28 April 2008


Devoted reader Paul, who has a history of asking interesting questions, unwittingly opened a can of worms a few posts ago, and instead of replying with the world's longest comment, I decided to make a post about it.

Paul writes, re: the Orthodox tradition of greeting people on/after Easter with "Christ is risen!":

"Interesting -- do (the remaining) hard-core communists have a different response to the greeting? E.g. 'Christ is risen!' 'No he isn't, dialectical materialism is!' Or something of that order?"

That's an interesting question.

Hard-core communists do exist, and probably form the most significant political minority in Russia. The ones I know are mostly elderly people, many of whom grew up in the Pioneers and the Komsomol before becoming Party members. That's not to say that they're communist purely by way of indoctrination – for most of them, their lives were materially better before perestroika came along and introduced them to a total collapse of their ideological system; the very worst of the bread lines; oligarchs and Mafiosi; and eventually a wealth gap that for the first time separated huge, visible chunks of society, rather than just distancing the very top layer of Party apparatchiki from the ordinary folks. Perestroika also freed them of their right to an apartment, yearly vacations on the Black Sea, free health care, their grandchildren's guarantee of a job after finishing college, etc. Furthermore, pensioners now tend to receive about enough money per month to cover their electric and gas bills, and that's it. Naturally, that's extra tough for people who grew up believing the state would always, at least in some sense, take care of them.

So while these people are in some ways very ideologically Communist, vocal atheism doesn't tend to be one of them. I can think of three reasons for that. First, the regime had already softened toward religion by the time they were old enough to be conscious of such things.

Second, religion has much less of a foothold here, and without the feeling that society is telling them they ought to be religious, the non-religious, unsurprisingly, have much less of a problem with religion. One friend told me that, while he doesn't believe in God, he answers his friends' Easter greetings with a polite "He is risen, indeed!" I can imagine the same guy in America feeling the need to state his position on religion in reply to an Easter greeting, lest his zealous friends take him for a Christian and start inviting him to youth retreats. The Orthodox don't really do evangelism, so a polite attitude toward religion is, in that sense, safe.

Third, many Western atheists tend to be vocally anti-religion because they dislike the things they see religion doing to society. For these old communists, religion is the least of their societal woes; they tend to focus much more on the horrors they've seen capitalism inflict. A common theme of their laments, for example, is how "people have changed" since perestroika. Everyone is chasing after money all the time, people have become crueler toward each other and less neighborly. (In that sense, maybe Paul's suggested answer to the Easter greeting is appropriate, but maybe it would be more like, "He is risen indeed! And so is dialectical materialism!") In the old days, you could always get your neighbors to help you out; now, everything is done through bribes and "connections." The difference between getting your neighbors to help you out and having "connections" is fine-grained; I think it has to do with perceived fairness. Getting your plumbing fixed first because you live next to Vanya the Plumber isn't seen as unfair; the guy who has to wait longer to get his plumbing fixed probably lives next to Sasha the Electrician. But these days you need connections in high places, and those are perceived as less egalitarian.

A lot of them seem to adopt a philosophical attitude toward religion; one elderly guy I know explained that religion "is not for us. It's nice, but after you've spent your whole life being told there's no God, you can't really turn yourself around and become devout. I go to church sometimes, believe whatever I manage to believe, but really, the whole thing is just not for my generation." On the other hand, old women comprise like 90% of the church-going population, so I suppose it depends on the person.

At any rate, the short answer is that the overt hostility of the "culture war" between the religious and the secular we see in the U.S. (and maybe in 1917 Russia, when one could, perhaps, imagine a young Marxist saying, 'No he isn't!') seems to be totally nonexistent in contemporary Russia.

Easter Confusion

1. I did get "Christ is Risen"-ed several times yesterday - mostly by text message, which is of course the classiest way to spread the jubilation - and replied correctly. However, in case there are any nitpickers out there, I should mention that the version of the greeting I wrote in my last post is the Old Church Slavic version, and so far I've found the modern Russian version ("Христос воскрес!/Воистину воскрес!," without the hard sign or the "e" on the end) to be more common. But, Old Church Slavic being the language of the Orthodox Church, the former is what you'll find on banners hanging outside churches, decorated Easter eggs, etc.

2. The lovely giant cupcake I photographed last time, and subsequently ate half of: kulich, right? Right, and wrong! I later had two different people tell me that Easter bread is actually called paskha. Confusing, since I thought paskha was the pyramid-shaped lump of curd cheese and sugar. Finally a third person explained that the pyramid-shaped lump is cheese paskha (творожная пасха); kulich that's shaped like it was baked in a coffee can may be called kulich but is normally called (non-cheese) paskha; and loaf-shaped kulich is just kulich. However, I'm not sure that explanation holds water with everyone.

My conclusion is that there's a confusion in terminology that was probably brought about by a long period of non-celebration of Easter. This sort of phenomenon - where different people within one community have different traditions or different words for those traditions, and they all believe their version to be the historically correct one - seems awfully familiar to me, but I can't put my finger on an exact example from U.S. culture.

3. My opinion on the subject of drunk men on Easter was apparently incorrectly informed by my Western conception of piety. While I did not get hassled by any hooligans on the street, a friend of mine went to Easter service (at 3 am! yikes!) and reported that the majority of worshipers were, in fact, drunk men. Hmm. Guess that Lenten fasting can really get to you...

The same friend also gave me a mini-kulich (or paskha) she had made herself, as well as a pair of totally awesome woven Turkmen slippers her (Turkmen) dad had brought back from Turkmenistan! Aww. People are so nice to me here.

26 April 2008


No, it's kulich! (coo-LEECH)

Tomorrow is Orthodox Easter; for the past few days, kulichi have been springing up in every bakery in town. While it may look like a giant cupcake, it's not quite that exciting inside:

Kulich, a sweet bread made with sour cream, sugar, spices and raisins, is a Russian Easter tradition, along with paskha (which just means 'Easter'), a pyramid-shaped mound of curd cheese, sour cream, eggs, and sugar symbolizing Christ's tomb. Both are made with all those rich ingredients to celebrate the end of Lent, which Orthodoxy takes extremely seriously. I'm not sure of the exact rules, but I think it's something like no meat and no alcohol for all 40 days, adding in a ban on oil, eggs, milk, and fish for the last week. Russians are often surprised when I explain that American Catholics usually only give up one food or vice for Lent and Protestants don't sacrifice anything. (Always looking for ways to bend the rules, one of my students suggested that a smart Catholic would just give up something they didn't like much anyway. I bet that trick has occurred to pretty much every kid ever made to observe Lent, and gotten shot down every time.) Then again, the relative laxity means that many more Americans than Russians actually observe Lent – I haven't met anyone here who actually follows it, which is why I don't know what the rules are. Without knowing really anything about religious history, my guess is that the rules relaxed in the U.S. in the 20th century, when nothing was really changing in Orthodox tradition because Russian Orthodoxy, based in the USSR, was largely underground.

But Lenten fast or no, Russians who observe the holiday celebrate Easter with gusto. Kulich and paskha are just two of the foods at the Easter table, which also, according to a friend here, includes "as many kinds of meat as possible. And vodka. Russians can't have a holiday without vodka." The Easter meal is eaten as early as possible – the religious go to midnight Mass on Saturday into Sunday (which seems to me to be jumping the gun a bit, but I guess if you've been fasting you just want to get it over with) and get Easter eggs and a loaf of kulich blessed by the priest. The blessed eggs are placed in front of the icon at home, and the blessed kulich can be eaten a bit at a time each day before breakfast, for spiritual cleansing. As soon as Mass is over, everyone goes home and breaks the fast with a feast.

This is at least what I've been told happens; it seems somewhat uncommon now, and several people have told me that they used to make paskha and kulich, or their mothers did, or their grandmothers did, but they don't have time or the desire to do so anymore. Paskha is allegedly quite difficult to make, requiring between one and three days and a special mold. There's no Easter bunny or chocolate associated with the holiday, although fuzzy chicks and plastic eggs and such do seem to be seeping in from the West.

On the amusing side: I was actually warned by a colleague to watch myself on Sunday, because there will likely be a lot of drunk men behaving like hooligans on the street. Hmm. It seems to me that if you're pious enough to abstain from alcohol for the whole 40-day fast, you're probably pious enough not to get blasted on Easter, but I guess I'll be extra careful not to walk down any deserted streets tomorrow.

Anyway, this year if a drunk hooligan or a happy babushka greets me with a hearty, Христосъ воскресе! (Christ is risen!), I'll know to respond Воистину воскресе! (He is risen indeed!), unlike last year.

Coming soon: a kind of Russian spring cleaning we definitely don't have in America.

15 April 2008

The Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship: Better Than a Ouija Board?

Fun fact: I looked up how to spell "Ouija" and learned that it's from French oui and German ja. I'll never forget how to spell it again. Ah, the power of etymology!

Two years ago, I was drifting aimlessly.

Ok, you're free to laugh. I realize it's hard to argue that you're drifting aimlessly when you're about to get a B.A. from Yale. What I mean is that I could see several different futures ahead of me, but somehow none of them seemed particularly desirable. I didn't feel like graduating and didn't feel like making any decisions about the course my life was going to take. I hadn't heard about getting the Fulbright yet, and I intended, if I got it, to turn it down. Nothing seemed like a better idea than wasting a couple of years in a non-threatening environment like a linguistics laboratory (not Russia, which is about as threatening an environment as is appropriate for a recent college graduate to venture into alone) while I figured out what I wanted to really do; but on the other hand, even that didn't seem like a terrific idea. I was totally stuck in the doldrums.

Enter Fulbright. Standing in the Yale post office, opening that thin envelope and seeing the word "congratulate" in the first line of the letter felt a bit like being unexpectedly shoved off a cliff and finding out you can fly: a lurch of disbelief, terror, and then a sudden exhilaration. At the disbelief and terror, I burst into tears. The exhilaration didn't do much to fix that, though I managed to calm down enough for my seminar ten minutes later that as long as I didn't open my mouth, I wouldn't start crying again. That may seem like overkill, but it really was a huge shock for me – Russia was not something I felt ready for, emotionally, linguistically or otherwise. But as soon as I opened that letter, I knew that my fate was sealed. There was no possible way to say anything but yes.

(That, despite the fact that I had spent months imagining how I'd coolly turn down the offer, convincing myself that there were no good reasons to go to Russia and a wealth of good reasons to play it safe and stay home. I'm good at fooling myself.)

So, two years passed, of which sixteen and a half months have been spent in Russia. It's now April 15th, which is the deadline for graduate school decisions. Reflecting on that while brushing my teeth this morning, it occurred to me that of our little cadre of English Teaching Assistants that arrived in Moscow two Julys ago:

A1 is about to get her MA in Russian and East European Studies from Stanford.
A2 stayed for a second year, and now it's looking like she might be in Russia next year, too. (She has an interview today, so send good interview vibes in the general direction of Moscow!)
J1 is starting an MA program in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Washington in the fall.
J2 is about to get his MA in Russian translation from Columbia.
J3 is MIA (the only one we've lost touch with).
S stayed for a second year, and is starting a PhD program in Russian history at Toronto in the fall.

And me? I'll be starting an MA program in Russian and East European Studies in the fall, at Georgetown University.

Granted, not all of my fellow ETAs were as Russia-ambivalent as I was, but nonetheless... I feel like you can go to France or Germany or Spain for a year or two to teach English and then move back home and get on with your life. Russia, on the other hand, doesn't seem willing to let you do that. The needle of fate swings and quivers, and then points east, back toward the Kremlin spires, the Volga, the steppe and the Urals and the Siberian taiga beyond, across Baikal and down the winding Amur to the oil rigs off Sakhalin and the smoking volcanoes of Kamchatka beyond. All in a direction you never saw yourself going.

13 April 2008

Приходит время, люди головы теряют...

Apologies for the lack of posts! I've partly been busy (the institute had its annual student conference this week, and we've got some short-term visiting Americans), and partly just been caught up in the glorious warm weather and sunshine of spring, which appears to make me both happy and lazy.

It's beautiful here. Taganrog is full of apricot trees and forsythia bushes, and they're all in bloom!

08 April 2008

I tentatively admit that there are a few things I won't miss about Russia.

This was the form I had to fill out in order to pay the fine for not registering properly as a foreigner (don't ask):

The humor of this form is most effective if you can read Russian, because then you will recognize that even in the places where there are words instead of endless strings of numbers, they aren't actually words, but abbreviations, such as "UFK RF in RO." That's apparently who I paid the fine to. As for the numbers, the first one is the individual taxation number, but as for the KPP, the OKATO code, the BIK and the KBK (a whopping 20 digits!), I have no idea. I assume they're necessary to make sure my 2000 rubles goes to the right place.

And of course, I couldn't make this payment at the police station where the fine was issued. I had to go to the bank, get the form pictured above, copy all the numbers and abbreviations into it from the form they gave me at the police station, and stand in line with all the people paying their electricity and phone bills. Hapless as I am, I got there at 12:15 pm. That was a big mistake, because the tellers go on a one-hour lunch break at 1 p.m. (yes, all of them – apparently the concept of shifts has gotten about as far in the Russian state banking system as it has in the Russian post office), and trying to get your bills paid as close to 1 p.m. as possible is apparently some kind of masochistic Russian sport. So there were about thirty of us in line, all hoping to dodge in under the wire. I was the second-to-last one to make it through. (Wish I'd been last – then I could have found out what the prize was.)

The sheet that the above form is lying on top of? My new alien registration. Or one of the incarnations of it. It might be the one that was filled out "incorrectly" (we didn't complete the bottom two lines because neither I nor my advisor could figure out what the **** was supposed to go there). That incarnation was later destroyed by the extremely crabby migration officer, who yelled at us for our incompetence and then actually took her pen and scribbled all over the incomplete form so that we had to start over on a fresh one. Yeah, I wish I were making that up.

02 April 2008

How To Be A Dinner Guest in Russia

It's not about manners, my friends. It's about strategy.

Why? Here's an example. Yesterday my boss and his wife invited me over for dinner. Over the course of four hours, I had:


Appetizer course:
radish salad
fish salad
tomato and cucumber salad

First course:
mushroom soup

Main course:
more vermouth
beef stroganoff
fried potatoes
peas and corn

short walk in the garden

three kinds of cake
more vermouth

Seriously, how is it all supposed to fit? I'm no slouch when it comes to eating, and I still have trouble getting through the gastronomic marathon that is the Russian prazdnichny obed (lit. "holiday dinner"). And you're not given a choice on any of it, either. I think the only thing on this list that was not served to me (as in, placed on my plate) was the cheese. Oh, and one of the kinds of cake. I really don't understand how Russians do it.

Suggestions (should you ever find yourself invited to dinner at a Russian's house):
1. Say no. Say it politely but forcefully. Be prepared to say it several times to the same offer. Be prepared to lie ("I'm allergic to mayonnaise!") if faced with a particularly insistent host.
2. Fast for 24 hours beforehand. I haven't tried this, but it might work...
3. Alternatively, research competitive-eating exercises and train for a week or two.
4. Pull the classic push-food-around-the-plate-instead-of-eating-it move, but be careful not to look impolite.
5. Elastic waistband.
6. Under no circumstances should you ever take seconds of anything. This may require saying no. See number one.
7. Be careful about complimenting the host's cooking too profusely, especially if saying no is your weak spot.
8. Conserve stomach space – drink as little as possible and chew thoroughly.

Sadly, I failed at many of these, especially number one. But despite the fact that I stalled out during the soup and had a rough time rallying for the main course (really, it would all be so much better if they just got rid of the appetizers/salads – who needs three different variations on the theme of chopped vegetables in mayonnaise??), it was still fun. My boss and his family are what I would consider (and what they themselves consider) intelligenty, so the conversation – about politics, civil rights, the free press, the St. Petersburg theater scene, Taganrog architecture – more than made up for the fact that I sort of had to waddle home. And may not eat again for a week.