29 May 2008

Humphrey Bogart in The Yaltese Falcon

Neither my parents nor I can apparently get enough of Yaltese falcon jokes. I'm not even sure why it's so funny, but it is.

Anyway, this is a cheater picture post, because I'm tired and have a lot of laundry and stuff I should do instead of writing about Yalta. So, here are some pictures that sort of sum up the trip, about which I'll write in more detail later.

The view from our hotel room balcony.

Livadia Palace, site of the Yalta conference.

Looking down from Ai-Petri ("St. Peter" in Greek), the peak that overlooks Greater Yalta.

The city boardwalk/beach.

22 May 2008

Not to Be Confused with Malta

We interrupt the planning for tomorrow's Poetry Party (whose idea was it to have a poetry party? Seriously. Wait, was that me? Oh, yeah. Good one. For future reference, poetry and partying mix almost as well as short legs and those ankle-strap heels that are so fashionable this season. Russians seem to be oblivious in both of these cases, though, throwing Pushkin-themed raves and wearing inappropriate footwear with reckless abandon.) Ok, that train of thought derailed in the parentheses. Let's start again: We interrupt the planning for tomorrow's Poetry Party to procrastinate, and also to share the good news/brag that I get to go to Yalta next week!!!

My oft-mentioned neighbor Seth is done teaching and is going to Yalta, and he invited me to come along! The powers that be, though annoyed that this means I'll have to de-register and re-register my visa again and miss two days of class, admitted that this is not an opportunity to be wasted, and gave me their blessing. My students are, of course, heartbroken, but I think they'll live, since they immediately started making plans to go sunbathing during our canceled Monday lesson.

You may remember Yalta as the site of that one conference they had at the end of World War II, or the setting for Chekhov's famous short story Дама с собачкой/The Lady with the Lap-Dog, or as a sanatorium-resort town for invalids dying of tuberculosis, like Chekhov himself. It's also a nice place to hang out, with lots of beaches and mountains. It also has wars, or at least one, and Tatars.

PS – It's also in Ukraine! It's not super-Ukrainian, since it was actually part of Russia until some bureaucrat's pen slipped during the Khrushchev era, but still. I've never been to Ukraine.

20 May 2008

Survival of the Fittest?

Lately I've been thinking about the ways I've changed in response to Russia, Russians and Russian, and wondering what's going to happen to the habits and beliefs I've acquired when I move back home. Only time will tell, of course, but in order to avoid thinking too seriously about it and making myself sad, I put together a silly little list of ways in which Russia has influenced me and failed to influence me. In no particular order:

Adapted: Eat salo (salted pork-back fat... like bacon, but just the fat) and beet-based dishes with pleasure.
Didn't adapt: Still refuse to touch caviar and jellied meat.

Adapted: Drink all soft drinks at room temperature.
Didn't adapt: Still require a drink with my meal instead of after.

Adapted: Wore a hat every time I went outside from November 1 to mid-March.
Didn't adapt: Still started wearing flip-flops at the first sign of spring.

Adapted: Think nothing of wearing the same outfit two days in a row.
Didn't adapt: Still can't bring myself to wear gold lamé, see-through shirts, or plaids and florals together.

Adapted: Put on makeup anytime I leave the apartment, even if I'm just popping into the grocery store.
Didn't adapt: Don't own any lipstick in shade #048 Bubble Gum Pink.

Adapted: Don't sit at the corner of tables, because it's bad luck.
Didn't adapt: Still sit on cold surfaces, because I know it's not going to make me sick or infertile.

Adapted: Consider just strolling around downtown not only a legitimate form of hanging out, but the platonic ideal.
Didn't adapt: Still have no desire to go nightclubbing. Ever.

Adapted: Automatically ask "Who's last in line?" and say, "Ok, I'm behind you" to whoever replies when I encounter a clump of people who look like they might be waiting for something I would like to be waiting for.
Didn't adapt: Still only rarely work up the nerve to yell at people who cut in front of me. (Although Amara can attest to my one moment of glory in Murmansk, when I said, "Excuse me, young man, you don't have the right to cut in front of us!" Unfortunately, it turned out that he technically did have the right to cut in front of us, but I won't go into that.)

Adapted: Developed an appreciation for Kino and DDT.
Didn't adapt: Still hate Alla Pugacheva.

Adapted: Never (ok, rarely) smile to myself or do anything other than stare stonily ahead as I walk down the street.
Didn't adapt: Still say "thank you" to cashiers in stores when they're not expecting it.

Adapted: No longer offer to pay if I go to a café with a guy, even if it's clearly not a date.
Didn't adapt: Still feel bad about it every time.

Adapted: Let guys open doors for me; automatically walk through open doors ahead of whatever guy I might be with.
Didn't adapt: Still hold doors open for other people (which is weird because I'm a girl).

Adapted: Allow (albeit grudgingly) male students to take care of all classroom affairs involving the moving of furniture or the use of electronic equipment.
Didn’t adapt: Still cringe when people refer to women as "the weaker sex."

Adapted: Automatically suspect anyone with a lot of money of having obtained it dishonestly. (This one really weirds me out.)
Didn't adapt: Don't automatically suspect everyone from the Caucasus to behave dishonestly.

Adapted: Sympathize with nostalgia for the Soviet era, especially among the older generations.
Didn't adapt: Still believe in democracy.

Obviously, I'm kind of dealing in stereotypes here (although I would like to note that in class today, two of my six students were wearing see-through shirts). Don't take any of it too seriously. In other news, yay for Russian sports! Zenith, the Petersburg team, won some important soccer thing last week (not EuroCup, but something like that), and the day before yesterday the Russian hockey team won the world ice hockey championship!

17 May 2008

A Russian Holiday

On Victory Day I went в шашлыки/v shashliki (barbecuing) with a friend and some of her friends. We drove out into the countryside and found a spot by a pond near the village of Troitskoye ("Trinity"). "Do you do this in America? Just drive out into the country and find a good spot for a picnic?" one of our drivers asked. "Not really," I replied, and tried to explain how property ownership in the U.S. means you kind of have to find a place that's actually designated as public, like a park or campground. He seemed surprised, but also enormously pleased to have found an area in which, in his view, Russia one-ups the U.S. And I agree that at the very least, it's nice not to feel like you're probably trespassing if you walk through a field or build a bonfire on a beach.

On the subject of drivers, I was a little worried, because my experience has been that Russians are more ok with driving after drinking than Americans are, and since it was a holiday, of course we were going to drink. (An older American I was discussing it with holds that our stigmatization of it, like our aversion to littering, is something that's been beaten into us only in the last fifty years or so.) But neither of our company who were driving drank anything at all, much to my relief. I didn't know how I would have gotten home otherwise.

And on the subject of drinking, two things: one, there's this whole demographic of tough-guy eighteen-year-old boys who don't seem to really like me (largely, I think, because I'm American; in this case, also because Aina, the friend I was with, got mad at them when they swore in front of me, and not swearing eliminates about 90% of their means of personal expression). This doesn't really bother me, but whatever. But I discovered that, as if by magic, they really warm up to me if I take a shot of vodka. Ha. (Not that I'm going to take to the bottle to make people like me, but it's sort of a neat party trick...)

Second, it turns out that the spot we were occupying was kept up, if not exactly owned, by a guy who lives by the pond in a little shack with no running water. He keeps people from fishing in the pond, although whether that's under orders from someone who actually owns the pond is unclear. Anyway, we paid our due to him by listening to him recite poetry, playing checkers with him, and of course sharing our chicken and beer. In return, he helped us chop firewood and gave us some stools. At the end, he brought out a huge bottle of home-brewed vodka and proposed a toast with the men – "to veterans, for Victory Day!" The guys who drank with him took one whiff of their shots, waited til he wasn't looking, and poured them out on the grass behind them. I later managed to get hold of the bottle, and understood why – the stuff smelled like nail-polish remover. Hmm, "harmful or fatal if swallowed"?

Anyway, he asked me to take his picture with his favorite puppy (he had several wandering around), which is really the whole point of this post:


Sorry, again, for the general lack of posts in the past week or so. All I can think about when I think about writing is that I'm leaving soon, and that's not something I'm really ready to write about. I'll try to do better, though! If you're particularly hungry for more of my adventures – and who wouldn't be? – my neighbor Seth posted some pictures from our day at the horseraces a few weeks ago. (Pictures that *I* took, albeit with his camera.)

09 May 2008

Victory Day number two

На братских могилах не ставят крестов,
И вдовы на них не рыдают,
К ним кто-то приносит букеты цветов,
И Вечный огонь зажигают.

Здесь раньше вставала земля на дыбы,
А нынче - гранитные плиты.
Здесь нет ни одной персональной судьбы -
Все судьбы в единую слиты.

А в Вечном огне виден вспыхнувший танк,
Горящие русские хаты,
Горящий Смоленск и горящий рейхстаг,
Горящее сердце солдата.

У братских могил нет заплаканных вдов -
Сюда ходят люди покрепче.
На братских могилах не ставят крестов,
Но разве от этого легче?..

There are no crosses on soldiers' mass graves;
And there are no sobbing widows.
There are only bouquets of flowers
And the fire of the Eternal Flame.

First they were marked by mounds of dirt,
And later by granite tablets.
Here there's no "individual fate" –
For here, all of our fates ran together.

And in the Eternal Flame are the flames of the tanks,
The burning peasant huts,
Burning Smolensk, the burning Reichstag,
And the burning hearts of the soldiers.

There are no sobbing widows at soldiers' mass graves –
We who come here are stronger than that.
There are no crosses on soldiers' mass graves –
But does that make it any easier?

Vladimir Vysotsky, 1964

(It's a song. The translation, somewhat loose, is mine.)

May 9th, День Победы/Den' Pobedy/Victory Day, is one of the most important holidays – probably the most important holiday, in the official view – of the year in Russia. I wrote about it last year as well, when I celebrated the occasion primarily by having a long, emotional conversation (well, more of a monologue, really, with me playing the role of the audience) with an elderly neighbor of Laura's.

I've spent a lot more time this year thinking and talking about World War II than I did last year. The memory of World War II was important in Vladivostok – caring about World War II is a requirement of morally correct Russian citizens, the same way, perhaps, that loving democracy or freedom of speech is a requirement of morally correct American citizens. Maybe. It's hard to find parallels, since our societies are so different. Anyway, people in Vladivostok care about World War II. The city history museum and the museum of the Pacific Fleet both have significant floor space devoted to it (like every museum in Russia, basically), and the city, like all Soviet cities, is littered with monuments – one to the naval ships that were lost, one to the civilian ships that were lost, the requisite eternal flame (every city has an eternal flame devoted to the war), etc.

But the main front wasn't there, and you can definitely tell once you've lived where the front was. Taganrog was occupied by the Nazis for a year or so, I believe; we have monuments to the teenaged partisans (which has a different meaning in Russian than in English) that participated in the Taganrog underground, plaques on buildings around town that were used as Nazi military headquarters and hospitals and such, and huge Socialist-Realist monuments in the villages around Taganrog where the front lines were. Furthermore, almost everyone seems to have a relative (or several, usually) who fought. I've heard stories from two or three people whose parents or grandparents fought at Stalingrad; unsurprising, since Stalingrad (now Volgograd) isn't that far away, but still strangely jarring, since it and the siege of Leningrad are the only WWII battles I'm really familiar with anymore (although I made a great salt-dough map of Iwo Jima in eighth grade). In short, the inherited memory of the war seems much stronger here than it was in Vladivostok. The kind of story I heard last year from the elderly neighbor turns out to be a genre in its own right; telling family stories about the war is a beloved pastime this time of year, one that's only becoming more important as the generation of veterans that Soviet schoolchildren used to present with flowers and gifts of thanks slowly disappears.

Strangely, there's no end of hand-wringing about the fact that the veterans are dying, especially among older Russians. I mean, I sort of understand it – people know the younger generations will eventually forget the war, and since the war loomed so large in their consciousness, that seems almost criminally irresponsible of them, not to mention dangerous. The trope that "we must remember, so that it never happens again," one that's probably been around as long as people have been doing horrible things to each other (so, always), is one that gets invoked a lot. How exactly Russians remembering their victory over the Nazis will prevent Nazism from returning is, I think, a question best left unasked. No point being too irreverent when you're a guest in a foreign land. But it's not like the fact that it was "the Greatest Generation" can be expected to prevent it from dying...

Anyway, in the same vein, I hear again and again how indifferent young people are to the war; but I've never actually found a young person who was indifferent. In the last few years, a new fad has emerged of tying "St. George ribbons" to your clothes, car antenna (to slightly weird effect if your car is a German, Italian or Japanese model), or purse. They're like the Russian version of those damn car-magnet-ribbon-thingies, except (so far) less annoying. They hand them out everywhere; at schools, the post office, the city government building, etc. They're meant as a symbol of remembrance, reverence and thanks. And the only students I have who don't wear them avoid doing so because they don't think it's right to wear a medal you didn't earn. (The Order of St. George was a tsarist military honor, and the ribbons are called St. George ribbons because they're the same black-and-orange striped pattern as the ribbon the Order hung on.) I don't agree with that logic, but nonetheless, their hearts are in the right place. Maybe I just have unusually upstanding students, though, and the young hooligans who refuse to give up their bus seats to veterans really do exist.

One of the most interesting things to me is that Russians often adamantly insist that the reason they care so much about the war is that it touched Russia to a much greater degree than America. That is most certainly true, especially in terms of human loss. The USSR won, but not without being almost totally crushed. But (and I can't take credit for this idea) the war's place in the Russian consciousness is also hugely influenced by the fact that the Soviet victory was seen and used by the government as the proof of the pudding – the pudding being the Revolution. Finally, it gave the Soviet people something very real to be proud of, and giving people something to be proud of (and investing time and money to make sure they are proud of it) is a good way to placate and control them. So the government did just that, and ideology eventually became habit.

I've had some interesting conversations with other Americans (by which I mean Amara) who think that the Russian obsession with the war is unhealthy. After thinking about that for a long time, I'm still not sure what I think. It certainly looks a bit silly at times, and sometimes harmfully so (witness relations between Estonia and Russia; last year, riots broke out in Tallinn and a PR volcano erupted in Moscow when the Estonians moved a statue of the "Soviet liberator" (who they justifiably call the "Soviet occupier") from central Tallinn to a cemetery on the edge of the city). However, I think it's still almost totally natural, government encouragement or no; when you're 23, it can be hard to remember that 60-odd years is not very long to get over such a tragedy, especially one that touched almost every single family in the country. I think the process of forgetting will be painful; unfortunate in some ways and helpful in others; and, in the end, totally natural. But the fact that it's a lot farther along in the U.S. than here doesn't really bother me.

Whoa, long post. I could write a lot (yeah, even more) about this. Maybe I'll get to in grad school?

05 May 2008

Spring Cleaning

I really like Russian cemeteries. I go for walks in one of the local ones sometimes, because it's quiet and green. (Is that weird?) Lately my walks have been less solitary than usual, because of an interesting Russian spring custom: after Easter, one should go to the graves of one's departed family members and have a "rememberance" (my somewhat awkward translation of поминки/pominki).

Like the Easter food I mentioned before, this formerly-religious tradition is a bit muddled. I've heard that it should take place nine days after Easter, that it should take place seven days after Easter; that it can take place any time from the Saturday to the Tuesday after Easter, and that the nine-day tradition is specific to Taganrog (it's not – it was the same in Vladivostok); I've also heard several different explanations for why it happens when it does. At any rate, it happens sometime around now, and both practicing and non-practicing Orthodox seem to participate.

Pominki, as I've been given to understand them, consist of drinking and eating to the memory of the deceased and leaving a little food and drink behind for them to enjoy. Besides happening every year after Easter, pominki happen right after the funeral (at home, not graveside like the Easter pominki); on the third, ninth and fortieth days after a death; six months after a death; and yearly on the anniversary of a death.

The yearly anniversary pominki don't have to be fancy; I recently had my first exposure to Orthodox funeral tradition when one of my colleagues brought in some little cakes and laid them out in our department office for the first anniversary of her mother's death. Whenever someone asked why they were there, she (or whoever was around) would explain; the person who had asked would then take a cake and say, "Царство небесное Татьяне"/"Tsarstvo nebesnoye Tat'yane," or "The heavenly kingdom for Tatyana," Tatyana being her mother's name. (I might have gotten the grammar on that slightly wrong, since it didn't seem polite to enquire about it, but the general idea is right.)

Anyway, the Easter pominki are a little more elaborate than that, but nowadays the most important thing about them seems to be that they're a chance to take care of your loved ones' graves. Significant grave maintenance is made necessary by several aspects of Russian cemeteries; first, Soviet-era gravestones tend to be made of painted metal, which requires frequent retouching; second, many plots are actually tiny fenced-in gardens – and even if they're not fenced in, lots of grave markers consist of both a headstone and a long, narrow flowerbox planted with real perennials, which obviously need to be tended; third, I've never really thought about who does the mowing and weeding and raking and the like in U.S. cemeteries, but whoever it is, they don't seem to have a comparable service in Russia, so it's up to you to do all that for your relatives' plots.

People try to do all that before the actual pominki, though, so for the past few weeks the cemetery has been full of people wielding rakes and spades and buckets of paint. A couple of babushki selling garish silk flowers and wreaths have even appeared outside the gates.

Some pictures of Taganrog's Old Cemetery:

The standard Soviet citizen's grave. Many are painted blue (because it's the color of heaven), but this one just got a fresh coat of green. The trend nowadays, though, is much more toward the granite (marble?) gravestones that are common in the United States.

Veterans got a star – the symbol of Soviet military power.

There are lots of rather makeshift-looking crosses, I assume because if you wanted to place a cross during the Soviet era, you had to make one yourself.

The typical fenced-in plot, which is often complete with a little bench and table for pominki.

A typical flowerbed-gravestone, which clearly shows three things: the common heaven-blue paint; how people do the paint job themselves; and how crosses were added onto the standard-issue Soviet gravemarkers. (It says "Tikhonov Vladimir M--- (I can't make out that word). 13.10.1910-15/XI 70. We love and remember you, your children.")

The church in the old cemetery.

All in all, I think yearly pominki are a nice tradition, although I can see where it could be a big burden when you're the only relative left in town and you've got eight or nine graves to take care of in different cemeteries.