25 May 2007

Andryusha's papa

Last Sunday I went to an orphanage with Laura, who does social work research and volunteers at orphanages and "rehabilitation centers" (homes for children who the state has seized on a temporary basis from parents deemed unfit to raise them) here. Russian orphanages seem to hold a measure of fascination for Americans; witness the number of U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans, as well as the fact that several Fulbrighters (myself included) either planned to do or ended up doing something orphan-related, if only in their free time. I suppose it has to do with our not having an orphanage system, the seeming backwardness of it, as well as that general Soviet/post-Soviet mystique that attracts Americans to Russia in the first place. Not to mention the fact that everyone (ok, not everyone) loves children, or more specifically loves to feel like they're doing something to help children in need.

So, having initially planned to get involved with orphans but having, up to this point, failed at it (there's a lot of red tape involved - shocking, right?), I jumped at the chance to tag along for what was ostensibly "American Culture Day." (This did not pan out. We didn't even manage to teach them the Hokey-Pokey. But I think deep down, all of us knew that's how it would end up; attempting that degree of organization with a group of thirteen two- to seven-year-olds is futile.)

This orphanage, attached to a hospital of internal medicine, was for children with HIV. After a slow start (or an allegedly slow start) in the '80's and '90's, HIV is now a big problem in Russia, spread to a large degree by needle-sharing among the country's significant population of drug addicts. Consequently, a lot of children are not only HIV-positive, but also "social orphans" – their parents may be living, but as narcotics abusers, they're unfit to care for them and have either abandoned them or had them taken by the state.

You would expect that the double whammy of orphans with HIV – especially in the context of Russia's orphanage system, which by Western accounts (many firsthand) is anywhere from foundering to completely in shambles – would be just about the most depressing thing on earth. But, like many things in life and almost everything in Russia, the truth turned out not to be all that black and white. To comment on how well the system cares for the children after only one visit would be to put myself at risk of ridicule by future historians (hey, if I can't be a number-one bestseller, I can at least hope to someday be a primary source), so I'll just say that the orphanage was not the complete hole that I think many of us probably imagine when we think "Russian orphanage." Except love and attention, which probably no orphanage on earth offers enough of, the kids seemed to have adequate amounts of everything they needed.

Besides, none of the children was obviously sick, at least not in the sense you'd expect. There were no hospital beds or dripping IVs; there was a courtyard with swings and slides, a soft foam jungle gym, books and television. On the other hand, almost all of the kids had obvious developmental issues, such as what Laura called "attachment disorder," a psychological problem that apparently arises from neglect or inadequate human contact in very early childhood, and causes the kids to do everything they can – including kick, bite and push competitors – to remain in physical contact with you at all times. I gave SO many piggyback and shoulder rides that day, most of which involved carrying one child while trying to get another, who insisted it was her turn, to detach from my leg.

Even so, actually interacting with the kids was, as with most children, frustrating, hilarious and heartwarming by turns. They were excited to have new adults around, and the older ones were amused by this "смешная тетка" ("Silly Auntie," "auntie" or "uncle" being the standard Russian child's appellation for any unknown adult) who didn't always understand or communicate adequately. An older boy named Artyom was particularly clever about this, catching onto the fact that I can't pronounce the Russian rolled r and making not-so-subtle fun of me for it:

Artyom: Do you speak Russian?
Me: Of course I speak Russian! Aren't I speaking Russian right now?
Artyom: Well, yes... but if you can really speak Russian, say my name.
Me: Artyom.
Artyom: No, no, no. It's Arrrrrrrtyom.
Me: Argkh... Argpdh... Arr-tyom?
Artyom: Pfft. Not even close. Call me Tyoma.

So, I had a lot of fun; it was only actually thinking about the situation, these children's likely lot in life, that depressed me, and now I haven't been able to keep my mind off them for several days. The most depressing thing is knowing that these children will probably never live in a family again. Adoption isn't encouraged in Russian culture – much less adoption of invalids – and foreign adoption of children with HIV is, I've been told, illegal. Because of this, one particular interaction has stuck in my mind:

Andryusha (the endearing form of Andrei) is a sweet little boy with chubby cheeks that I'd guess is about 3 or 4 years old. He had a toy cell phone that we played with together for a while; it would "ring," and I'd pretend to be getting a call from Ded Moroz (Santa), a crow sitting in the tree overhead, Laura, etc. Later, I was playing with someone else and Andryusha ran up and handed me the phone.
"Who is it this time?" I asked.
His face lit up by a grin, he announced, "It's papa!"
"Your papa?"
"Yes, it's my papa!"

23 May 2007

Winner is Dad!

Participation in my "Guess Where I'll Be Next!" contest was disappointingly low, but at least we have a winner: my dad, who correctly guessed – after the excellent suggestions of Tiksi and Tuapse, both incorrect – that the seaport beginning with T is Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov (Azov Sea? Why can I never remember what it's called in English?) near the border with Ukraine! The K city was Kostroma, but I think everyone who's talked to me recently already knew that.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that no one else made the effort to scour maps of Russia's coasts looking for towns beginning with T, but it's still a little lame that my dad won, since the prize is a Vladivostok refrigerator magnet; being my dad, he could pretty much get a Vladivostok refrigerator magnet out of me whenever he wants anyway. But now I guess he can look at the magnet every day and feel smug about the superior map skills that won it for him. And it's good for me, too, because I already know where to mail the prize.

Anyway, now the rest of you know – when I say I'm giving away prizes, I really mean it! I tell you, I almost went with the dried-out, glitter-glued crab with "VLADIVOSTOK" painted on its back, posed holding a faux black pearl (yes, this is an actual souvenir for sale in our fair city), and then you would have been really sorry you missed out.

As for Taganrog and Kostroma, I'll give you more details when I find out for sure which one I'll be in!

And finally, next post with meaningful content: my day at the orphanage for children with HIV. Coming soon to a The Eastern Bell near you!

21 May 2007


To be a sailor of the world bound for all ports,
A ship itself, (see indeed these sails I spread to the sun and air,)
A swift and swelling ship full of rich words, full of joys.

- Walt Whitman, via Dead Poets Society, which I watched five times this semester with various classes and never want to see again.

Now that it’s official, I would like to share that I’ve done something that I spent a significant part of this year thinking I would never do – I’ve accepted an offer to renew my grant and stay in Russia for another year!

This is good news for lovers of my blog, I guess, since I can continue writing about my Russian misadventures, but I’m sad (kind of) to say that there will be no more Far Eastern misadventures to report – I’ll most likely be somewhere west of the Urals, either in a very old city that starts with a K and is located on the Volga, or in (another!) seaside city at the edge of Russia (different edge, though) that starts with a T. Both cities’ names have the stress on the last syllable. If you can guess what cities they are (doesn’t count if I’ve already told you!), you win a prize!

But, one question remains: should I change the name of the blog?

17 May 2007

My Life as a Criminal

Here's hoping that the FSB doesn't have English-speaking agents trained on my blog, or I'd better start hiding the evidence. Why? As it turns out, Slavyanka, and in fact all of the surrounding area, Khasanskii region, is in the 'border zone,' officially off-limits to foreigners lacking special permission to visit.


(If you're wondering, the FSB is the Федеральная Служба Безопасности – the Federal Safety Service, the successor agency to the KGB.)

What's this about a 'border zone?' Well, I'm glad you asked. The 'border zone' is a nebulous, shifting entity that consists of any area the FSB deems close enough to important borders of the country and/or important enough for national security to be a restricted area. According to the very interesting person I had dinner with last night, a friend of an acquaintance of my mother's (I'll call her Sofia), last summer a lot of Primorskii Krai (our administrative unit, kind of like a state), including Khasanskii Region and Lake Khanka, both popular tourist destinations, mysteriously became 'closed,' even to citizens. After a lot of complaining from the populace, they opened back up for Russians, but they're still on the restricted list for foreigners.

So, what's the deal with the border zone? An American acquaintance who's doing conservation research here once mentioned that it's a means of keeping nosy people (like scientists) out of places where the state (either directly or as the thinly veiled agent controlling "private" interests) is destroying the environment in the name of economic development. Sofia had this to say about it:

"It's because Putin was FSB. Once you're in, once you're one of those people, it's for life. You're like a zombie. He's given them too much power. Before, their position wasn't really respected, they didn't have that much power, but now... they do anything they can just to show their importance."

For the record, Sofia reassured me that getting caught there probably would have resulted in detainment, document-checking, and the payment of fines or bribes, but not imprisonment. (The scariest thing that could happen, I think, is that I could end up with a FSB file that would make getting visas to Russia difficult for the rest of my life.) But that's if the police had both a) noticed us and b) cared that we were there. The enforcement of these restrictions is, like the enforcement of many laws in Russia, spotty at best, and it was actually only because of her job that Sofia even knew about the regulation. The woman who sold us our boat tickets appeared to either not know or not care.

Sofia also gave me the lowdown on many places in Primorskii Krai, thus feeding my new minor obsession with local history, politics and economics (unfortunately, not a good obsession to develop three weeks before departure). When I asked about the socioeconomic situation in Slavyanka, I found out that people there, as well as in nearby Artyom, Spassk, Partizansk and most of the other small towns in Primorye "just survive. They have dachas, they grow vegetables, go to China and buy things to bring back and sell at markets, petty trading, things like that. They do anything they can to make a little money and survive." Slavyanka has a shipyard and a port that fell into separate hands during perestroika, thus (somehow – I didn't really understand this part) greatly diminishing production. If I've remembered everything correctly, Spassk and Partizansk had coal mines and Artyom had a well-known furniture factory, all of which were similarly ravaged by sloppy privatization. Vladivostok, Nakhodka, and Ussuriysk are all prosperous exceptions, as is Bol'shoi Kamen' (Big Stone), which is closed – even Russians need a special invitation from the town to visit – because they build nuclear submarines there, and have some kind of nuclear waste treatment plant.

Ok, I think this post has enough alarms to attract the authorities by now, so maybe I should stop writing.

14 May 2007


I haven't had time lately to write a nice long post about our aforementioned trip to Slavyanka, but here are a few pictures:

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Leaving Vladivostok's harbor

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I thought these apartment buildings were awesome. They say "Honor and Glory to Work!" Actually, several of the buildings in Slavyanka (which is not a teeming metropolis, but isn't what I'd call a "village," either) were decorated with various manifestations of Soviet mythology/ideology (Lenin's head, the date of the Revolution, urgings to new acheivements in heavy industry, etc.).

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We wandered out of Slavyanka and down some country roads...

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...and up some big hills. Here's a view of some of the landscape we traversed.

All in all, I wish I had found out about Slavyanka sooner, both because I really don't understand how Russian small towns work, and because it's closer to nature (and cleaner, at least air-wise) than Vladivostok, and because it would have been cool to volunteer at a school there a couple of times or something.

12 May 2007

A rather belated Victory Day post.

(This is the post I wrote on Victory Day and failed to post before.)

So. Victory Day. This holiday is a very big deal here; as I quoted once before, compared to Russians, Americans have completely forgotten about World War II. There are big parades, all the veterans wear their medals (not just on Victory Day, but for a couple of days before it, too), there are outdoor concerts, the city gets very decorated with white, blue and red balloons and posters of the "In Honor of our Great Victory!"/"Today is Victory Day!"/"Glory to Those Who Fell for the Motherland!" variety, and everyone wears black-and-orange striped ribbons (I'm not clear on the symbolism of this).

Today when I was leaving Laura's apartment, an old man on the bench outside her building greeted me (здравствуйте!). I greeted him back, and he responded with "С праздником!" (literally "With the holiday!"). I replied in kind and continued walking, when from behind me I heard him say: "You know, for many people it's a holiday, but for others it's a tragedy."

I turned back to see that he had tears in his eyes. I didn't really know what to do, but I couldn't just walk away, so I just stopped walking without saying anything. He went on to explain that his father died in 1941, then said a lot of stuff that I didn't entirely catch, but which seemed to boil down to this: in 1941, his father put his pregnant mother on an evacuation train bound for Vladivostok and enlisted in the army, eventually falling at the front somewhere around Kiev. His mother gave birth to him here in Vladivostok in August of that year. Then he showed me a picture of his father in his military uniform and one of his parents together, tucked carefully into his wallet.

I kept silent through all of this, offering only the occasional "ага" ("uh-huh") or exclamation of horror or sympathy at appropriate moments, both because I'd rather not display my non-native control of Russian if I don't have to, and because he seemed to want a listener more than a conversation partner. When I did speak, I ended up lying – in the course of his war story, he cursed the Nazis, the Polish (not sure why), and the Estonians (for being ungrateful), and then said something somewhat ambiguous about Americans, so I decided I didn't want to tell him I wasn't Russian. So I told him that my name is Олесия/Olesia and that I'm a student at DVGU and my parents live in Nakhodka.

So he figured out that he had a good listener in me, and proceeded to spend the next hour telling me all sorts of stories about his life: the time a snake fell asleep on his sleeping mother's stomach, the time he (as a taxi driver) picked up a woman who was leaving her husband and convinced her not to do it, how his wife died of cancer fifteen years ago even though they sold the dacha and the car to pay her medical bills, the time his old pre-army girlfriend reappeared and tried to get him to leave his wife (he didn't, because they both had children and he is a порядочный человек, an orderly/upstanding person), and the time mafiosi beat him up and stole his taxi and he lay in the hospital for days and two entire busfuls of taxi drivers came to donate blood, to name a few of the ones I understood. At the end he told me I was a good girl, said I shouldn't let it bother me that I'm still single, kissed my hand, and told me that if anyone ever bothers me, come find him on the 3rd floor in apartment 9, because he has two big, strong sons who can take care of business for me.

Anyway, that's my Victory Day story. Or rather, his Victory Day story, and the Victory Day story of an entire generation of Russian children who lost their fathers (and mothers, but mostly fathers) to the war.

10 May 2007

С днем победы! / Happy Victory Day!

I wrote a whole long post about Victory Day (probably longer than it should have been, actually) and then forgot to put it on my flash key, so here is one picture from Victory Day, or rather, from Moscow a few days before Victory Day. Red Square was amazingly decked-out.

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01 May 2007


This is a contentless post, but I wanted to write quickly to say that the trip to Slavyanka was a total success! I had a great time, and it was so interesting to see something other than a big city! I'll post pictures (there are many) after I get back from my Moscow/Kostroma trip!