheese, butter, cookies, and candy...oh, and tea. As usual, she does not eat with us because she complains that she gained 20 kilograms (44 pounds) in the past three years, and she does not want to look like a fat babushka.


1. My Room
As in the dormitory, the beds also double as couches. At first, I thought that it was just the Soviet-era dorms that utilized these couch-beds, but now I realize that it is a uniquely Russian type of furniture. For instance, the bed in my very nice room most closely resembles a lip couch. No joke. It can also fold out to a double bed, but I would rather have the extra space in the room with the wardrobe, three chairs, night stand, and standing piano. Yes, for some reason I have a piano in my room.

2. Water Security
For the past month, we have bought huge 1/2 liter bottles of water to last roughly a week since we cannot drink the tap water. Of course, we may boil the metallic water to get rid of the parasites, but the taste never really goes away.

In contrast, here my host mom has a sink in the kitchen with both water for washing dishes and filtered water ("clean water"). Little as it may seem, this is a huge surprise and delight since I will no longer have to walk 1/2 mile to get a heavy bottle of water every week. Oh, by the way, when bought in bulk, water is less expensive than vodka, particularly now when the President Medvedev is attempting to eradicate alcoholism from if others have not already tried.

3. Homestay
I will be living with a 50-some-year-old woman named Margarita (Rita) and her 25-year old son, Maksim. During the pre-homestay dinner, my roommate and I were unsure as to whether Maksim lived with her because he does not have a separate room from her, but sleeps on the other couch-bed in the family room-like room. He almost is never here, although I do not know what he does. He may be a dentist, but I really have no idea. I just met him some ten minutes ago.

Rita explained how she didn't want her son to get married anytime soon because she doesn't want to be a grandmother and she doesn't want him and his new wife to live with her. In Russia, newlyweds often do not have sufficient funds to rent their own apartments, so they live with one of their parent's for a number of years, even if they have children. Rita adamantly stated that she would hate this, although even now in Russia, it is extremely common.

In comparison to my expectations, Rita's apartment is extremely clean, well-furnished, and comfortable. She recently remodeled the whole place, including new cabinets and floors in the kitchen, new doors in the bathroom, and a new front door ("the most beautiful door in the complex"). I felt even safer when given the keys to the half-foot thick door: 1 top lock turned 1 time, 1 bottom lock turned 3 times. Nothing like when Kori's potential host mom said that she had been robbed a number of times.

Oh, I also have an enclosed balcony from which I can see half of the city, as we are on the 12th floor. So far, it has been a strange, yet comfortable, transition, and I hope that my Russian will improve significantly by living in a more complete immersion experience.