Archive for October, 2009

Welcome to Petersburg… Land of the Tourist

October 25th, 2009

One of the entrances to the Hermitage

The trip to Petersburg was, overall, surprisingly painless (considering we once again had an overnight train ride). We were lucky enough to stay in the historic center of Petersburg, meaning we walked everywhere (rain, colder rain, or snow). Petersburg is an enchanting city, especially at night, and I hope you all get an opportunity to go. That being said, Petersburg is a very European city; very unlike Russia.
I have never heard quite as much English (or other foreign languages) as I did while I was in Piter (as the Russians fondly call it). There were many foreigners, even though it wasn’t tourist season, and I had my first opportunity to use my Russian to “rescue” someone (small moment, big triumph).
We of course spent a day wandering around the Hermitage, a museum I recommend you all go to if for no other reason than it is an absolutely gorgeous building (the impressive collection of European art not withstanding). The Hermitage is easily a close second to the Louve in Paris, but ten times more overwhelming. The amount of art I saw in just under 6 hours is ridiculous, so much so that I’m having a little trouble categorizing it.
What is sad though is that is painfully obvious that this jewel of a Russian building, holding one of the most impressive art collections in the world, is entering into disrepair. This being said, there is no water dripping on the da Vincis or anything of that matter. It’s more that occasionally you come across a window that you wish they had replaced when it cracked in the Raphael Loggias (in the New Hermitage, the Raphael Loggias is a beautiful copy of the Papal Palace in the Vatican). All things equal in Russia, I have seen museums in worse disrepair than the Hermitage, and I think to most people these things would not be noticeable (I, for whatever reason, was looking). It’s just that it’s such a stunning building with such a magnificent collection that it feels like it deserves only the very best, that nothing should ever be out of place.
We also went on a tour to see the Royal Jewels; however, when we arrived at the Hermitage we were told there are only tours in Russian available. The clerk gave me the up-down, thought for a moment, and said, “You speak good Russian. You will go on the Russian tour.” And I went on the Russian tour (another point of pride in the trip). This turned out to be the best thing I could have down, because the Russians on the tour weren’t very interested in what our tour guide was saying, and in many instances it ended up being a one on one discussion with a woman who had an extraordinary wealth of knowledge about the collection we were viewing.
The Hermitage houses two collections, the Diamond Collection and the Diamond and Gold Collection. We went to see the Diamond Collection, and you would think this would be housed behind some high-tech door, nope, pretty sure it’s the same one they put in when the built the Hermitage in the 18th century. Let me tell you: no one can do sparkle like the Russian royalty. There were saddle pads (what you put on the horse’s back underneath the saddle) in this collection with enough diamonds they looked like they were straight out of a rap video. A lot of instances if you positioned yourself just right the light would reflect of the pieces and hit you in the eye in such a way that you’d be seeing spots for a few seconds. All joking aside the collection is extremely impressive, it has some amazing samples of art from the Caucasus dating back almost to
Better than the Hermitage, in my humble opinion, was the Russian museum (I’ve been lucky enough to travel through a lot of Europe and see a lot of European art…. Madonna and Bambino gets old, for this reason Russian art was refreshing). The Russian museum houses an impressive collection of Russian art spanning a few centuries. While the art was stunning, and moving in a very Russian way, I found the materials the artists were commonly using very interesting. Our friend the Art major explained that while cardboard is the cheapest canvas, you are only supposed to use it with certain types of paint. But these Russian artists used cardboard for anything simply because they couldn’t afford anything else, and these pieces are no less stunning than the da Vincis in the Hermitage. If you only have time for one, go to the Russian Museum. This being said you’ll appreciate the cozy atmosphere of the Russian Museum more after the simply overwhelming Hermitage.
The other wonderful thing about Piter is that students get in free to almost all museums and historical monuments. This being said, this means you meet a lot of skeptical clerks who look at your student id for a long time and then announce that you can’t possibly studying in Russia and the Russian student id isn’t actually a Russian student id. And they say none of this kindly. Please don’t think less of me, but there is no polite way to effectively react to this in Russia. You simply have to be rude right back. This happened at Peter and Paul Cathedral (as usual, I was the first in line, and the clerk was in a particularly sour mood). She spent a minute or two longer than she needed to staring at my student id (or as it is called here a student ticket, or студентческий билет) and then announced that it was not a real student id and I was just a tourist. At this point in the day I had quite enough of this routine and asked her if she wanted to see my Visa and city registration. She mumbled something about how I probably did not read Russian and ergo did not know my Visa was a tourist Visa. So what did I do? Pulled out my Visa. This lovely Russian women screwed up her face in the most delightful show of Russian frustration and begrudgingly printed me a ticket. American-1, Russia-0 (really it’s more along the lines of Russia-45738, I’m just happy to have chalked up a point).
While I enjoyed my trip to St. Petersburg I am certainly glad to be back in Vladimir. I am not quite sure how my peers in Petersburg learn any Russian, I am quite happy to be back in good ol’ Vlad where everyone thinks I’m German (sorry to the Germans if I do anything stupid that will reflect on your country instead of mine). But being in St. Petersburg also helped me realize the extent of the economic crisis in Vladimir. I cannot say how much, but a startling amount of the city is out of work. And the men, for the most part, turn to alcohol. The region around Vladimir has one of the highest rates of alcoholism in Russia. This finally helped me realize why I have such trouble understanding men in Russia: because most of them are drunk. It’s not my Russian, it’s their Russian (another point for me).
As I am writing Vladimir is getting its first snow (I only know this because Babushka came in and threw a blanket over me as I type…. Not helping since my room is like a sauna) and I am finally in store for a Russian winter. Next entry I am sure I will be able to write about how Babushka and I are having a small war over exactly how many layers I need when I leave the house. I also eagerly look forward to what will happen to the Russian babies, who have already been dressed to the extend they look like stunned starfishes.

This week’s song: «Прощание славянки» (cut, paste and youtube): or “Farewell Slavinka” It’s an orchestral piece, it was written in honor of the Bulgarian women saying goodbye to their husbands going to the first Balkan War by a composer named Vasily Agapkin. It’s most well known to Americans for its place in the Russian film «Кафказий Пленник», or “Prisoner of the Caucasus” by Sergei Bordov (got an Oscar), if you can manage I highly recommend you see it. It’s a pretty insightful look into Russia’s interactions with the Caucasus.

Pictures will come later….. Vlad is having a bad internet day.

Pondering the Поезд, or Musings on the Russian Train.

October 10th, 2009

Let’s start off with a bang: I spent около (about) 50 hours of my life in the past ten days on a train. A Russian train. And mind you, this was not the kind of train where you get your own sleeping cabin that you share with three other people. Oh no. The whole car was a sleeping cabin… And people sat on your beds and ate really stinky fish. I am happy to say it was an очень русский опыт (very Russian experience, something I’ve had a lot of in the past week). Both times I was not seated with any of the Americans, but with Russian and Uzbecks. The first train (a simple overnight trip, as opposed to the thirty hour trip from Астрахань near the Caspian Sea to Москвa) I sat next to a Russian couple who didn’t say a whole lot at first. Knowledge of Russian culture came in very handy here: after I offered them food (which they politely refused) there was not a moment of silence. They praised me for my excellent Russian (that’s a stretch at best), and told me all about Russian culture. Overall, it helped make a very unpleasant experience more pleasant.
The second ride; however, was not quite as pleasant. First of all we were on the train for 30 hours, and I sat across from an older Uzbeck gentleman, who, I’ll be honest, scared the dookie out of me. After offering him some fruit, he turned out to be pretty pleasant. But before that the only impression I had was a rather intimidating man with Гулаг (prison) tattoos. Not a person you want to find yourself sitting across from anywhere. It turned out to be fortunate that we shared food, he shared his perspective on Russian culture and the steppe (more on that later); but more importantly I think he actually saved our loud American butts. I feel I have a solid grasp on when to be quiet (strange, right?) as an American in Russia. Some of my 50 peers; however, did not. And this upset a group of young, drunk, Uzbecks on the train. There were some threats thrown around, but no one seemed to get the hint that it would be better to keep our heads down. Luckily my Uzbeck (yes, he is my Uzbeck) and another older couple later went to talk with these men and said something like, “No, no, no, they’re not all bad.” This did not stop the complaining, but it certainly made it seem less physically threatening. So if we have learned anything from this experience it’s: share your food with people on the train.
The second train ride took us all the way across the Russian Steppe and through Kazakhstan. As it was explained; however, we weren’t technically in Kazakhstan as the rail-lines were Russian territory. But seeing the sun set and the moon rise over the Steppe was quite an experience, as one of the Russian professors put it “Там нечего нет” (There there is nothing). The land was almost completely flat (I can understand why people thought the earth was flat) and uninhabited aside from some Tartars. Tartars, as best I can describe them, are a group of people who have stuck to a relatively simple and sometimes nomadic lifestyle. As to how they scrape a living out of the Steppe I do not understand, it was explained to me that nothing lives there, water even avoids the Steppe. The Tartars keep herds of animals which they often just let wander, which I found very strange. Apparently you just have to know what your cows, horses, and goats look like (and please don’t be fooled, the horses in the picture were for meat).
We were lucky enough to see a lot of Russia on this cruise, but Volgograd (aka Stalingrad, as it is still fondly known, despite the attempts to stamp it out) was by far the most memorable thing on the cruise. If you didn’t already know, the Battle of Stalingrad (or siege if you prefer) is one of the best-known in WWII history. The entire city was practically razed to the ground, and yet the Nazis never took Stalingrad. Rebuilt today, it is home to what I consider to be the greatest war memorial I have ever seen (I took a fantastic video of the changing of the guards, I hope it uploads for you guys…). Unlike many memorials I have seen, there was an overwhelming sense of despair there. There were quotes written all over the staircase leading up to the main memorial, including one that has stuck with me: “Они были простыми смертными” (They were all simply dead/gone). You can’t help but understand the travesty that was WWII, something no other memorial has ever done for me.
The memorial complex in Volgograd is huge, but the crowning jewel is definitely the statue, the Motherland Calls. It was actually modeled after a woman in Volgagrad, legend has it people would recognize her on the street because of the statue. Built in the late 1960’s, the statue is about 85 meters high, and a little under 8,000 tonnes of concrete. Sadly, the statue is leaning and they don’t expect it to be able to lean much farther without collapsing. Go to Volgograd while you can!
Volgograd is also home to what I consider to be the best war museum I have ever seen, the Panorama Museum. The museum gave a very thorough history, and had more war artifacts than I have ever seen in my entire life. We joked that this was because they simply had to pick up the city after the Germans fled. The memorial and museum aside, the entire city stands as a monument to the hardship that WWII brought to Russia and is something everyone should see within their lifetime.
Now that the fun part of the cruise is over, I have a few culture notes to share: Firstly, and most importantly, peers and parents of peers, study abroad is not a vacation nor an excuse to act like a jerk. It is not an opportunity to be loud and obnoxious (like on the train, or worse, at war memorials where people are weeping at graves). Nor is it ever appropriate to stand on someone’s gravestone to take pictures (luckily an older Russian took care of this one, I’m sure if I’d understood everything he’d said to the young man standing on the gravestone my ears would have been on fire). The Americans I saw at the monument (not just my group of students) simply did not know how to behave. It was appalling, so for heaven’s sake please learn from this and have some respect for whatever country you decide to visit. Have fun, enjoy the sites, but respect it.
I guess that’s all for today folks, the Germany v. Russia soccer match is coming on soon and that is not something I want to miss. This week’s song: Счастье@ru by Маркшейдер Кнуст and also Катюша. I would youtube Катюша, it’s one of the most famous Russian songs from WWII, and if you find a translation please don’t be like me and think it’s about a woman, it’s about a bomb (Катюша was the name of a Russian WWII rocket). How very Russian, to write a love song to a bomb.