Apologies for the sporadic posting. I offer no excuses. Last weekend I went back to Moscow, which coincided with an apparently epic holiday, May 9th, or Day of Victory! I have written here before about how important WW2 is to Russians, but even I was taken by surprise at how….over the top their celebrating of May 9th is. (If you’re a WW2 buff or something, you might be wondering why Russians celebrate on May 9th, not May 8th, which is the recognized end of the war in Europe. The Germans signed the treaty at 11:00pm on May 8th, so it was already May 9th in Russia.)

Moscow was covered in decorations, sort of agit-prop style, commemorating the victory. The city’s ring boulevards were all turned into historical exhibitions, with signs profiling different heroes and even some 3-D images which you needed glasses to see correctly. I don’t think anyone had the glasses.

Victory Music Box

I have to admit, I was sort of taken aback at how enthusiastically and reverentially this holiday was celebrated. I have written on this blog about how important WW2 is to Russians, but this holiday is just above and beyond what I would have imagined. I naively imagined something akin to American Veterans’ Day or Memorial day–which is to say, nothing more than a day off from work. The whole city was covered with flags and decorations. People were dressed in red, white and blue and wore USSR WW2 era caps. Everyone had a black and orange striped ribbon tied to themselves or their bags or their cars. The sale of alcohol was not permitted in the city center! That’s saying something. People resorted to eating mass quantities of ice cream to induce a sugar rush for alcohol-like effect. Also, it was like 85 degrees! I basically lost my mind it was so hot.Despite the heat, veterans strolled the street in their uniforms, each weighed down by about fifteen medals at least, and received thanks and congratulations from everyone who passed them.

Note the 65 in the starburst.

This holiday was also the only time I have really seen USSR pride letting its flag fly. Literally.

Hammer and Sickle Flag. Note the Omon riot police strolling beneath it. They are the most fearsome of Russia's many police forces and were out in great numbers this weekend.

Also the flower display above has an CCCP on it. People were wearing pro-Lenin and Stalin t-shirts, and of course all WW2 paraphernalia is Soviet. This is really the only occasion where I noticed wide-spread nostalgia for the Soviet era.

Red Square gussied up for the Parade

So the main event of this day is a military parade. This parade is watched on TV all over the country and involved participants from all former Soviet countries except Georgia. Also including Poland and the US, and a few others I think. What this entails is large numbers of soldiers and gigantic military machinery rolling down the streets amongst gigantic cheering crowds. Did you know that tanks have horns? I did not know that. The “star” of this parade was a brand new and enormous missile launcher. Cue the cheering crowds!

This is from the day after the parade.

I actually ended up watching this parade unwillingly and from a terrible vantage point. It was one of the most agoraphobic experiences of my life. It was like a trillion degrees, none of the stores were open, I had no money and no ATMs were open, and everywhere I looked there was an unbelievable crowd of people sloshing around. The Omon had their riot tanks out and lots of streets were barricaded with trucks and water tanks, and all of these were covered with people trying to get a better view. A lot of the metros were closed. I spend like three hours walking in circles trying to get away from the parade.

And then there was the aerial parade! Several coordinated groups of helicopters carrying flags, red white and blue jets and HUGE aircraft carriers flying low to the ground, greeted with screams of pride and joy by the adoring masses. It was both endearing and frightening.

Anyway, Moscow was awesome and exhausting as usual. The best part was the weather. It was like summer there! I felt hot, due to sun shining on me! I was concerned about sunburns! It was like paradise.

Visited Moscow State University, which is more imposing in person.

Rode a chairlift left over from the 1980 Moscow Olympics. At right, there is a ski jump. People were actually practicing ski jumping as we rode! I had no idea you could ski jump on a plastic tarp. This is the "State Ski School of the Capital." What other country would have that year-round in the middle of one of the world's biggest cities?

Monument to Ho Chi Minh at Ho Chi Minh Square

With Gabi's help, I almost learned to slide down a fireman's pole.

Here‘s another good video of Victory Day Parade.


(In addition to frequently paying me to do nothing.)

Readers of this blog might, I feel, have a somewhat incorrect impression that I hate my job or that it is somehow unpleasant. Not so. Working at the place I work is endlessly frustrating and this job, like every job, gets tiresome after a while, but actually teaching the students is frequently awesome.

This semester so far we have had classes on:

  • How hippies changed the American view of drug use
  • “Mean Girls” and American teen movies
  • Pondering why so many women in Hollywood become successful by playing strippers or prostitutes
  • Gang culture and “West Side Story”
  • The Gay Marriage Debate
  • What is Gay Culture? (this class was at an Italian restaurant)
  • The role of Unilever in the economy of Ghana
  • The globalization of the music industry
  • Racism, gender roles and marriage in the virtual world “SecondLife”
  • Will babies of this age think that Kindles are books and books are garbage?
  • Al Jazeera and the US Military
  • “Jersey Shore” and Russians in Reality Television

Next week in one of my classes we’re watching “Mad Men”.

Last weekend I had the tremendous pleasure of visiting Vyborg on the American students’ excursion. I have heard many things about Vyborg, most notably that it is very nice in the summer, a popular day trip spot, a “European-style” city with a castle, that it is Karelian, that it is Finnish and Russian and Swedish? German? Anyway it’s basically on the Finnish border/on the gulf. It’s famous for having a mix of architecture because of all the different countries that possessed it at one time or another. Also, it’s Vyborg! A vacation spot just a short commuter-train ride away!

To go to Vyborg, we departed on an 8am bus, which caused me and most other people to wake up at 5:45, because the bus left from the last stop on a metro line that was 50 minutes away. Ah the Parnas metro stop–imagine, a space-age metro station plopped down in the middle of a swamp/sewage discharge lot/wild dog meet and greet/decrepit bus resuscitation center/mud pit/plot of asphalt in the middle of nowhere seemingly serving no purpose, with one of the world’s largest IKEAs within view. Plus, it is dawn. Russia is full of visions of dystopia.

Anyway, Vyborg made me question why I had been so excited/adamant about going on the excursion. First of all, no longer being forced to go on excursions, I forgot how much I don’t like them and how apparently short my attention span is. I got bored of listening to our guide, despite his charming quirks (few remaining teeth, told some Russians we were all from Las Vegas, given to proud and belabored proclamations–“These cobblestones are the same cobblestones you find in Red Square in Moscow and in Palace Square in Petersburg! Because those are Vy-borg cobb-le-sto-nes.” “Only seven cities in the world have exhibits from the Hermitage! And what is one of them? Vy-borg!” “Never forget, you are eating lunch in a basement that dates from the fourteenth century! This basement is unique to us, is only in Vyborg!”).

I also felt antagonized by the weather. True, readers of my blog are no doubt by now aware that I am very easily antagonized by the weather, but it’s really spring now in Petersburg–impossibly sunny skies, jacket-weather, extremely long days. Paradise, in short! In Vyborg, which is on the water and further north, it’s still winter. Or rather, some post-winter terror-zone where everything is slush, dog shit, mud and garbage. It was cold and raining. My feet rapidly lost feeling. And I must add that the trip got off to an ambivalent start for me when I paid 75 cents to pee in a hole in the ground.

Also, it was Easter. Not sure how that relates, but it was weird.

Anyway, due to my loss of interest in the excursion, I took a lot of pictures of things that may or may not be sights, which I will post here for your consumption. Vyborg appeared to be on the brink of total collapse. Maybe when the ice and everything is gone, before the tourist season, they’ll spruce it up, but seriously, at least half the old down part appeared to have recently seen the wrecking ball. Naturally, that’s the part I took pictures of, on one occasion inciting the anger of a local who insisted that I should not be taking pictures of such garbage, Russia has better things to offer. But even some of the Russians on the trip were surprised/embarrassed by the condition of Vyborg and of the suburbs we traveled through to get there. In their words, “Russia is the least presentable of all the European countries.” All of the stuff was in the tourist center of a touristy city though, it’s not like I went looking for rubble or gaping holes in the ground.

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Here you can see a picture of Vyborg in all its summery splendor: Here

One note: the picture with the moose. According to our guide, the moose was the biggest/only? bronze statue of a moose in the world. Only in Vyborg! Taking a picture with it is good luck. Not taking a picture–bad luck.

Hopefully everyone is aware of the terrible bombings that occurred on Moscow on Monday. Everyone is shaken up by it, even here. There is a lot more terrorism in Russia than in the US, and most of it is concentrated in the Caucasus–site, of course, of the seemingly endless yet ever-ending Chechnyan war–and in Moscow. In the first part of the decade there were several completely awful terrorist attacks in Moscow, including a several-day long hostage situation in a theater. There were metro bombings at that time too. In the last few years, there has been comparatively little terrorism, until in November, you might remember, a train was derailed between Moscow and Petersburg.

People are afraid that, as threatened, terrorism will increase in the big cities, particularly the metro, which is the major artery of Moscow. It’s as much a symbol of the city as New York’s subway–except larger, more efficient and way fancier. It serves 5.5 million people a day–that’s as much as the entire population of New York. I heard (from an unscientific source) that at any given moment in Moscow, 2 million people are underground. It’s a testament to how important the metro is as well as the attitude toward terrorism and mourning here, that the affected stations were re-opened the same day that the bombings occurred, although the marble facades were pocked with holes from shrapnel.

Given the complexities of the issue of terrorism in Russia, I was disappointed to say the least when I read the New York Times’ coverage of the event yesterday. In an article that has since been removed from the site it seems (I found it reprinted in other papers online here), the paper falls into the insane kind of communist-baiting that I have complained about on this site before. Observe:

Some onlookers today said it was clear what was needed — a crackdown. Tamerlan Khaloyev, 69, a retired teacher who is from the Caucasian region of North Ossetia himself, stood in the teeming square and mourned the iron order of the Soviet Union.

“In the Soviet time there were no suicide bombers,” he said. “Stalin took care of all them. They did as he said.”

Then he turned regretfully to the hump of land in the middle of the square, which for decades housed a towering statue of Feliks E. Dzerzhinksy, the founder of the Bolshevik secret police.

In 1991 a cheering anti-Communist crowd pulled down the monument. If it was still standing, Khaloyev said, “none of this would be going on”.

The toppling of the Dzerzhinsky statue in front of Lubyanka (former KGB offices) was an extremely important moment in post-Soviet consciousness that symbolized the end of repression. (Though in 2002, Luzhkov tried to return the statue to the Lubyanka Square, liberals and people with common sense prevented him.) To put it briefly, Dzerzhinsky is not a popular man. He is one of the founders of communist terror, a expert practitioner of torture who prided himself on controlling people through fear.

Though certainly shaken by the attacks, this man’s opinion is absurd. Dzerzhinsky practiced a form of terrorism on a massive scale against his own people, and created a system whereby his successors did the same for a few decades. In what way would that be preferable to what occurred yesterday?

Most importantly, this is not the opinion of most Russians. The New York Times and other Western journalistic organizations use quotes like these for seemingly no other purpose than  to shock and rattle American readers. Yes, there are some Russians (most of them 60 year old retirees like this guy) who are nostalgic for life under the Soviet regime, sometimes because their standard of living has drastically decreased and as they are have grown older, they miss the social safety net of the USSR. Some people do indeed admire Stalin. Some people march around the Red Square in communist memorabilia in commemoration of the USSR. Those people are a minority. Russians are not so lost in the grips of Soviet nostalgia that they long for a man whose very name is synonymous with ruthlessness. It’s simply irresponsible journalism to focus on these people’s opinions. They do it for shock value, which is ridiculous because there are equally shocking yet more important perspectives on such issues. Like, for instance, the ever-more-popular neo-fascist nationalist movement, who will probably be taking their anger over the attacks to the streets.

Much more interesting are the words of this student,

“You know, I don’t think [the violence] ever actually stopped,” said Aleksandr Zharkov, 22, a graduate student in mathematics, standing near one of the bombing sites. He said he had sought out information on the Internet about fighting in the Caucasus, and been surprised by how much was still going on.

“As long as it’s still going on there,” he said, “it can happen anywhere.”

This guy is not wishing for the KGB to swoop in and save Russia. Rather, he is noting that 1) information about the war is heavily censored and 2) there is a reason these attacks occurred. Surely those perspectives are much more interesting, much more worthwhile to explore than deliberately alarming people over the lingering Russian passion for communism.

Why, New York Times, why? I would expect such foolishness of the pitiful rag I write for, not you!


March 30, 2010

Today I involuntarily did the most Russian thing I have ever done. It made me suddenly feel like, what is happening to me???

I arrived at work this morning, went to the bathroom, and cleaned my shoes.

Perhaps my readership is unaware of one of the most befuddling paradoxes of Russian life (to a Westerner): how are their shoes always immaculately clean, whilst the streets are so incredibly filthy?

The answer is two-fold.

1. Most Russians change their shoes from boots to indoor shoes when they get to work. It took me forever to catch on to this and i don’t do it. I don’t have that many pairs of shoes anyway. It is not uncommon to see people working in produktis (like a corner store or bodega) or supermarkets wearing slippers.

2. They clean their shoes with a devotion unknown in the West. I know people at home who only recently discovered that the life of one’s shoes could be extended when they are polished and repaired. Russians, on the other hand, have elevated polishing and repairing to an art. There are shoe repair kiosks on many corners. I have seen people polishing their shoes in the street–where the dirty lives!

A lot of Americans here see Russian footwearz and think, “Gee why are their shoes so nice and clean while mine seem to have been pulled from a dumpster that was recently buried in a mud-pit? I feel like a doofus/slob but can do nothing to change my situation!”

Oh, slobby Americans! I sympathize with your slobby* plight! However it is not magic, but vigilance, that keeps Russian shoes sparkling.

And, naturally, although I cleaned my shoes when I got there, I still had mud splattered on the hem of my pants and forgot to put make-up on and my hair looked ridiculous since I fell asleep with it wet (also sacrilege in Russia, sorry Mom), so it’s not like I’m blending in quite yet.

*Slabiy in Russian, pronounced like slobby in English, means weak. This is a joke! Ha-ha!

So it’s been kind of forever since I went to Moscow and Tula and promised to post about it (because I know you guys are so desperate to know what Tula is like!). This post was partially written around three months ago, so uh, it may not make that much sense, but I think you will be able to cope with that.

I headed to Tula with Alexi and Dima, who had a Ford Focus (supporting the American car industry!) and who kindly drove the entire time. It took us about four hours to get there because of the awful Moscow traffic, but luckily, the car was basically the funnest place imaginable and we managed to stay entertained. We also got pulled over once, but didn’t even have to pay a bribe. All in all, the greatest success imaginable.

In case you are wondering what Tula is all about, it’s a medium-sized city in the ancient Golden Ring around Moscow, that mainly is famous for samovars, priyaniki (a honey-sweetened dough-lump commonly considered a cookie), proximity to Tolstoy’s estate and manufacturing a large variety of ammunition, guns and missiles. From the information available at our hotel, all these things are visible on the city’s crest!

Alexi and Dima, galavanting in Tula's main square at night.

To my infinite regret, I don’t have any pictures of the city of Tula or Hotel History where we stayed (in the luxury suite, despite the fact that there was a wedding party there). But Tula is a very typical Russian city–many buildings that appear to be built by people who are not construction workers and are falling apart, a strange mall complex, many Orthodox churches, several factories that seem to be placed in the middle of town, depressed looking people waiting for the bus in the middle of nowhere, monuments to many different Soviets, remains of an ancient fortress. Tula also has some monuments to the arms industry and to Tolstoy.

When we got there we ate at a Soviet kitsch restaurant that was totally packed and extremely cheap. Also charmingly (actually charmingly, I’m not being sarcastic this time–sarcasm is anathema to Tula!) featured a BYO policy, in addition to pastry-pockets filled with….cheese? that were really tasty. After dinner we returned to our luxury suite to enjoy the several sets of glassware and multiple televisions that turned on automatically when you entered the room and a shower with so many different functions you might as well have been inside a biohazard decontamination facility. Also, a bidet. Hotel History spares no luxury!

In the morning we are cheese curd pancakes and watched Lady Gaga music videos among the detritus of the bridal party of the night before and then headed to Yasnaya Polyana in the Focus.

No wonder Levin likes nature so much.

Yasnaya Polyana was Tolstoy’s estate. It is (if I remember correctly) where spent some of his childhood, but most famously, where he wrote like all of his major works. Being there early in the morning in December was amazing, not only because the cold fucks with your mind, but because virtually no one else was there.

It will probably not surprise you at all to learn that Tolstoy is revered like a saint in Russia and by people who studied Russian Lit in college. Thus we were prepared for a magical, mystical experience, which the weather and the total lack of tourists provided us. Because it was so cold, the sky was totally clear and the frost from the previous night was blowing around in the air. It actually looked like sparkles flying through the air in the morning sun.

On the porch of Tolstoy's house.

Naturally photography was not permitted in the house, which is one of the tinier ones on the premises. We saw the dining room where he received as guests virtually every important Russian writer or artist. Also his bedroom, where he slept in a comically small bed because he was so disciplined! His library, the office he gave his wife, his daughter’s bedroom. However because Tolstoy was Tolstoy he also used all these rooms to write. So every room would be like, this was once a pantry, then his daughter’s bedroom, but also the room he wrote Anna Karenina in (don’t you kind of feel sorry for the girl? This seems like a very Freudian cocktail of influences, no?). This is his wife’s office, but also where he wrote The Kingdom of God is Within You. This is a hallway, but also where he wrote Family Happiness.

Alexi's feet were too big for the museum shoe-covers.

Geese. Later, they launched an attack on a woman who wanted to pose with them.

This lady, like the geese, seemed dissatisfied with human presence.

Tolstoy is buried on this estate, which adds to its pilgrimage-site ambiance. He stipulated that he be buried in this exact spot, in an unmarked grave. However that didn’t stop him from running away from home and abandoning his family while he was on his death bed!

Unclear if the leafy stuff was his idea.

There is a little fence surrounding this plot, naturally, but as we were leaving two Russian ladies swaddled in fur coats and chatting kind of loudly approached. Then one made a gesture like, check that out, and they stopped talking, stepped over the fence, and walked right up to the grave. Also, isn’t it weird how the leafy stuff makes it look like he was buried above ground? Or I guess entombed above ground?

I felt trepedatious at this point.

On our way out, we walked around on this frozen lake. It was the first frozen body of water I have ever walked on.

Alexi and Dima did not share my trepidation.

Before we left, we ate lunch at a small cafe that serves food prepared according to Tostoy’s wife’s recipes that were apparently his favorites. The olive and potato soup was quite delicious!

There was no free tea at the museum.

Tula is also famous for being the capital of samovars. A samovar is a tea-making contraption that used to be central to Russian culinary life. You heated water with coal and on top, kept a little pot of super-concentrated tea that you diluted with water from the spigot. These aren’t used anymore, because we have electric kettles and tea bags. We went to this museum, however, locate on the town square, and saw many samovars, several of which were made out of materials like sugar or straw that made them unusable. This samovar was unusable because it was the side of a room.

We also had heard that there was a priyaniki museum, which we desperately wanted to see. Unfortunately it was very difficult to find. Eventually we discovered that the problem was that there are several different October streets/boulevards etc. This particularly Soviet problem caused us all to chuckle. After Alexi accosted people at several different bus stops, all of whom seemed positively dumb-founded by his American gregariousness, an old woman claimed she knew where the museum was and she was even going that way, so we should drive her. This we did. It was a little bit odd, but Russians are often telling me that Americans aren’t as nice as Russians because Americans will give you directions while Russians will drop what they’re doing to show you where something is personally. I had never seen that happen, but I guess here I experienced that phenomena. Strangely, whenever I mention to a Russian that we drove a babushka to a priyaniki museum they look at me like I’m crazy.

They really should have kept this giant priyanik in a case.

Having seen some very small priyaniki, and some very large priyaniki and priyaniki in the shape of guns and birds, and priyaniki commemorating important Soviet holidays, and watching a video of how they’re made, we bid farewell to Tula, having enjoyed ourselves beyond thoroughly, taking many cherished memories and packaged priyaniki with us.

Fellow Travelers, with blood-thirsty geese in the background.