Monthly Archives: July 2010
After a long day of testing and presentations, my friend and I decided to escape the heat by lying underneath the shade in the Mikhailovsky Gardens. It was absolute perfection — the sun shone between the trees, there was a warm breeze, and for an hour and a half, there wasn’t a care in the world.
My time in St. Petersburg is rapidly coming to an end. I leave for Karelia and the north this Sunday, and a week from that, it’s time to make my way back to America. It amazes me that I’m soon going to be leaving, and that it happened so quickly. Was it really almost 7 months ago that I was in DC, anxiously waiting to hop on that plane over here?
And what have I learned in the short amount of time that I’ve been here? First and foremost, that Russia’s not simply full of vodka and bears. More importantly, that Russia is at first a scary, unpredictable place, one that you hate at first but then fall in love with. Russia has so much beauty to offer, not just with its bold war monuments and theaters, but with the small things, too: the light hitting a cupola of a church just right, the lazy and calm rivers, the hardened grandmothers, everything.
I love the brutal honesty of Russians. I love their ability to talk to any stranger as if he was a close friend. I love their inner friendliness that isn’t immediately shown. I love that what you see is what you get. Hell, I even love the rough Russian language, kind of in the same manner that I’d love a drunk, fat uncle just for kicks.
As we were leaving the park after getting kicked off the grass, we walked pass the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (Спас на Крови). I stopped because I was awe at how the sun was hitting the golden onion dome, and how the church stood in contrast with the clear blue sky. A lump formed in my throat. I can’t be leaving this. I just can’t.
In our 2nd to last weekend in Petersburg, a big group of us headed four hours south to the ancient city of Pskov. Pskov’s pretty rad — the city just turned 1007 years old, it’s the place where Nicholas II abdicated, and it has plenty of ruins, monasteries, and picturesque churches to romp around in.
However, in spite of its rich history and culture, I think the brightest memory I have of Pskov was when we all decided to jump from a 10-ft high wall into a river. It was absurdly hot when we reached the city, and we were already grumpy after touring around in the Kremlin. We happened to come across a group of pleasantly tossed Russians jumping off a wall into the river. After enviously looking at them for a bit, our director handed his things to a student and ran over. And, after much deliberation, we all ended up following suit.
The walk up to the edge was this rickety metal plank, and I happened to make the mistake of looking down and realized that I was relatively high up. But the drunk Russians were goading me, and I wasn’t about to wuss out in front of a ton of Russian men, so I jumped. Looking back, it was probably not the best decision, since it was a dirty river and it was shallow (with sharp rocks at the bottom!) , but hell, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. In a symbolic, mushy sort of way, jumping into that dirty brown river encapsulated my time in Russia — spontaneous, scary, probably bad for my health but ultimately, very rewarding.
A couple of years ago, Putin described the rapidly decreasing birth rate as a serious, national problem. Coupled with the increasingly high death rate and the low life expectancy (both of which are partly in due to alcohol), Russia’s national population is faltering. Also throw in the fact that women use abortion as birth control into the mix, and it’s understandable why the population is supposed plunge by a million or so within the next 10 years.
So what is Russia to do? Well, have government-endorsed sex, of course.
Nashi, a Kremlin-run youth movement, organizes a procreation camp, where young people are heavily encouraged to have sex and babies for the good of the Motherland. At a mass wedding, the organizers said, “Remember the mammoths. They became extinct because they did not have enough sex. That must not happen to Russia.”
It doesn’t stop at procreation camps! Oh no! In the Ulyanovsk region, they have had a conception holiday for the past five years now. Governor Sergei Morozov declared September 12th as the day to “Give birth to a patriot.”
I don’t think that Russia has a problem with having too little sex. There’s nothing wrong with having an absurd amount of sex and babies. But Russia’s bigger problem is that, with its terrible health care and terrible life style, Russia has an obscenely higher death rate in comparison to other civilized countries. Russia’s pharmaceuticals are painfully lagging and its medicine is laughed at and considered backwards. From drinking alone, Russia’s male population is nose diving. The government can encourage sex to its hearts’ desire, but if they truly want to fix the population problem, they’re going to have to focus on not just creating children, but saving their lives in the long run. Tackle the drinking problem, which is no easy feat. Tackle the booming AIDS problem, which is one of the fastest growing epidemics in civilized country.
*I’d also like to point out that “Give Birth to a Patriot” Day falls on my birthday.
The streets of St. Petersburg have transformed into an outdoor banya, except with no snow to cool down in. And I feel like I’m slowly losing my mind as I stew in a pool sweat and mosquitoes inside a stuffy classroom. Russia’s experiencing one of the worst heatwaves in decades — the locals have rechristened the country as Africa. it’s not terrible, in the sense that it hasn’t reached over 100 (at least, in Petersburg, it hasn’t), but keep in mind that it rarely gets this hot. (In other areas, such as Siberia, Moscow, and southern Russia, it gets over 40 C in the shadows.) But it’s terrible in the sense that Russians escape the heat by swimming…and drinking. Unfortunately, in the reverse order. In the past week, there have been over 200 deaths from drinking and drowning. The heat’s also destroyed an absurd amount of crops. Russia’s in a state of emergency, since the heat wave doesn’t look like it’s about to end.
I would consider this a health crisis — with no end in sight, Russians are still going to take to the beach and arm themselves with alcohol. It’s fun to drink, and it’s even more fun to drink on the beach, so why not? But it’s difficult to gauge how much one is drinking, especially in the tortuous heat. I’m sure that Russians have been drinking and swimming for centuries, but the heat has never been this bad. They just don’t realize how quickly they’re dehydrating and that they’re replenishing themselves with 40 proof alcohol. In June, 1200 people died from drowning, and I can only imagine that the numbers are going to be significantly higher by the end of July.
What’s the solution going to be? Tell Russians to stop drinking? That’s sure as hell not going to happen. Raise the price of vodka again is a possibility, but that would probably just mean that more Russians would turn to good old-fashioned samogon — moonshine. I don’t know. All I know is it’s going to be pretty devastating if the weather doesn’t cool down soon.
Officially a month left until I return until Madison, WI. I’ve got mixed-to-negative feelings about returning to the States, but I’m not going to dwell on that now. For now, I’m making a check list of things to see before I leave this wonderful city.
– The Cruiser Ship Aurora
– Kuntskammer – the museum full of 300-year old pickled fetuses
– Peter and Paul Fortress
– The Tixvin Cemetary
– Chornaya Rechka (Черная Речка) – the place where Pushkin died in a duel
There is such an incredibly short amount of time left before I return to America, and there’s still so much for me to learn. I’m not ready to leave.
There was one moment last semester, when I was running late to meet someone, that has got me thinking as of late. It was the weekend, and I had woken up late, was an overall wreck, and was essentially trying to just roll out the door in a slightly slovenly fashion. I ran past my host mom to the front door, and as I was putting on my shoes, she said something along the lines of, “Are you sure you’re ready to go?” Well, sure I was…at least, I thought I was. She gave me a look and walked into the kitchen. I stopped in my tracks. Was there something on my face?
Apparently, the problem was that there wasn’t anything on my face — as in no makeup, nothing. And that wasn’t socially acceptable. Maybe I’m over exaggerating a bit, and maybe I read Tanya’s words wrong, but I’m pretty sure that was the reason she asked me. At first, I was somewhat offended, but as I thought more and more about it, I began to think that maybe she was right to stop me from going out looking like death. I still can’t tell if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that Russian women, especially young women, go out every day like they’re on their way to a soiree. There’s a huge emphasis on amping up their sexuality — the stilettos, the cut out clothes, the heavy makeup, the rail-thin bodies, etc. But at the same time, for what it’s worth, there is something to be learned: to go out everyday looking your best. Both societies share the same (shallow?) attitudes — as in first impressions are a lasting impression, and in Russia (and America, too) you meet someone first through their exterior (внешний вид). If you can’t fight the system, join the system, and in young America’s case, that means stop rolling out of bed and going to class in sweatpants.