26 April 2007

They're everywhere!

Just popping in from the internet center where I do my printing (of lessons etc.) to deliver, as promised, the update on the situation with the mail-order bride for whom I was translating letters. She left today for Great Britain to meet up with (I hope) the man of her dreams! I’m happy for her, but unfortunately I’m also a little worried, because I failed miserably at teaching her English (to be fair, it would have helped a lot if she had come to more than 25% of our lessons). Hopefully what’s-his-name worked a little harder at Russian, or love will break the language barrier, or something like that. She’ll be there for two weeks.

When I got to the internet center, all the computers were taken, so I had to stand and wait for a few minutes. I glanced at the lady at the nearest computer and noticed that she was writing in English. Always interested to discover other Americans in Vlad, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to take a tiny peek at her computer screen to see whether I could tell by her writing whether she was a native speaker. I freely admit that this makes me a very bad person. However, that didn’t stop me from doing it, and I soon discovered that no, she’s not a native speaker, and furthermore, the email she was writing was definitely a love letter! I’d like to pretend that it didn’t take my inching a bit closer and squinting a little to see that she was writing to a guy named Bjorn. Scandinavian, I guess? (Eek, I can’t believe I did that! What kind of person am I?) Now that must be tough – a long-distance relationship where neither party is communicating in his native language.

Anyway, that’s all for today, but watch for more pictures soon, because on Monday my roommate, two other French teachers (“French teachers” as in “from France,” and also as in “teachers of French”... oh, the imprecisions of the English language!) and anyone else who wants to come are going to Slavyanka, a nearby fishing village. I forget what the guidebook said about it, but it's two hours away by boat, and I believe it’s pretty close to the border with North Korea. And then it’s May Day and there’ll be a parade, and then I’m off to Moscow again for a conference!

18 April 2007

On honesty in academics, although not in the usual sense.

Maybe I've been lulled into a false sense of security about the relatively low profile of my blog, because this is exactly the kind of thing we probably aren't supposed to post, but what's the worst that could happen? (Famous last words?)

Today we had a student conference at the university. All students have to write big research papers (курсовые работы) once a year, and this conference was an opportunity for those who wanted to present their papers to do so. I went to the session where several of my students and former students were presenting. At this session 11 students spoke, including one girl who is both a senior and a teacher at the institute. (That doesn't happen often, but it happens – better to hire the good ones early than lose them to higher-paying jobs.) I don't have a problem with that, but the weird thing was that she acted as the director of this session (in her capacity as a teacher) even though she was participating in it. This is weird because, as the Russians dearly love a competition, the session was also a contest that offered prizes to the first, second and third best presenters. This would be meaningless if a) Russians weren't obsessed with грамоты – that is, certificates; and b) the first prize didn't include publication in the institute's scientific journal. But they are, and it did. So this student was essentially running a contest that she was competing in, and, although this may be a bit harsh, she had her eyes on the prize.

So. All the presentations are finished, the audience has voted for their favorite speakers, and the teachers are tallying up the votes. I happened to be trapped in the corner (literally – one of the teachers and I were sharing a desk) where they were tallying, so I got an interesting view of things. Here's how it went down:

By the votes, Natasha won first place, Lena won second, and this teacher/student, who I'll call Anya, won third (she made a little squeaky aw-golly-gee-how-bout-that noise, by the way, every time she got a vote, which was SUPER annoying). That should settle it, right? Wrong:

Other teacher: But Anya, you're applying to grad school, right?
Anya: Yes.
Third teacher: Then you need to get published.
Anya: (Catching the drift) Well, yes, of course it would help, but that wouldn't be fair.
Other teacher: Why not? Of course it's fair. You need that certificate.
(See the love of certificates? I believe no one in America would give a fig for a stupid certificate that says "First Prize, Conference blah blah blah." But in Russia, that sucker is going in your portfolio for your grad school application.)
Third teacher: Right.
Anya: But the students voted.
Fourth teacher: Oh, they don't know anything. Your research is way more interesting than Natasha's.
Anya: No, I couldn't. It wouldn't be fair.
(I should note, although this may be a bit harsh, that Anya's protests did not ring true.)

This conversation went on for a few minutes, and ultimately they decided to give Anya and Natasha both first prize and Lena third prize, but Anya would get first dibs on publication if the journal wouldn't accept both of them. Anya oh-so-graciously ceded the rest of her first-prize award (besides the coveted грамота, of course) – a folder, pen and notebook – to Ilya, who might have gotten fourth place in the voting but might just as well have simply been the person she felt like giving it to. Again, this may be a bit harsh, but I hope he threw it away.

So, overall, I wasn't shocked by the lack of regard for honesty and – what's the word? – oh, yes, glasnost, but I was a bit shocked by the sheer blatancy of the favoritism. And the general sense that there was absolutely nothing wrong with this.

12 April 2007


Now that the weather is nice, I walk either to the university or back home at least once a day instead of taking the bus. It's pretty far away – about 45 minutes on foot if I'm walking briskly – but it's a pleasant walk down (and up, and down, and up again) two of Vladivostok's main streets, Svetlanskaya Street and Okeanskii Prospekt. The latter we've already seen in one of my other picture posts, so today I'll tell you about Svetlanskaya.

Svetlanskaya runs the length of the Golden Horn Bay, where most of Vlad's port activity is, about two blocks uphill from the shoreline. In the course of my walking down it every day, I've become fascinated with the street – particularly the side of the street nearer the bay, which is dotted with a series of old two- and three-story houses that appear to belong almost exclusively to the Pacific Fleet of the Russian Navy. Even those among these houses that haven't been renovated and are kind of junky are sort of charming – looking at them always makes me imagine Ye Olde Vladivostok, with horse-drawn carriages rolling sedately down quiet, dusty streets. Incidentally, this is one thing that I have unexpectedly come to really like about the city – unlike Western Russia with its ancient kremlins and onion domes (which obviously have their own value), Vladivostok has a short history as a frontier outpost, and the concept of the past here is connected mostly with the latter half of the 19th century. In that way it's similar in feel to many American cities, since that was (if I'm not mistaken) a period of urbanization when a lot of our urban landscape was built.

Contrary to what you'd expect for what's practically the center of town, the bay side of Svetlanskaya isn't entirely taken up with a solid block of buildings. The buildings that are there have yards, and parts of the slope are clear enough that you can actually see down to the bay. I haven't exactly figured out why that is, but my hypothesis is that it has to do with all the property on that side of the street that doesn't belong to the Navy belonging to the shipyards. In fact, the big shipyard, Dal'zavod, is only about a block away from my apartment. There are also several naval monuments along Svetlanskaya, one of which I'm almost sure appeared sometime between November and February while I wasn't here. Anyway, I humbly present to you my pictures: Svetlanskaya (the not-quite-downtown edition).

Starting near the center of the city: this is a little park where Pushkinskaya (the street I technically live on, and also a very old one for Vladivostok) breaks off from Svetlanskaya and climbs up the hill.

1.This monument is too worn for me to read, but it says something about 1905.
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2.What's a Russian city without a bust of Pushkin, even if you’re 5000 miles away from anywhere Pushkin ever lived?
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3.Looking down the slope at Svetlanskaya, the Navy memorial, and the bay beyond.
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4.Next to the park is this fabulous old mansion that I'm completely in love with. According to the sign by the door, it houses Vladivostok's School for the Arts.
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5.This is not technically Svetlanskaya, but this little house strikes me as very quaint.
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6.And next to the mansion that's next to the park, we have a little Orthodox church that's being renovated. Notice the bells, which make me very happy when they're being rung by priests (monks?) in long black robes. And the banner: Christ is Risen!
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7.The first of the naval monuments. This one is to the ships of the merchant fleet that were damaged/sunk/engaged in battle in WWII.
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8.Not far down the street from the park is the Sailor's Club. The club itself is an ugly little Soviet building (contrast with the Officers' Club, which is an ugly big Soviet building), but it's set back and downhill from the street, and in its courtyard are all sorts of interesting things, like this colorful closed-down bar:
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9.And this very melancholy monument to the crew of the ship Kreiserok, all of whom perished in 1889 (under what circumstances I don't know):
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10.And a blacksmith shop. I tried to take a picture of the yard of the shop itself, which was quite interesting, but the blacksmiths were gawking at me and I chickened out.
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11.Next to the Sailor's Club is the monument that I'm pretty sure is new. It's dedicated to the memory of the sailors who fought in the Russo-Japanese War.
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12.Down the street from that is one of the lovely old buildings I was mentioning. I didn't get many good photos of these, but hopefully you can get an idea.
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13.Across the street is Vladivostok's circus building, just called "Цирк/Cirque" as far as I know. It's a triumph of Soviet hideousness.
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14.One of the other old Navy buildings apparently belongs to the Hydrographic Service, or at least has a monument to them.
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15.It also has a cool star on it.
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16.And here are several views of the Navy building nearest my apartment, which actually houses a Navy-run kindergarten. If you look at the third one and can make out the Cyrillic, you can see what Svetlanskaya was called during the Soviet years. And you'll get a gold star from me for the effort.
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17.Finally, Dal'zavod and Dal'zavodskaya street! This is a short street that breaks off of Svetlanskaya. First, the factory façade, which is so many kinds of retro it boggles my mind:
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18.A memorial (also retro-looking, although it was built in 2005) commemorating Dal'zavod workers (I assume) who served/worked/showed heroism in WWII.
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19.A view down the street, which is one of the only quiet, tree-lined ones I've found here. It's also permanently waterlogged, and I'm not sure why.
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Ok, that's all for now! Hope everyone's having a good day!

08 April 2007


Today Yse and I got the traditional Russian Easter greeting again, from a babushka on the street as we walked home from the market, who walked up to us and said, "Girls, Christ is risen!" (Девушки, Христос воскрес!) with genuine joy, as if she were actually delivering the news to us, which was delightful. Having forgotten how to say the proper reply, "He is risen, indeed!," (Воистину воскрес!) we looked it up when we got home. At which point I made the discovery that Passover really is called "Jewish Easter" in Russian (see post below). Oy. So it wasn't Nijole who was confused; it was the silly American. Duly noted.

P.S. – I'm at a loss to explain where Russian Jews get their matzoh. Without the appearance of matzoh in grocery stores, I didn't even know it was Passover until someone told me. Any ideas? Can you make matzoh yourself?

Happy Easter! / Random update

I can now add "participation in a scientific conference" to my CV! I gave my talk on Friday about Icelandic-English language contact and syntactic change (a product of data collected in Iceland two summers ago for the senior thesis-that-never-was) at the conference "Russia East-West: Problems in Cross-Cultural Communication," and it went really well. Obviously, Iceland has nothing to do with "Russia East-West," and theoretical syntax only has to do with cross cultural communication if you do some stretching of the terms, but that's ok. The professor organizing the conference really wanted me to participate, and I was not the only one with an off-topic paper.

So, like I said, the presentation went well. However, the funny thing is that my audience was most interested in the parts that had nothing to do with my research. The (mostly female – Russian academia, especially the liberal arts, is generally female) crowd got really excited when I mentioned that Icelandic single mothers give their children matronymics instead of patronymics. Seriously. Some of the women wanted to start clapping (matronymics are not legal in Russia). Then when I explained that Icelanders don't have last names, just first names and patronymics, the Russianness in them really came out – their first question was, "How do they fill out their passport documents if they don't have last names?!?" Ah, the Russian love of paper and bureaucracy.

That reminds me of a similar story – I recently took the state Russian exam for foreigners (like the TOEFL, but Russian), and when I filled out my registration, the proctor was very, very concerned about the fact that I had only put down my first and last names, leaving off my middle names. Middle names confuse Russians a little bit, because they don't have them, and the fact that I have two of them seems to really mess with them sometimes (thanks, Mom!). He warned me that if I wanted to use the certificate saying I passed the test (I passed, by the way!) in Russia, I might have trouble if it didn't have my full legal name on it. But I don't plan to use it in Russia, and I'm sure that if I want to use it in the U.S., my first and last name will be sufficient.

And speaking of things Russians are a little confused about, here are two conversations about Easter that I've had with Russians recently:

At the Catholic center where I teach English, although this conversation was in Russian:
Me: So is Sunday Catholic Easter or Orthodox Easter?
Valentina: It's both. But you're right, they're usually on different days. This year they just happen to coincide.
Me: Oh, I see. That doesn't happen very often, does it?
Valentina: No. It's very strange that the Catholic and Orthodox ones are at the same time this year.
Nijole: And what's more, the Jewish!
Me: The Jewish?
Nijole: Yes, the Jewish!

In Russian it made more sense that Nijole (it's a Lithuanian name, btw) didn't have to say "Easter" after the word "Jewish." Obviously she was talking about Passover, but the conversation still amused me. So, happy "Jewish Easter" to my Jewish readers!

And at the university:
Alla Ivanovna: What? Leslie, you've never had homemade pelmeni? We should have a party with Russian food for you! We could have borsch and everything... although, by the way, borsch isn't Russian, it's Ukrainian. What's the next holiday? Easter, right?
Anna Vladimirovna: Yes, Easter.
AI: We could have a party for Easter! Anya, do you know when it is?
AV: April 8th.
AI: April 8th... (looks at a calendar) Oh, that's no good, it's a Sunday.

I guess Alla Ivanovna, who is about 70, spent too much of her life in the atheist Soviet era to have quite grasped that Easter always falls on a Sunday.

P.S. - Today at 12:45 in the morning, I was awakened by a text message from someone I don't know (or possibly someone I know whose phone number I don't have) with the traditional Russian Easter greeting, "Иисус воскрес!" ("Christ is risen!" or actually, "Jesus is risen!" which I think is slightly less traditional). While I appreciate the news, I didn't really appreciate being awakened by it. Also I feel like they kind of jumped the gun.