Babushkas, Banks, and Bazookas

December 6th, 2009

Murom ParkThis will be my last blog before I get back to the US (expect one the weekend of the 20th). And let me preface this sum-up blog with one thing: this is my experience, this is what I have taken from this country. Of course you can’t judge the entire country based on what I have seen, better to do it yourself. So I am sorry if any of you disagree with me, but please respect that this is my experience, my Russia.
Our time in Russia is rapidly winding down, and the frost has finally set in. This winter has been relatively mild (much to the Russia’s dismay). I must profess that I will be happy to have endoured only one week of true Russian winter. Being in California will probably be tough, you know, all that warmer weather. And sun. Darn.
All this being said it’s going to be hard to leave now that I’ve finally adjusted.
It won’t be hard to leave before I get into trouble with the police. As I’ve said, I generally attract a strange amount of attention (which included, last week at the market, being picked up and carried to a man’s fruit stand), and ergo walk a relatively straight line when it comes to the Russian law. My friends; however, do not. After her birthday party, a friend was walking home, and jaywalked, and was consequently stopped by a police car.
Any interaction with the police in Russia generally spells trouble. We have been taught to cross the street when we see a policeman walking towards us, if this helps to give you any idea. The police in Vladimir are, on a whole, pretty decent (especially compared to Moscow), and my friend was stopped by one of the cleanest cops in all of Vladimir. It is traditional in Russia for the police to fine you on the spot and not record it, win-win for everyone. The police get a little pocket money, and said criminal pays less than if it was an official fine. This policeman; however, took the time to write out a ticket for jaywalking. He took my friend’s passport (never, ever, ever actually give the police your passport), and sat for five minutes filling out a double-sided 8” by 11” form. As it turned out, he actually filled out a traffic violation, as they don’t have fine forms for jay walking.
Ticket in hand, my friend had to figure out how to pay said fine, which apparently implied going to the bank. Any bank. Off we went (I do my best to provide moral support, power in numbers!) to, of course, the busiest bank we could find. One of the tellers kindly offered to help us, and took us over to an ATM and proceeded to try to get to the correct screen to help my friend pay said fine. After a few minutes of fussing, she turned to my friend and told her to get in line at a particular window. My ever patient friend did this, and after waiting for ten minutes, was directed back to the ATM. And then back to the window. And then back to the ATM. The third time at the ATM another clerk helped us, and after we explained the situation, placed us 2nd in line at the cashier’s window.
She cut five people, two babushkas, to do this. Mistake number one. One babushka loudly started to complain, and told the babushka in front of her to cut in front of us. Babushka number two, a very large woman, proceeded to do so. And by no stretch of the imagination did babushka number two do so gracefully, she sharpened her elbows and managed to show my friend a few feet. And no, I am not exaggerating. This of course, used up all of our patience, having been at the bank for close to an hour. We proceeded to (not politely) eJoin the Army!  xplain the situation, and managed to start a small quarrel with said woman, until the man actually at the till yelled at our new friend, saying he had heard the entire exchange and we were next in line. The situation quieted down, and once my blood had cooled down I thanked him.
We related the story to my host mother, who laughed at my friend for even paying the fine, and taught me a new word she says she uses for Russian babushkas: “brutish,” or “хамский” (ham-skii). A thoroughly Russian experience, I’m all the more thankful that we don’t pay our fines at the bank. And that I will probably never be shoved in line after I have two feet planted stateside. But I will miss traveling.
A friend and I went to a little town called Murom yesterday, said to be one of the prettiest towns in Russia. And yes, it was very cute, but Murom left a foul taste in my mouth. Getting to Murom (closer than Moscow to Vladimir) took three hours. I find it extremely amusing that what would have been a two-hour round trip in the US took six hours. And it will only take me ten to get half-way across the world next Tuesday. That; however, only amused the two of us.
Murom is a historic town with a number of still working monasteries pushing five-hundred years old. Before you make it to these monasteries (all grouped together near the river) you pass an arms manufacturer, complete with tanks littered across the yard. The city is littered with advertisements encouraging young men to sign a contract with the Russian military. The same Russian military with a startlingly high suicide rate, outrageous hazing, and a altogether a pretty outrageous history (hence the birth of the Mother’s of Soldiers political party within the last few years in Russia). All this being said, conditions in the army are slowly improving. What most upset me about this advertisements was the fact that each one had a young blonde man posing with a very high powered weapon, ranging from a bazooka to a grenade launcher. Seeing these advertisements on every corner was just unsettling.
The public safety announcements at the bus station; however, blew everything that’s ever upset me in Russia out of the water. The series of signs were titled, “For Passenger Information,” and regarded terrorist attacks. The series began with a series of pictures, a crowded stadium, a crowded public street, a bus, and a school, and various other situations. “A terrorist attack can happen anywhere.” I cannot dispute that fact, but already, 1/3 through the poster series, the Russian government was clearly encouraging its people to live in fear of a terrorist attack.
Then the poster proceeded to present pictures of potential terrorist, all dark haired and implied to be Muslim. The series showed these terrorists taking hostages (of course all light-haired women and children), to finally being arrested. There was one picture; however, that I will probably never forget. It Murom churchwas a portrait of a potential terrorist, a Muslim woman. This woman’s face was completely veiled, but aside from that she was completely nude. And not tastefully nude. From the waste up she was completely exposed, the only thing covering here were the bombs strapped to her hips. I’ll let you make your own opinions about this situation, but I’m sure you can understand it upset my Californian self very, very much.
Murom was extremely cold, and the wind from the river did not help. It made all these old churches and monasteries all the more beautiful, if only because they were warm and the bright colors served as a wonderful contrast to the grey Russian sky. In most Russian churches, as a woman, your head must be covered and you must be wearing a skirt (as the sign said, women are not to be in men’s clothing). Luckily we anticipated this, and while we only went inside two churches, I’m glad we did. My friend and I generally try to avoid going into working churches unless tourists are invited. We’ve always felt like we’re interrupting someone’s religious practices.
And of course we did, we managed to stumble (or as my host-mother likes to say, “We fell”) into some church on the river ten minutes from the nearest paved road. Freezing despite all our layers, we decided to go in. Not only was choir practice going on (which was simply amazing), but the priest was also performing a baptism. The baby in question was not extremely happy about this process, but the choir always managed to drown the baby out. And the priest consequently managed to chant above the choir. This makes the entire scene sound entirely too loud, but on a whole it was pretty magical to watch this process.
This next part I’ve spent a long time thinking on, and I still don’t think I can effectively sum up how I feel about Russia. I will be very sad to leave, and I am coming back. There is something very magical about this country that just draws you to it. All that being said, I will be happy if I never see another alcoholic again, and can drink water from the tap (I drew myself a bath yesterday, you know, because my host family does, and discovered the water was so yellow I couldn’t see my hand at the bottom of the tub… I didn’t take a shower). Russia is a country of polar opposites, my host mother herself told me that in Russia, things can be simultaneously wonderful and unbearable.
The best comparison I can make about Russia, to help you understand how I feel, is that Russia will break your heart mercilessly every day. Only something very, very special can break your heart that many times.

On that corny, corny note, goodbye till I’m stateside! Expect a blog around the 20th (depending on how my jet lag goes). And for this week’s artist check out the group БИ-2 (that’s B2, like the plane), it’s all I’ve been listening to!

Post-Script: Been sitting here for an hour and the pictures still haven’t loaded. Being 3 pm in Vladimir, Russia, it’s dark. I’m going to head home, and I’ll upload the pictures later! Sorry guys!
I do not know what I am going to do with all that high speed internet that’s waiting for me when I get home… Wow.

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