27 February 2008

The Orthodox Palestinian Society: probably not what you think it is.

I went to the library today to do a little research into something I'll blog about shortly (or eventually), and stumbled upon something else - a reference to Taganrog's past as a pilgrimage destination:

"And specially from every shire's ende of Russia to Taganrog they wende."

Just kidding. What it really said was:
"Just as streams flow to the sea, so too did pilgrims from different areas of Russia wishing to get to Palestine set out for our city."

...Yup. And apparently there was actually a group called the Православное палестинское общество/Orthodox Palestinian Society, which was dedicated to serving the pilgrims who came through Taganrog on their way to the Holy Land. No dates were given in the source I was reading, but it appears that this was fashionable (among a certain set, anyway) in the second half of the 19th century. Pilgrims would come down to Taganrog to catch a ship bound for Constantinople, and from there they'd head to Jerusalem to "bow at the grave of the Lord." Unfortunately, the ship for Constantinople was either not that good about posting its schedule or not that frequent, because said pilgrims often found themselves spending several days camped out here, sometimes without shelter. Orthodox Palestinian Society to the rescue! A noblewoman donated her house, and under the direction of a local shipping merchant, it was turned into a hostel for pilgrims, with ten spaces for men and ten for women, a small chapel, and a well-kept garden. Unfortunately, the house is no longer there, having been replaced by a five-story apartment building.

Beyond its face value as a quirky part of the city's past, this is interesting because passenger ships to Constantinople (or Istanbul, for that matter) no longer leave from Taganrog, but from Novorossiysk, down on the Black Sea coast. It's probably just as well for Taganrog; it's notoriously difficult to develop a booming tourism industry around pilgrims.

23 February 2008

Happy Men's Day!

Today, February 23rd, is Protectors of the Homeland Day. As you can tell from the name, this was originally a military holiday. Like a Russian Veterans’ Day, but inclusive of anyone who’s served in the military in either wartime or peacetime.

The day still has a military flavor; most of the cards you can buy for it are decorated with tanks, airplanes, or the orange-and-black striped ribbon of the Order of St. George. But because the Russian military has mandatory service, every man is technically either a past or a future Protector of the Homeland, so the holiday has become a celebration of all men.

However, for the past few decades, there’s been a dark shadow of corruption, disorder, hazing scandals, and widespread suicide among recruits looming over the Russian military. Many guys who can get out of service do so, either by staying in college and grad school until they're too old to serve or by bribing a doctor to give them a medical excuse. So there are a lot of men for whom the holiday’s rhetoric of military glory is completely inapplicable. These men aren’t excluded from the holiday, though; partly, I think, based on the assumption that Russia’s men will unite to protect her when need be. Nonetheless, it has reduced the holiday to a day of saying, "Thank you for being male!" to all the men in your life.

(Note: I have no idea whether women who serve are included in the celebration, or whether it’s truly become the masculine counterpart to International Women’s Day, a major Russian holiday, in the popular consciousness.) (Another note: that link is to a mail-order bride site, but it's still work-safe, and the Women's Day explanation is quite funny/Russian.)

The whole idea of this holiday as a "Men’s Day" kind of offends me. I’m not in the camp that believes that men have it markedly easier than women, but I do think that it’s silly to have holidays celebrating gender norms for either men or women. (So Women’s Day offends me, too, but less so, because there’s chocolate involved. Never underestimate the placating power of chocolate.) Really, "thank you for being (fe)male" largely means, "thank you for the ways in which you conform to society’s expectations for your gender." Especially after spending time in Russia, where I’m a foreigner and therefore very conscious of society’s expectations for gender performance, I don’t find that to be a good thing to thank someone for. Serving in the military? Yes. Being a mother or a father? Yes. Being "masculine" or "feminine"? Not so much.

There’s probably nothing I can say about Russian femininity that hasn’t already been said; it’s easy to think that men have it easier, but I’ve been surprised to hear several male American acquaintances express the same kind of frustration and alienation from Russian men that I, with my unpomaded lips, flat shoes, and unmarried-and-happy attitude, often feel from Russian women. Young Russian men are supposed to be "muzhiki", a word that sort of translates as "dude" or "tough guy", and that usually means a lot of drinking, no real show of feelings, indifference toward academic pursuits, objectification of women (a fellow Fulbrighter's students confronted him to ask if he was gay, partly because he doesn't flirt with his female students in class; he isn't gay, just American), and reckless disregard for both the law and safety.

Besides making it hard for American guys to make friends here, I'm sure this is a contributing factor to alarmingly high male unemployment, alcoholism, and suicide rates in Russia. Why celebrate the social forces that lead to such terrible problems? Why celebrate the ones that make women feel that beauty is their most important attribute, or that staying with a husband who beats them is better than having no husband?

(I'm sure there are readers who are saying, "But gender isn't entirely socially constructed! There are important innate behavioral differences between men and women!" I acknowledge that, but I don't think that's really what's being glorified on these holidays, and even if it were, I can't think of a convincing reason to do so.)

I'm not about to lead a crusade against the holiday – in the end, it's just a holiday – but I am saying I think this is all worth thinking about. To avoid ending on a sad note, I'd like to raise a toast to all the men in my life – my dad and brothers and grandfathers and uncles, my friends and students and coworkers, and you, dear (male) reader: not for being macho tough guys, but for being your wonderful selves.

(And for protecting the homeland, naturally.)

21 February 2008


Happy International Mother Language Day, everyone!

I almost missed it, but thanks to Language Log, I was informed of it with one point five hours to spare! I’m celebrating by writing this post in my own mother tongue, English.

...Yeah, English seems like a kind of lame language to celebrate. The UN says, “All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education...” I’m not sure I agree with that, unless either their idea of dissemination or their definition of a mother tongue is different from mine (under which every living natural language is someone’s mother tongue).

Anyhow, sorry I haven’t been posting very often. February has actually – despite its worldwide (or northern hemisphere-wide) crappy reputation – been fabulous here: above freezing, with clear, sunny skies and breezes that aren’t exactly warm yet, but nonetheless carry the promise of spring. But in spite of the great weather, I’ve still been in a February mood (that is to say, cranky and anxious for it to not be February, or for that matter March) and haven’t really felt like writing. I think it has to do with the beginning of the new semester, because my mood has been steadily improving throughout the month as I’ve gotten into the swing of things. But now I’m on an internet “diet,” trying to make the last 30 rubles on my internet card last ‘til the end of the month (curse you, leap year! and you, too, ever-falling value of the dollar!). So I can’t promise a glut of posts just yet.

On the bright side, the great weather has allowed me to move my exercise routine (if one can really call it that) outside, and I’ve been taking long daily walks in parts of central Taganrog that I’ve never seen before. I’ve discovered that the city beach is a mere 20 minutes from my apartment on foot; that there’s a museum I didn’t know existed 1.5 blocks from my apartment; and that there’s a whole network of mud roads with quaint little brick houses and stray dogs in all the yards just a few blocks from the town’s main streets! Charming. (Except the stray dogs. Not a fan of stray dogs.) Another way in which a Russian city of 275,000 people is not at all like an American city of 275,000 people. I’ll try taking some pictures so I can show you all soon!

Other good things have been happening, too – my students are doing well, I got into grad school, and I recently had my most successful semi-scripted American holiday party yet (for Valentine’s Day, naturally). This weekend is my half-birthday, which I’m really too old to get very excited about (maybe there’s something to be said for being halfway to age 47, but I’m not sure what it might be), but it’s also a three-day weekend, which you’re never too old to get excited about! Hooray!

19 February 2008

Still haven't found what I'm looking for...

I’ve noticed recently that people have started finding my blog by googling all sorts of different search strings; some appear to be looking for information about Taganrog, and the search for “balalaika lessons” has come up a lot as well. I suppose that’s inevitable as I add more and more posts, and more posts about things, like Taganrog and balalaikas, that not many people write about in English on the internet. I like helping people, and I realize that just from my entries, these googlers probably can’t find what they’re looking for. So I’ve created an email address for myself (see the info section) that you can use to contact me if you have a question you think I can answer.

However, please note that I cannot answer any questions about the азовская русалка, the alleged mermaid in the Sea of Azov (still one of the most popular referring strings), except to reiterate that she is not me. And I’m not her.

15 February 2008

Good people

It happens about once a week or so that someone asks me whether life in America is better than life in Russia. For diplomacy’s sake, I have a set answer for that. It’s easier to make a good living in America, I say; for example, we have fewer eighty-year-old women getting down on their hands and knees to scrub floors so they’ll have enough money to buy bread. But on the other hand, I say, “the people are kinder” in Russia.

In the Russian value system, this is a pretty high compliment, so it tends to assuage any ill feelings they have about Americans’ relative wealth. Unfortunately, it’s not strictly true.

The real situation is more interesting, but also a lot harder to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced both cultures, and therefore less useful in terms of diplomacy. Contrary to the general Russian image of us, I happen to think that we Americans are very kind – not because we’re a special breed of people (although Russians subscribe to the notion of “national character” shaping individuals’ personalities), but because American society values certain types of kindness and encourages it in its citizens. Russians, for the same reason, are also kind, and it’s really not the *quantity* of goodwill that’s so refreshing to me, but the ways in which it’s expressed.

I’ll make the generalization that in Russia, it’s a lot more acceptable than in the U.S. to express unsolicited concern for others. Americans tend to find it insulting if you tell them that their winter coat isn’t warm enough, give them handouts of food or clothes, or really offer to help them do anything that they could reasonably be expected to do themselves. In Russia, though, these are the kind of actions you perform to show that you care about someone, even on the level of, say, coworker. Coming from a culture where these things aren’t done, I’m left feeling almost overwhelmingly cared for and valued. (Of course, it’s occasionally annoying; I am, after all, American, and therefore prone to feeling like I should just be allowed to do it myself once in a while.)

Anyway, I’m thinking about this because I’ve been around a lot of really good, kind people this week. Every time I leave the university I think, “I should write a blog post about how nice the doormen are.” It’s probably not worthy of a whole blog post, but the six or eight doormen who stand guard at the university in 24-hour shifts are almost all a) fascinated by me and b) really, really friendly. Their faces light up when they see me come in. They all know all about my family and ask about them on a regular basis. I had a mood-lifting conversation with a different doorman every day this week.

Last night some students (most of whom aren’t in my courses) invited me to their Valentine’s Day/birthday party. It always makes me feel good to be included in their activities because, to be honest, I’m a little boring when I speak Russian. I’m never entirely sure why someone who only speaks Russian would really want to be friends with me. When I try to express complicated thoughts, I tend to trip over my words, and my sense of humor often gets lost in translation. It seems like it should take a lot of patience to like me. And yet, these students, who seemingly have no desire to practice their English with me (a refreshing change), continue to welcome me into their circle.

And finally, today I had a Valentine’s Day party at a local high school. I’ve never met a group of people who seemed so eager to find things to like about me. They were really responsive to all the activities I had planned, they asked tons of questions, made sure I was well-fed on Russian cafeteria food (um, yum?), and gave me a tour of the school, introducing me to basically every teacher in the place. A little egoistic, I guess, but it’s a very nice feeling to be that popular.

Most of the other people I interact with on a regular basis are also really nice to me, from my coworkers and students to my landlady and balalaika teacher and the women at the place where I do my photocopying. So I guess I’m just feeling grateful that I landed in a town that has so many kind, well-meaning people. I definitely don’t feel like I’m lying when I tell people that I love Taganrog because it’s the “warmest” city I’ve ever lived in.

11 February 2008

Russians Will Be Russians

You're probably here because you were hoping for a new post. Well, be careful what you wish for! Don't worry, though, I'll be back to the usual picture-laden goodness soon.

I started thinking about collective memory and cultural consciousness when Amara and I went to the Museum of the Blockade in Petersburg and got into a discussion of whether Russia's lingering obsession with World War II is unhealthy. The topic came to mind again this weekend when I attended the annual celebration of the Taganrog Pushkin Society. I was invited to recite a Pushkin poem in English. If you're unfamiliar with Pushkin, don't feel bad; there's a reason. In Russian, Pushkin's poetry may be truly great, but like most poetry, it loses a lot in translation.

So to review, Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin is a poet from the early 19th century, a genius credited with being the first to use ordinary vernacular Russian to write great literature; a dissident and friend of the Decembrists who was exiled two or three times for his anti-tsarist writings and remarks; a true romantic, constantly bankrupt, in love, and getting huffy over questions of honor; and a dashingly tragic figure, having died young in a mysterious duel that's widely perceived to have been orchestrated by the authorities. To top it all off, he had great sideburns.

In a roundabout way, Pushkin got me thinking about cultural consciousness, a term I sort of made up and that I'm using to mean a person's conceptualization of what the culture they "belong to" or identify with actually is,, or is made up of. For me, that culture is primarily "American;" in certain instances, I may also be conscious of (and fashion myself to be a member of), say, Midwestern, semi-rural, and Ivy League subcultures. For you, my American reader (although I recognize I've got some non-American readers – hi, Celine!), it's probably American and some other things along racial/ethnic/gender/political/geographic lines. American society is delightfully fragmented like that.

Russian society, I'm becoming increasingly aware, is not. Although I might be making a risky generalization by saying this, the emphasis is placed to a much greater extent, both officially and popularly, on a homogeneous "Russianness," which is in turn much better-defined than our "Americanness."

Communist ideology clearly has a good deal to do with this, but I think the general idea of the Russian state as an entity of fundamentally ethnic origin plays a role, too. But that's interesting, because Russians certainly talk a good game about being a multi-ethnic country. I know this because they like to compare Russia and the U.S. as the two great melting pots, and it is true that Russia, as a state born out of an empire, is multi-ethnic. But there's no real public dialogue about that – nothing comparable to the ubiquitous multi-culturalism of the U.S. that has white Germanic schoolchildren in Ohio making paper dragon masks for Lunar New Year. The history and cultural memory all seems to be fairly monolithic, with its roots firmly in the Russians and their language. That comes back in part to history – Russia is actually a state born out of an empire born out of an ethnic group – and in part to Communist ideology, because after a brief multiethnic lovefest in the '20's and early '30's, Stalin decided that Russification was the safer route. Either way, it creates an interesting creature: a country that clearly claims its multiethnicity (in vogue nowadays; historically, the theory of communism as an ideology transcending national boundaries was probably a major motivator) while simultaneously claiming its Slavic past as its one true heritage.

This push for a defined Russian heritage has led, among many other things, to a sort of deification of the main figures associated with that heritage. Combine Pushkin's use of Russian at a time when many in Russian society were speaking French, his popular appeal as a writer whose poetry is both good and accessible, and the characteristics that made him a great figure for the Soviets to claim as a legitimizing predecessor to their cause – anti-tsarist, repressed by the regime – and you get a perfect Russian hero, who has been packaged and sold as such by the educational establishment for at least the last eighty years or so.

Because of that, the love and reverence for him even today is absolutely incredible, and of a magnitude totally foreign to English speakers. Our reverence for Shakespeare? Not. Even. Close. I was at least peripherally aware of that, but it was really interesting to go to this Pushkin celebration and see all the various ways he was invoked. One woman gave a tirade about the decline of culture in which she castigated a popular cultural TV show for not including enough Pushkin. She blamed the authorities' tight controls on the media for that; her implication was clearly that by rights, Pushkin ought to be included in every cultural program. She finished by thanking Pushkin for "gifting us with our velikii moguchii russki yazyk," (a common collocation that translates as great, powerful Russian language). The idea of a national literature being needed to legitimize a language is familiar to me – the Estonian language, for example, came to be seen as more than a "peasant dialect" only when people began writing literature in it – but the idea that Pushkin "gifted us" with Russian (and the assumption that follows from that, that there was no Russian literary tradition before him) strikes me as absurd.

A man then got up and said, "It's all very well that we remember all his love poems, but let's not forget that he was also a dissident. And if he were around today, the powers [i.e. the government] would not be pushing us around the way it is!" He then read a poem written in honor of the dedication of some Pushkin monument or other to prove his point. I was thrilled, as I always am, to hear real Russians – supposed by the Western media to be politically comatose – complaining about politics, but still, the idea that Pushkin himself would single-handedly change the political situation in Russia today seems even odder than the language claim. I feel that these kinds of assertions must have some kind of value outside their absolute truth value, but I can't really articulate what it is.

Also interestingly, the mysterious figure who lured Pushkin into his fatal duel by sending him an anonymous note labeling him a cuckold was overtly cast as an eternal, evil archetype – not a person per se, but a constantly-threatening force for destruction that represents the fundamental opposition between civilization and culture. (I didn't know they were fundamentally opposed...) But also as a person, and the embodiment of the Romantic hero: on a hunting expedition, he allegedly shot down every pigeon in a flock. I admit, there might have been some sort of language barrier there, because that part doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

Anyway, the only real point of this essay is that Russians' concept of their cultural heritage, their interaction with it and the role it plays in their lives are totally different from Americans'. I feel like I've only scratched the surface – for example, the way this shapes language policy/teaching/self-policing is another big can of worms - but this is already really long. So I guess I'll just let it peter out by saying that I was pretty surprised to find that after all my time here, there are still parts of Russian culture that really baffle me. It certainly made for a fun evening, though! (Although to be honest, that was helped by the fact that they put way too much rum in the flaming punch.)

06 February 2008

Petrozavodsk, a Little Slice of Scandinavia in Russia (Travelogue)

I am a huge fan of Karelia, the region northeast of St. Petersburg of which Petrozavodsk (called Petroskoi in Karelian) is the capital. Or a huge fan in theory, anyway – since we were there in January, we didn't get to see too much of the region's famed beautiful nature, or Kizhi Island. But it's home to the Karelians, a Finno-Ugric people (though there aren't too many of them around anymore – the Finns sided with the Nazis in World War II, so there was a lot of fleeing/deportation to Siberia), and I love random minority cultures/languages. Plus, we got to see at least a little nature in Petrozavodsk, in the form of Lake Onega, one of the world's largest lakes (though by no means as large as, say, Baikal or the Great Lakes). And Petrozavodsk itself was a pretty, cozy little capital that really did give me a weird Twilight Zone feeling that I was half in Russia, half in Scandinavia.

Shout-out to geology folks – Petrozavodsk boasts a lovely, if well-hidden, Pre-Cambrian Geology Museum, the surprise highlight of our two-day stay. It's in the Academy of Sciences, and you have to ask for someone to take you up to the fifth floor and let you in. They did so for us, and then some: a geologist from the Academy (Russian scientific research is conducted not at universities, but by the government-backed, nationwide Academy of Sciences) gave us an almost-two-hour tour! He was very careful to explain things thoroughly, since neither Amara nor I is a geologist. I did have one semester of geology, and some stuff came back to me during the tour, but I was still glad he kept it simple, since I was having to deal with Russian geology terms like месторождение, which looks like it should mean "birthplace" (место = place, рождение = birth) but actually means "mineral deposit." He never figured out - or never let on to figuring out - that we weren't Russian. Besides being oh-so-kind and accommodating, he was also adorable – probably 65 or 70, and no taller than I am. All in all, we were really glad we went, considering we did so kind of as a joke.

Me posing awkwardly with the particular type of quartz sandstone that's native to the area. It was used in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow and St. Isaac's Cathedral in Petersburg.

I don't have pictures from these, but Petrozavodsk also has an ok art museum and a very good regional history museum. The regional history museum has an exhibit on the Finno-Karelian saga, the Kalevala, that appears to be best viewed while on psychedelic drugs. At least I assume that would improve it. It was way trippy. According to the exhibit notes, it was supposed to "affect not visitors' minds, but their senses." Right. There were also less-trippy exhibits of Karelia's abundant prehistoric cave drawings, and a huge collection of stuffed animals (taxidermy, not teddy bears), where we learned all sort of new words for animals, from loons and auks to otters and wolverines.

Let's see, what else does Petrozavodsk have? Well, being on the shore of Lake Onega (whence the name of Pushkin's character Eugene Onegin), it has a long shoreline park with a bunch of sculptures, many donated by sculptors from PZ's sister cities around the world. The weather was nice and the park interesting, so we spent a lot of time there. The lake was frozen, but a friendly local warned us that going out on it like all the ice fishermen were doing was probably at least a little dangerous, so we didn't.

The view down the lakeshore path.

"Whisper a wish" - a wishing-tree sculpture. Hopefully it understood the wish I whispered in English!

"The Fishermen," by a sculptor from somewhere in Minnesota.

Amara looked like a lion when she posed with this sculpture. I'm a little too short to look like a lion.

It also has a street named for and monument to Yuri Andropov, the last [edit: second-last] Soviet leader before perestroika. Apparently there were protests when the monument was unveiled in 2005, so Amara and I decided to show Andropov a little love (to the amusement of a passing elderly gentleman).

All in all, it was a very nice town. The café and restaurant scene was surprisingly good for such a small city – we even ate at a slightly touristy, overpriced but delicious Karelian restaurant, which had many reindeer meat offerings which we did not try, plus traditional Karelian savory pastries filled with millet which we did. (They were delicious, even though pastries filled with grain does seem a little odd.) With lots of trees and the lake right near the center of town, I can see how it'd be great in summer. I'd really like to go back and see more of the surrounding area; hopefully I'll somehow get a chance.

[Edit: Thanks to Seth for pointing out my mistake about Andropov, nit-picky though it may have been!]

03 February 2008

Letting the pictures do the talking.

1. Petrozavodsk:

Kite skier on Lake Onega.

2. Murmansk:

Polar noon.

I am so happy I took that trip. More to come when I don't feel sick/blah.