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).