Archive for November, 2009

Jumping train tracks and surviving… Does that mean Russian Fate is smiling on us?

November 28th, 2009

suzdal-sunsetShort preamble: Sorry this blog is so late! It’s sat around for over a week; however, life has intervened. Between the internet not working (do I love you Russia, why yes), and sadly having to move host families, it’s just been impossible to post. So I apologize and there will be another post next week! Hope you all had a great Turkey Day (ours included carrot soufflé, grilled cheese, and eggplant parmesan), until next week!

I’d like to start out with a shout out to Stephanie and Olga, whom I spent a fantastic weekend with in Moscow. And what a weekend it was…
I have a friend who was just awarded a Pickering Fellowship, so the government is paying for her school and giving her a job as a Foreign Services Officer (I honestly couldn’t think of a better person for the job). She is currently going through her security clearance, which meant she had an appointment at the Embassy in Moscow. You know, the Embassy no one can find. The poor girl spent over an hour looking for the Embassy (and of course all the phone numbers she was given did not work). Finally she managed to come upon the back of the Embassy and managed to explain to the guards (who spoke no English) that she had an appointment. God help you if you ever have to get to the Embassy in Moscow quickly (what should have been a 15 minute trip turned into over an hour).
Meanwhile I spent my free time at the Russian Museum of History at Red Square. The Museum is organized chronologically, with some very interesting artifacts from the very beginning of Russian history. The collection makes it harder to place Russia in Europe or Asia. Many of the artifacts could have easily been in a British or German museum, and many more could have been easily been mistaken for those in Asia. It seems from the very beginning of time Russia has not been able to identify itself solely with the West or the East.
The next morning we made our way to Lenin’s Mausoleum… Boy was that an experience, starting with the line to get into the Mausoleum. Just within the line to alone there were probably ten different nationalities, and of course the other American zoned in on us immediately. As we were being prodded along by the police through the line, he made a fantastic comparison: “Geez, getting in here is like getting in line for Space Mountain.” And yes, it was exactly like standing in line for Space Mountain.
Once we finally made it through security (which included metal detectors and a friendly frisk thanks to my large collection of kopeks). Going through the memorial gardens leading up to the Mausoleum, and the Mausoleum itself, was yet another one of those Russian experiences that left me more confused afterwards than I had been going in. You are rushed through the gardens preceding the Mausoleum, and then comes the pit. The Mausoleum is very somber and poorly lit, I had the distinct impression I was walking into a dark pit. The guards are, like most Russian guards at monuments, very somber and slightly intimidating (as they’re meant to be). The only time I saw any of the guards move was a) when I was asked to remove my hands from my coat pockets, and b) when they told you to keep moving.
We were lucky enough to spend all of ten seconds in the same room as Lenin (fine with me, that was one creepy experience). He is poorly lit, besides some red light that just makes him look waxy and pink (gross). Lenin; however, was not the most interesting part of the Mausoleum, the cemetery in the Kremlin wall following the Mausoleum was far more interesting.
Various Russian heads-of-state and other important Communists are buried here, from Kruschev to Stalin and other Communists most Americans have never heard of. Every grave has (red) flowers on it, some more than others. Most people breeze right through the cemetery (I don’t feel comfortable calling it this, it didn’t quite feel like a cemetery), and miss many of the graves. My friend and I found Stalin (surprise) most interesting. Stalin was at one point housed in the Mausoleum, but moved into the cemetery next to the Kremlin wall shortly after. His bust is by no means extraordinary unless you take the time to look at it, and you would notice that, unlike all the other busts, his eyes are in fact hollowed out. This gives him a look so disconcerting that it reveals the creepiness that was seeing the dead man that should have decomposed already. It also tells you quite a bit about how the Russians felt about Stalin in the years following his death.
The Kremlin aside, we managed to make our way to the tourist market in Moscow (which is huge, touristy, and I highly recommend). I did my best to torture all the vendors who greeted me in English by refusing to show any interest in their products unless they responded to my Russian greeting in Russian. The majority of them had played this game before with students and happily obliged me. We were lucky enough to stumble into a dark corner of the market and meet one of the artists, who sold my friend a beautiful piece. This woman complimented us on our Russian (always a plus) and asked if we could do her a favor.
This woman has a daughter living in Moscow, who has read (like many of the Russians I interact with) that the American government is forcing all its citizens to get a vaccine against swine flu. The artist said her daughter was considering leaving Moscow until the epidemic was over, and asked us to email her daughter and explain that the government was not forcing everyone to get vaccines (the implication was if they didn’t get the vaccine, they would die). We agreed, but I’m only 90% sure Obama isn’t forcing all of the US to get a vaccine (such is our access to news here).
At last came the time to buy train tickets back to Vladimir, which took over an hour. The lines at train stations typically move very slowly, but they moved especially slow at 4:00 pm on the 21st of November because, as it turned out, we had arrived right when the entire station started its fifteen minute break. And thus people continued to line up; luckily the Russians were none the more pleased with this than we were. Tickets bought, we decided to sit in the station as we only had a little over an hour until our train left. Twenty minutes until departure we set off to find our train, confident that it was at platform six. We make our way to platform six, where it says “Vladimir Express.” I hand my ticket to the conductor, who tells me I have the wrong way and points me in the general direction of twenty other trains.
Getting frantic, we walk away and I ask some Russians I pass if they know what platform I need, and they point me right back to platform six. I approach a different conductor, who tells us to hurry back to the station (600 yards away) to the platforms that feed from the station. Seven minutes left, we take off at a dead sprint to this particular group of platforms, only to discover we turned too early and hit a fence. We saw a number of young men jumping the tracks (a five foot drop), and I momentarily forgot that I am indeed not a man, and jumped down onto the tracks.
My much wiser friend decided to book it backwards to make it through the station back to the platform, at the very moment I discovered that I could not make onto the other side of the platform (something about it coming up to my nose). Panicked, I asked two young Russian men on the platform if they could help me, and very quickly found myself being pulled up onto the platform. This being said, I am by no means a light person and need to give a quick shout-out to this two means: thanks for not attacking me and also not leaving me to get hit by a train.
By making this stupid move, I had essentially stranded my friend, who could not get into the group of platforms we needed without her ticket. Which was in my purse. So she stood at the gates as people scanned their tickets to open the automatic doors, until, by chance, someone scanned their ticket on the wrong door and opened the one she was standing in front of (with, I imagine, the look of a stunned deer on her face). The guard on the opposite side, who could clearly tell she had no ticket, looked at her like she was the world’s most honest idiot, and said, “Well, what are you waiting for, go on!”
Russian fate was smiling upon us, as we found each other only by means of collision, and ran past trains asking if it was the Vladimir Express. The Vladimir Express was, of course, the very last train. We hopped on the first car (ours was the ninth) only seconds before the train departed. I’m going to chalk that one up as a win.
After we had found our seats and caught our breath, my friend turned to me and asked, “Katie, what would have happened if you weren’t beautiful and I weren’t athletic?” Well, dear, I wouldn’t have been helped up (only to be later hit by a train) and you wouldn’t have made it to the platform. And that, ladies and gentleman, is Russian fate at its very finest.
No songs this week, but check out the previous blog (film recommendations).


Some of the Best of Russian Cinema

November 28th, 2009

I thought I’d share what I consider to be some of the best (and most insightful) Russian films I’ve seen. I’ve put some careful thought into this list, and I highly recommend that you see every single one you can manage, especially if you have even the slightest interest in Russian language and culture. Please forgive me if any of the information I give you isn’t correct (mostly release dates), I don’t own many of these films and am just speculating (and no, the internet here is by no means fast enough to google each film).

Двенадцать (Twelve)-While I’ve already suggested this film to you, it’s worth recommending a second time. Made by Nikita Mikhailkov, the film is based on the American film Twelve Angry Men. The story revolves around a jury deciding the fate of a young Chechen accused of killing his adoptive father (an officer in the Russian army). All twelve jurors represent various facets of Russian society, and have incredible stories to share. It’s a fantastic commentary on racism in Russia, and extremely well done. All the actors are fantastic, and the cinematography (especially considering it was filmed in a gym) is spectacular. I apologize for not saying more about this film; however, I’m afraid I’d give too much away.

Franz and Paulina: Released in 2006, this film received a Golden Lion award in addition to a number of others. Based in Belorussia during WWII, it revolves around a young Belorussian woman and a member of the German SS. In short, he saves her life (because he has a heart and he loves her, duh), and the rest of the film is spent with her trying to protect him from the Russians. In order to truly appreciate the conflict in this film, you must first understand the immense conflict among the Russians during WWII. Many defected to the Nazis, many more simply felt it best not to fight. Partisans and soldiers of the Red Army alike had no problem shooting defectors and even those who chose simply not to partake in the war. Towards the end of the film there is an excellent example of the conflict within the Red Army itself at the time. It is an absolutely fantastic film, and will help you understand a lot more about Russia during WWII. This being said, have something fun planned for after the film because it is without question the most heartbreaking film I have ever, ever seen. And Russian films are no cake walk. Don’t let this scare you off, it’s an absolutely amazing film, of a type more people in the world need to see in order to understand exactly how horrible WWII was.

Плюс Один (Plus One): A very recent film (2008), this film will actually make you laugh! Based in present day Moscow, it’s a very ridiculous film about a Russian translator of English hired to help a rather goofy British puppeteer. The two are absolute polar opposites, the translator is a typical, very serious Russian woman, while the puppeteer is ridiculous to the extreme. They represent, respectively, Russia and the West. It’s a silly and entertaining film, done by a very well loved director (who also did Питер ФМ).

Русалка (Mermaid): Based (loosely) on the story Mermaid, it starts out in Russian port town. It’s based around the life of a girl who aspires to be a ballerina. Through a series of events, she discovers she has the ability to influence events with her mind, and by this token ends up in Moscow. The film follows her in Moscow as she grows up, falls in love, and generally just learns about life. There’s not really a whole lot more I can say about this story without giving too much away, aside from prepare yourself for the end. And I highly recommend it.

Ирония Судбы (The Irony of Fate): A classic Russian movie, it’s simply not the holidays in Russia without seeing the movie Irony of Fate. This movie portrays Russian fate at its very best, a Russian man gets drunk with his friends and they put him on a plane. Where does he end up? In an apartment that looks exactly like his own (an old Soviet joke, all apartments look the same). Hilarity and a rather cute love story ensue as Russian fate has its way in the movie.

Honorable Mentions: The Day Watch Series (Night Watch and Day Watch). Based on a popular series of Russian fantasy books, the Night Watch and Day Watch movies represent Russian pop culture at its best, and the first Russian film based off of Hollywood (many more continue to follow, these films truly were the beginning of a new era for Russian film). The series isn’t finished (there is at least one movie yet to be made, possibly two), and I highly recommend reading the books (I know they’re printed in English, I’m currently torturing myself by reading them in Russian). Andrei Rublev (or any other Tarkovsky film, such as Stalker): based around the life of the famous Russian artist Andrei Rublev, it’s simply an interesting film. Tarkovsky films are not easy to wade through, but they’re a hallmark of Russian cinema.

In Russia, Alcoholism is a Fulltime Job

November 6th, 2009

Russia has its first Disney movie! Hurray (or Ура for you Russians in the audience)! It’s called Book of Masters, or Книга Мастеров. It is a huge step for the Russians for Disney to recognize them as significant enough to make a film in their language. It’s a very RuMonument to Ёssian story (watch it if you can, I’m sure it’s on youtube already), and it includes a number of racial stereotypes, only one of which I’ll share with you. All the heroes and villains in the story get a happy ending, save for one: the Caucasian fellow (and by Caucasian I mean looks as if he is from Georgia, Chechnya, etc). He does start out as a villain, but in true Disney fashion redeems himself and helps the heroes in the end. What does he get? He’s turned to stone. And he stays that way. How about the witch who spends the whole movie terrorizing people, killing their fathers, and in no way redeems herself? She, literally, prances off into what looks like the set from Wizard of Oz immediately after she forgot she was trying to destroy the world. But the Caucasian soldier is turned to stone. Where’s the justice in that Disney?
On a light note, I had a very interesting conversation with my babushka the other day. I asked her if our (very loud, constantly drunk and sometimes violent) neighbor was an alcoholic (the obvious answer being YES). But of course that was not her answer. When she said no I asked, “But, I thought you said he is always drunk, that he is always drunk.” Her reply: “Why yes, yes, he is. But he works. You can’t be an alcoholic if you work.” Apparently in Russia alcoholism is a fulltime occupation. It’s a wonder more of America’s frat boys haven’t found their way here.
On an even lighter note, I also learned how to say “to kill hope” in Russia. Убыть надежду (Oo-beet nAh-dezh-doo). Careful, if you capitalize the Н in Надежда it means you killed a person (named Надежда). Don’t do that, the Russians will think you’re weird. And you’ll hear it more than you would think.
In other news, my personal Battle of the Bulge continues. Russians take a great amount of delight in feeding their guests. Silly me, the summer before I came I almost cut carbs out of my diet entirely. And what do I get here? Potatoes and bread. And what has this done? Let’s just say my metabolism does not take kindly to the Russian diet. So I have been having a small war with both my babushka and my host mother over how much I will eat, and I am beginning to win (it’s the small victories). How do I know this? First of all, the size of the portions (thank God) have decreased, and magically my host mother has started to read an article on how fruit is good for your health.
I think the turning point for my host mother (babushka not so much) was when babushka was yelling at me for not eating enough and I replied, “But when I get back they will have to roll me off the plane! Like a barrel!” For those of you learning Russian: it’s amazing when you get the opportunity to practice your verbs of motion, to roll, or катать, for example. Lucky the portions have decreased and I am no longer eating enough for a small army.
This has also included turning into a gym-rat of sorts. Women here do not go to the gym, and when they do it’s to pick up men, so they’re always in these strange cut off shirts and use the mirrors to redo their makeup. And then there’s me and my friends. I show up in a baggy t-shirt and men’s gym shorts. I run, bike, lift weights, all that good stuff. The first few times the men at the gym just stared. Now they’re starting to get brave and talk to us. Which is creepy, only because every single one of these men is, in all seriousness, built like Hulk. And I mean Hulk, the giant green thing, not his human counterpart. I’m waiting for the day when one of them wants to talk to us and just picks up the treadmill in order to get our attention. I’ll let you know when it happens.
Aside from the gym, I have another favorite pastime to share: the bus. Everyday, if not at least once, I have to ride the bus during rush hour (which includes stuffing 90 people in a 65 person maximum used bus from Germany). Often my bus-ride dictates how my day will go, if it’s a horrible bus ride sometimes it’s hard to look at things positively for the rest of the day. Sunday my lovely alcoholic neighbor caused enough of a ruckus that I managed to get not a bit of sleep, so come Monday morning I was not looking forward to the bus. I was standing, stuffed in with the masses, and one of the straps of my bag kept falling down, enough so that I started to ignore as it was too difficult to adjust it in the sardine can that is the bus. An older (very tall, think Andre the Giant) gentleman saw this, adjusted the straps for me, and, as he began to exit the bus, picked me up be the shoulders and very gently placed me in a more comfortable place to stand. It was quite endearing, although very, very strange for Russia. But I’ll take what I can get.
Another small anecdote about the bus: I have learned an excellent way to remedy the bus experience. In the evenings when I grab a seat near the window for me 30+ minute ride home, I turn on my iPod. I have a rule here, if it’s not Russian music it cannot have lyrics. What could I possibly listen to, you ask? The William Tell Overture. It is hard to keep the cold, outer Russian façade when listening to this song as the bus driver opens his window to swear at some car in front of him, some fat old babushka literally gets stuck in the bus doors, you get sat on, the bus goes roaring past the nuclear power plant (the Russians insist it’s not nuclear… I think they’re trying to pacify me), some drunk man starts hugging the conductor asking if he really has to pay the fare, and the bus accelerates and decelerates in such a manner as to fling people on top of each other and into the windows in a very comical manner. I’m sure it all sounds awful, and it really is. But if you don’t laugh you lose the will to live. And the William Tell Overture is hilarious. So hilarious in fact I’ve had to cut back on my William Tell on the bus, because I just can’t help but laugh. A lot. And it is not very Russian to laugh in public. Oops.
Having made more Russian friends, I have finally asked what it is about me that makes me so unique in Russia (I am stared at and approached much more than the other Americans here). I dress Russian (heels included), rarely speak English on the street or on the bus, and I even wear a hat all the time! I assumed it wasn’t my red hair, because there are redheads here. But none of them are natural redheads. Apparently most of the people have never seen a natural redhead, and for this reason I am an anomaly.
That doesn’t mean the Russians can’t pick out the foreigners. The Babushkas have an eye for it. In a true Russian fashion, two of my friends and I were walking in a snow storm, two of us had hats, but our friend did not. We passed a pair of babushkas on the street, who very loudly discussed how our friend was clearly not Russian. Their exact words: «Вот, она не русская» (There, that one’s not Russian). So if you ever come to Russia and people keep figuring out you’re foreign and you haven’t even opened your mouth, put a hat on!
To all your foreigners, I apologize that I made us all look very, very weird last week. My friends and I went to a club where we could bowl last week. Because it was also a club, the men were frisked and the women’s bags were checked. Early that day, I had been to a friends house to watch a movie, as well as to an internet café with my computer to do homework. So what does this man find as he’s searching my bag? Little Mermaid in Russian, the charger for my computer which I forgot to take out of my bag, an LSAT study book, a Russian book of Pushkin, a Russian children’s thesaurus, my Sigg water bottle (which he could not figure out for the life of him, poor man), bandaids, a half-eaten bar of chocolate…. He stopped after a while, sighed, and just waved me through. Only after he was convinced my computer charger wasn’t a bomb. Oops. But don’t worry, he asked where I’m from and I said Latvia. Haha.
The snow has stopped and everything has iced over. Everything. The sidewalks are all ice, and the Russians have never heard of salting sidewalks. So every day they just get slicker. I’ve learned a good rule to live by: if it’s sparkly it’s okay to walk on, if it’s shiny don’t (snow versus ice). I was walking to the movie theatre near my house the other day, and instead of walking on the path I walked just off it in the snow to prevent myself from slipping. At this point a group of Russian men pass by and one of them asks me, “What are you doing, there is a perfectly good path here, walk on it!” I simply replied that I was more comfortable in the snow. He mumbled something about snow and cold feet, and then what did he do? He slipped and fell. Sweet ironic justice exists in Russia too!
I shouldn’t poke too much fun. Those of you who know me know I have the grace of a baby hippo, and the iced sidewalks are particularly difficult for me. Imagine a cross between a penguin trying to dance and an emu trying to take off on a greased runway and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I look like walking to school every day.
The cold has also forced me to break out my white L.L. Bean coat. Best decision I have made in Russia. First of all, I have pacified babushka (when I first wore the coat she mumbled something about thanks to God, the girl has some sense and I won’t have to call her mother to tell her that her first born has died of Russian winter). While I do look like a marshmallow (the Russians have even commented on it and my American friends call me the Michelin man), I am warm. So warm. I was waiting for the bus the other day and it occurred to me that I do not care how late the bus is, I can stand outside forever in this coat. Another small victory over Russia. Ha.
No song this week, instead a movie: 12. It’s a pretty recent Russian movie based on Twelve Angry Men. It focuses around the jurors deciding the fate of a young Chechen who has been accused of murdering his adoptive father. It is a very telling film and very, very well done. It’s probably my favorite Russian film (and I’ve watched a lot of Russian film). The end is a very happy one, but I’m not quite sure I think it reflects the direction Russia is going at the moment. We’ll see, the potential is certainly there. I hope you all make time to see this film; it got an Oscar nomination, so I imagine you can find it with English subtitles.
Until next time, everybody stay warm and wear a hat or babushka will find you!

PS: Thanks to Jim Clough for his comments… I know there are more of you reading!! Comment!