Monthly Archives: February 2010

All for the Front, All for the Victory

Because our grammar teacher decided to cancel class yesterday (class should never be held on a Saturday), Cornelia and I decided to take advantage of the extra free time to head over to the Museum of the Siege of Leningrad.

Exiting the Moskovskaya metro station, the environ leading up to the museum seemed depressingly appropriate for the museum we were about to see. Ice on the rooftops teetered precipitously over the tops of buildings, and ankle-deep, brown puddles engulfed the sidewalk. Grey, overcast skies and mountains of dirty, blackened snow. And there it was, the museum of the Leningrad Blockade, standing out like a tiny, bright flicker among its drab surroundings.

The Leningrad Blockade was one of the most destructive sieges of the 20th century, lasting from September 1941 until January 1944. Hitler tried to starve the city into submission – residents received 1/4 lb of saw-dust filled bread a day. No heat, no water, no electricity. By the time the siege was lifted, close to 700,000 people had died from disease and hunger.

While it was a small museum (there was only one room), it was quite poignant and moving. For me, the most vivid part of the museum was the film they showed – a black-and-white archival footage of essentially living-death during the blockade: mass graves, and hardened people walking around frozen corpses that had become a part of every-day life.

At the Artillery Museum - a copy of the diary of Tanya Savicheva

They moved Tanya’s diary to the Piskarovskoe Memorial Cemetery. It reads:

Zhenya died on the 28th of Dec at 12:30 in the morning, 1941
Grandmother died on the 25th of January at 3:00 in the afternoon, 1942
Leka died on the 5th of march at 5 in the morning, 1942
Uncle Vasya died on the 13th of April at 2:00 after midnight, 1942
Uncle Lesha on the 10th of May at 4:00 in the afternoon, 1942
Mother on the 13th of May at 7:30 in the morning, 1942
Savichevs died.
Everyone died.
Only Tanya is left.

Overall, a sobering experience.

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You get an A, and You get an A, and You!

Granted, while I am studying in the faculty of Russian as a Foreign Language, I still pick up on differences in the teaching style in Russia and at UW. Here, in Russia, professors are not afraid to point out the class star – nor are they afraid to say point-blank that you are wrong. I find the opposite to be in America, where self-esteem is held in high regard and is not something to be trampled on. For example, in a literature lecture at UW, one student volunteered an answer that was completely wrong (I know literature is subjective, but there was no way that his interpretation could have been correct). The professor hemmed and hawed a bit, said that it could be a possibility, and left it at that. The professor didn’t acknowledge the fact that the student was right, but he didn’t say the student was wrong either – decorum remained, self-esteem preserved, mission accomplished. That would not be so in Russia. Every time I have been wrong in class, the professor makes it a point that I’m wrong, and makes it very clear that my answer could never, ever be possible. Also, I feel like while in America, there is no such thing as a stupid question, here in St. Petersburg, there are definitely dumb questions. (I’m guilty of being that kid who asks obnoxious questions with apparently-obvious-to-everyone-else-but-me answers in Grammar class.)

life is rough sometimes

I discussed the differences in educational systems with my host mother, and she was quite surprised when I told her about the example in my literature class. “If a student is stupid, he should know it,” she said firmly. On the other hand, professors are not afraid to point out who is the best. Again, such would not be the case in America, where each student needs to feel his self-worth. Educational communism, I suppose. In the quest for complete egalitarianism, everyone gets a gold star.

In general, the people here are much more direct and blunt, and it’s a refreshing change of pace from the mid-west, where people are nice, polite, and frustratingly passive-aggressive. I’m guilty of being part of the passive-aggressive crowd, but I find that I am growing more and more direct (or mean, rude, call it what you like) as a result from being here in St. Petersburg, where the abrasive ways of living will crush the intrepid and the meek. Case in point? The Час Пик (Chas Pik), otherwise known as a human traffic jam at the metro. The Час Пик is reminiscent of the dance floor at high school prom, except less dancing, less moving, more people, and exponentially more body odor and sweat. Pre-Russia me would have freaked out from claustrophobia. Post-being-in-Russia me laughed and kneed someone in the back and elbowed someone in the side.

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Love is in the air…

But in St. Petersburg, love is on the metro escalator. Literally. Young couples unabashedly suck each other’s faces on the 3-minute escalator ride. Maybe it’s the puritan-conservative side of me (a side I never realized I had), but shouldn’t that form of intimacy be left in private?

I told a Russian who I met, Sergei, that I was surprised at all of the public displays of affection. “What, you don’t kiss in America?” he shot back incredulously. Good point. There are no stringent, Soviet laws that ban making-out and awkward public groping – so why not? Time to doff that chastity belt!

You can do a lot of things in 3 minutes.

Also, Russian couples can’t get a room. Unlike in America, where parents typically are just waiting to throw you out of their house once you graduate college, Russians live at home much longer. Can’t bring your significant other home, so might as well make do on the metro escalator. Or in the bathroom of the bar, Fidel’s. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

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Filed under Cultural differences, Rambling thoughts

Gypsy cabs are frightening

It was my fault for catching the metro late last night back to Sennaya. I ran from Sennaya to the marshrutka stop, and was crest-fallen (read: freaking out) to see that the marshrutka was no longer running. It was inhumanely cold out and I felt like the only other people out were drunks and lecherous men. It’s definitely walk-able from the metro back to my apartment, but because I lack all sense of direction, I decided against it. Also, it’s a 25 minute walk and it was so cold that the inside of my nose froze, and I’m a wuss.

So I did what my program told me explicitly not to do – I hailed a chastniki (a gypsy cab).

Part of the fun is not knowing what's going to happen!

After running around the marshrutka stop like an idiot, I saw an old Soviet lada with a faded yellow sign on top pull into the stop where the #195 marshrutka usually drops people off. I intrepidly knocked on the window, and he motioned me to come in. Wishing that I didn’t take that last vodka shot, I mumbled my address, trying to swallow my endings and not sound too much like a foreigner. Unfortunately, my attempts were in futile, and I ended up stuttering and probably sounded stupidly intoxicated. The driver stared at me for what felt like 10 minutes and simply said “500 rubles.” No haggling, no negotiations, nothing. It does not cost 500 rubles ($15) to go from Sennaya to where I live. What could I have done? I was all alone, I didn’t know my way home, and was in no position to try and haggle. I agreed, and the cab took off.

However, he took off in a very roundabout direction, and was going a certain way that I was not accustomed to. I got a deep, sinking feeling in my stomach. Horror stories about drivers holding passengers at knife-point swirled around in my clouded head. The driver began to literally drive in circles around my apartment…or at least, that’s what it seemed like, since nothing looked familiar. It took at least 20 minutes longer than it would have normally taken. The driver must have been having a fun time messing with my head. He finally arrived at my apartment building and grinned at me. I literally threw the 500 at him and bolted. He shouted Счастливо! (all the best!) after me, and sped away.

I told my host mother about it this morning, and she gently admonished me and told me that it was not out of the ordinary for taxi drivers to prey on foreigners who don’t know any better, and that it’s easy to get ripped off at night. Then, I told her how he drove about in a roundabout way, and she smiled at me, and simply told me that there are many different ways to get here. I’m apparently stupid. Without saying anything, her smile also hinted at the fact that I need to be working on my phonetics homework more so I can pronounce things clearly and hopefully not fall prey to tricky taxi drivers again. Although, that will be difficult, since my face pretty much gives it away that I’m not Russian.

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Hi, my name is Single and Bitter

Today, as I was frantically running through the metro, looking quite disheveled and flustered, I happened to notice that all of the Russian men were looking particularly suave and dapper, more so than usual. It was as if all the beautiful man-gods decided to come out of hiding at 9:45 am (I was terribly late for class) and hop on the metro. Unfortunately for me, they all had their dainty, equally attractive Russian girlfriends dangling from their arms. Alas, the trials and tribulation of being single while being surrounded by extraordinarily good looking people – the good ones are always taken and the ones who are single are single for a reason. That reason being that they’re paunchy, creepy, balding, and come up to my shoulder. I jest, I’m just bitter.

The only consolation I have is that, from what I’ve seen, Russian men are terrible dancers. Terrible. I am by no means a good dancer, but they seriously danced like heavily sedated peg-legged penguins. Maybe it was just that one bar I was at last weekend, but I couldn’t keep a straight face, especially when I saw a couple of guys bust out moves straight from the 80’s – moves that should have been left in the 80’s, or better yet, never invented.

Now, time to celebrate Defender of the Fatherland Day, also known as Men’s Day (День защитника Отечества or simply День Мужчин). From what I understood, Defender of the Fatherland Day is kind of like Veteran’s Day, only pumped up with more testosterone. Originally known as Red Army Day, Men’s Day celebrates the anniversary of the first massive draft into the Red Army in 1918. Now, on February 23, men get showered with a ton of presents and then proceed to drink their way into oblivion.

For the rest of us, it’s a 4 day weekend. Pskov plans fell through, mainly because we’re terrible at planning and it’s obscenely cold (- 11 F, but feels like – 30!) . However, a 4 day weekend is a 4 day weekend, and it will not go to waste. ‘Til next week…

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Filed under Holidays, Rambling thoughts

The Mid-Atlantic is full of snow-wimps

The snowpocalypse/snowmageddon/Judge-snow-ment day that has obliterated the Mid-Atlantic has caught Russia’s attention. Are they sympathetic and understanding of DC’s plight? Of course not. In fact, they’re reveling in the Mid-Atlantic’s suffering, inability to combat with snow, and overreaction.

Russia, I wholeheartedly concur. A week off from school? Mobs of people raiding grocery stores and sucking them bone-dry? Even a call-to-arms?! Puhhh-leeeease. This is pathetic. DC and the Mid-Atlantic, I have one thing to say: Grow a pair (of snowplows).

However, for all the laughing that Moscow and St. Petersburg is doing, they could stop their chortling for a bit and clean up some of the snow, and perhaps do a better job of removing icicles. By the afternoon, the snow pileup on the sidewalk has become a nauseating, grey-brown slush that somehow manages to splatter all over the bottoms of jeans. Enormous ice masses envelop the slippery sidewalk, and people push each other out of the way to weave and navigate through the ice hurdles. It’s a pain.

St. Petersburg: Tundra-licious

Walking to class (in heels, because I’m trying to be Russian) is a game that involves constantly changing strategy, with the main goal being not falling on your face while looking composed and collected. It’s much harder than it looks, and I don’t know how all the match-thin Russian women pull it off. I always end up looking sweaty, haggard, and clearly disgruntled, and they walk around looking like runway models, hair billowing in the wind.

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Stay at home in the kitchen where you belong, and make me my borsht.

On Thursdays, ACTR holds a 90-minute Russian-American student conversation group. My current strategy of latching onto my tutor is not exactly working out – as in, I’m not successfully leeching her friends – so I saw this group as a window of opportunity to find out more potential Russians to ambush. The topic of the first meeting was Love, in honor of good ol’ St. Valentine’s Day. Discussion was split into 2 parts – 1st 45 minutes in English, and the 2nd half in Russian. For the English- speaking portion, it was mainly the American students politely discussing the general trend of marriage, how many marriages dissolve into divorce, tradition, etc. When it became our turn to ask about Russian custom, two opposing factions quickly emerged. First off, there were people there who definitely were not students and must have been well into their 50’s (at least, that’s how old they looked. For all I know, they could just be really leathery grad students.) The question of “are there stay-at-home fathers in Russia?” came up and one particularly scrappy, weathered old curmudgeon looked around indignantly at the preposterous idea, scoffed, and said that he only saw stay-at-home-fathers in American movies…basically implying that in America, men are obviously wimps and that Russian men are robust, strapping bucks. The younger girls, who I’m assuming were more around my age, were simply not having it and vehemently disagreed, claiming that because women were getting more and more successful, it was not so strange to see a man helping out around the house. Scrappy old man seemed quite offended at the idea that women could be as successful or even more so than men, and said something along the lines of, “Men are strong in Russia,” or at least, that’s what I think he muttered under his breath.

This somewhat heated discussion in broken English forces me to ask why feminism, or at least a stronger sense of self among women, isn’t stronger in Russia. Surprisingly, the women’s movement in Russia has a longer history than the western feminist movement, with the first wave appearing right after the abolition of serfdom in 1861. The Soviet era squashed things for a bit (60 years), but feminism came back after Glasnost and Perestroika. And now, there are nearly 600 women’s organizations, with human rights, reproductive rights, and access to education as their goals, just to name a few. Unfortunately, as witnessed in the small debate at Discussion group, stereotype and tradition are difficult to overcome, not to mention the fact that gender equality officially disappeared in early 2000 (no more formal government structure to protect women’s rights). While more people might be aware of what rights there are among women, this awareness remains mainly in the educated, upper class.

All for victory.

I have no conclusion, and I am not terribly optimistic either. What brought about the western feminist movement won’t necessarily work here, because, not to be obvious, Russia isn’t the west. However, things are improving, albeit at a snail-slow pace…kind of fits into the general pattern of Russian life that I am beginning to notice: everything here takes much longer than it normally would.

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