November 28-29, 2003
Run Across the City
My plane left at about 5:30pm, late because of the snow and wet conditions in Chicago.
After a quick stop in Zurich, I boarded a second plane and took off for Moscow.
The flights were uneventful and ended with our landing in Moscow early evening.
At the airport my bag got lost, or so I thought, but after much confusion, we found
my bag and I was off. My pre-arranged ride failed to show up so I was left bargaining
for a taxi. After finally settling for a poor price we took off to the train station.
Moscow was interesting; it smelled odd and traffic was hectic. My cab driver was
nice, but kind of expected a big tip since I was running late. He got his money,
just so I could arrive at the station to find out I missed the train. Then, a random
guy told me that he would get me a ticket because I was a foreigner and had a passport.
This apparently worked because the whole line let us skip, but then everything got
confusing and I eventually realized I didn't have any rubles so needed to exchange
money; I exchanged a $100 bill, the cost of a first class round trip ticket to my
new home, Izhevsk (Ижевск).
We again skipped the line and got a ticket, ran down stairs, through a hall, up
some stairs which had no lights and was flooded, then ran up and over to the train.
He insisted I tip him so I gave him $5, which he complained about so I gave him
$10, he then insisted I give him $50 and I said no. He started laughing, grabbed
the money I had in my hand (a $20 bill, a $10, and a $5), threw my ticket at me
and ran away laughing.
The train was making its last call so I had no choice but to watch this man run
away with my money, only to look at my ticket and see he got me a second class one-way
ticket. Yes, I got scammed, bad. He scammed me out of $40 in addition to the $5,
$10, and $20 he ripped out of my hand. I've already spent (or had stolen) $195
and the day's not even over yet... not a good start to my new life in Russia.
No one on this train speaks English and I'm in a car with an older couple. I
wanted to call home, but there is no phone on the train, so I'll have to wait
until tomorrow. As our train was leaving the station I watched Moscow fade into
the distance as more and more houses were made of vans and cars. My thoughts fade
into a slow song on the radio; it seems to freeze the world around me, each second
longer than the last, one minute hours from the next. I guess this is what I spent
a ton of money on, a growing experience... and a story, hopefully a positive one.
November 29, 2003
Train to Izhevsk, My New Home
The train car is odd, in the halls there are carpets with a dark design on a red
base, which I didn't notice at first; as I entered the train a white runner
covered it, but after settling in everyone took their shoes off and are walking
on the carpet in their slippers; I didn't think to bring slippers so I'm
in my socks.
I've spent most of my time on this train trip staring out the window and wishing
for... well comfort I guess. I feel like I'm on an island, all the rooms are
closed; at the end of the hall is a giant samovar, something you would
find in a souvenir shop, and no one is wandering the train car.
November 30, 2003
I woke up early this morning when the train came to a screeching and rough stop
in Kazan, through which the Volga River winds. Kazan is about ¾ of the way to Izhevsk,
and is the capital of Tartarstan. Later in the day, the older couple in my cabin
told me it is a historically Muslim region due to the Golden Horde's dominance.
In addition, both Lev Tolstoy and Vladimir Lenin studied here, but before long,
I had fallen back asleep.
* * *
Ludmila, one of my roommates has been very kind to me, last night she was convinced
I needed to eat although I said I wasn't hungry (which I said more out of fear
than truth; I've heard they love caviar and cold smoked fish in Russia). She
made me borsch out of a bag, basically noodles and seasoning; it was neither good
nor bad, but undoubtedly I did need something to eat.
Thus far today, I have done little more than stare out the window; the world I see
is very different from Moscow. Here there are many small wooden houses, a lot of
snow, very few streets, a few cars and a surprising, although still not large number
of people. The houses vary greatly, some colorful with ornate wood designs and fancy
gates, while others are simply walls with a sheet metal roof.
I keep telling myself that this is reality, Moscow isn't and the United States
definitely is not "normal" on a world-wide scale. On one hand I want to
turn and run home, on the other, live this life, although I'm not sure I want
to be here. I feel like if I left now I would be nothing but a quitter. On another
side I feel if I hate this why not leave, life's too short to be unhappy. I
guess the winning motivation is this: I need to know and what gets me is that I
don't know what I need to know... I'm moving forward on nothing but blind
faith. However, it's only been a day since I've left, so things should start
to look up.
This journey on the train alone has made me doubt everything about my life; its
easiness, my direction, everything. I've been on this train just over 12 hours,
and I am already questioning my life, I guess that's a gift Russia has already
given me. Additionally, Ludmila gives me hope; she is very kind and is treating
me like her son, teaching me about Izhevsk and the republic it is the capital of,
Udmurtia. As is my tendency, I have blindly moved to a city I know nothing about
and only hours before arriving do I even bother to ask about it. Thankfully I have
a willing teacher.
Ludmila has mentioned a couple times how "very brave" I am to move here
in the middle of the winter, the average January temperature is -23º Celsius. As
if that weren't enough, she makes the city sound quite dull, since its inception
as a center for ironworks it has grown as industry changes demand, creating the
modern town based upon machinery, cars, steel, and guns. The AK-47 was invented
in Izhevsk and its founder, Anton Kalashnikov is still a resident.
The Republic of Udmurtia is named after the Udmurt people; quite noticeable due
to their red hair I'm told. While the people still thrive, their culture is
dying since many of them see their language of the Finno-Ugric group as useless
and many feel Russian culture is superior to their own.
As my journey progressed the landscape changed little. Just before arrival, the
rolling hills grew slightly, the coniferous trees' numbers rose and the nothingness
only dissipated at the border of Izhevsk itself. Most people in this unforgiving
climate live in the cities.
December 1, 2003
First Impressions, My Job, & My Host Family
Yesterday, I briefly met my family and today I awoke to find that my host sister,
Katya had made me tea. Katya then took me into town, our first stop was to exchange
money and get a monthly bus pass. We bought the pass for 335 rubles at a tiny and
freezing kiosk on the side of the street. The nearby bank was fairly modern, but
it opens late on Mondays so we had some time to relax and talk; our conversation
started with why the bank was closed. Most places open at 11:00 on Mondays, I dislike
Monday mornings; these Russians may be on to something... eliminating it entirely.
The city is bigger than I had first thought, we live on the outskirts, actually
the last street before the fields of nothingness begin, and I work in the center
(similar to the American "downtown") so it's quite the commute. I
seemed to have gained a child's perspective here since everything's new
and exciting, I stare wide-eyed absorbing every detail.
The first segment of my trip into town is by bus to the center, which is
the transportation hub affectionately called "Red Square." From here I
catch a tram along Karl Marx Street, on which I work. On this short trek from Red
Square to my school, there are a few very impressive buildings including a couple
old churches. Just before reaching the school, the tram passes a pond a short distance
to the west. This short path on the tram is the most exciting part of the commute,
since the entire bus ride just goes through a jungle of Soviet-age block apartments,
beginning with my apartment.
Once at work (yes I started the very first full day in the city), Katya left me
on my own, but I soon realized I had little idea on how to get back to my apartment.
Before diving into work, I had lunch in the school cafeteria, an ugly place with,
well, Russian food. My classes started with the 6th class (about 9 or 10 years old)
and I was immediately asked: "do you have a wife?"
As a gift, Tatiana Macarovna (the teacher I'm working with) brought me Russian
ice cream and Russian chocolate; the ice cream was simple and good while the chocolate
was excellent. As I ate my chocolate and ice cream I became fixated on the fact
that whenever a tram went past the school the lights dimmed until it had passed,
this could become annoying if I think about it too much.
From school I got on my tram, walked past a big flower market, which I find odd
in the middle of winter, a couple kiosks selling beer, a few regulars drinking on
the streets beside them, and hopped on my bus. This bus, like the last couple, had
a lot of troubles getting into gear and it sounded horrible, rolled backwards at
each bus stop and often came to abrupt stops causing everyone to nearly fall. Like
most vehicles, it seems the bus driver's major focus is on avoiding potholes
as opposed to minor issues like safety or oncoming traffic.
My apartment is bland and the elevator is slightly frightening so I have decided
to take the stairs to the sixth floor. The door to my host family's apartment
is metal and the apartment itself is very nice with wood floors, wall-papered, nice
I had a better opportunity to talk to my host family this evening. Katya is very
nice and speaks English well, but she and I have very little in common. Her sister
and grandmother are quiet; they speak no English, so I speak to them in Russian,
but I feel like they are looking at me with skepticism. The grandmother speaks to
me very seldom, while Anya, Katya's sister is very nice and talkative, but hasn't
seemed eager to initiate a conversation.
After dinner I headed back into town, during the days I teach at the school, while
at night I lead adult students in cultural discussions. I caught the bus into town
and noticed the 20 foot tall statue of Lenin. I have clearly lost my mind, I've
been past it twice and had no idea it was there; I'm going to blame it on jetlag.
My night class was interesting, I met Seth, a snowboarding crazed Brit, real nice
guy, but he's leaving for the Urals on Wednesday. I told my Moscow experience
to the class and was comforted to know Seth got swindled the first time he came
to Russia; he paid 1,400 rubles for a third class VIP ticket; that means it was
a 3rd class ticket sold to another naive foreigner (he paid twice the price of the
Much of our discussion was a question and answer session about me, but because of
my Moscow story the students couldn't help but throw a few jabs at the Muscovites.
The capital is not well liked by the students in this class; it is resented because
"they" take all the money and own everything; for example, there is oil
in Udmurtia, but all the digging rights are owned in Moscow so the Muscovites get
all the money. Muscovites have a reputation of being rude and stuck up; few people
here like Moscow, but St. Petersburg seems to have a much better reputation.
We rounded out the conversation with Michael Jordan, who came up after I said I
flew out of Chicago, and the movie "American Pie." Everyone here seems
to believe the United States is just like "American Pie;" couldn't
they have picked a different movie? By the end of class I was physically and mentally
December 2, 2003
Getting Into a Routine
I'm the teaching assistant for the lead English teacher at a local school, Tatiana
Macarovna. She insists I call her Tatiana, but my Russian training demands I call
her Tatiana Macarovna in order to show respect. Her English is flawless and her
accent very mild, she is about 50 years old, has dark red dyed hair, is married
(she wears her very plain gold wedding ring on her right hand), and is very stern
in her beliefs and actions.
I like her a lot, despite the fact that we disagree on nearly every issue; she's
very kind, giving, and willing to hear out my side of every argument. She told me
today that she was the secretary of the communist party in the school and she hates
Mikhail Gorbachov for Perestroika (most people here either hate him or
feel he was a weak leader, because he couldn't hold the country together); I
believe this is a good starting point for our disagreements.
What really surprises me is that pro-communist feelings are common throughout most
of the population in Izhevsk including many of my adult students as young as 19
or 20. Nearly everyone I've talked to hates Gorbachov, while the rest only laugh
when they hear his name. This city is still very much in love with communism and
it shows everywhere in the city; the main streets are Soviet Street, Union Street
(on which I live), Karl Marx Street, Lenin Street and, one of the few exceptions,
Despite our differences, children everywhere are similar, they are so innocent and
care free; their lives don't revolve around school, work, or money, they have
the gift of making life seem so simple.
On the way back to my apartment, I stared out the window. Sidewalks aren't shoveled
and roads aren't plowed. When I try to get on the bus everyone pushes and shoves
their way on in order to get a seat, there is no such thing as a line, but instead
a mass or hoard. I actually got a seat today, but was told "child move this
grandmother should sit" so I moved; neither the woman who asked nor the grandmother
thanked me or even acknowledged me. It seems my moving wasn't an act of kindness,
rather it was my duty.
No one talks on the bus or even makes eye contact except when showing their bus
pass or paying the conductor. My bus ride home today seemed to be a typical cross
section of this city as I know it (and that isn't well), as if the bus is a
time machine that took me back to the 1980s. Mullets are popular, many people wear
dark, tapered blue jeans, and tennis shoes don't exist, not one pair. In my
down jacket I stick out, as if I really were from the future not unlike Marty McFly
wearing a "life preserver" in Back to the Future.
Shifting from the bus's interior to exterior. Architecturally, the difference
between Imperial Russia, communist Russia, and Russia today are very apparent: there
are a few churches and wooden houses that represent the imperial age, they are incredible
works in their uniqueness, but most of the city is factories and communist bloc
apartments, perhaps the most un-anesthetically pleasing buildings ever. Modern Russia
is only seen in one place, the teenagers: their mentality and faith in a growing
I took the short walk from the bus stop to my apartment; trekked up my six flights
of stairs and knocked on the door I call home. I removed my shoes immediately upon
entering the apartment. Grandmother welcomed me home as always (I don't have
a key, or I should say 3 keys) and only now after three days, has she began to really
talk to me. I didn't think she liked me until this morning when she yelled at
me for not wearing a hat; she still may not like me, but she cares about me and
that's a pretty good start.
Before dinner, I washed my hands in the bathtub. The only sink in the house is in
the kitchen and that's "only for dishes not for hands." It's the
bathtub where I also shave and brush my teeth.
After dinner, I headed back into town for my night class. One of these identically
dressed students told me that I'm one of the first 50 foreigners in the city
since 1917, many of whom volunteered through the program I'm in. It makes me
feel like I'm in a place untouched by external cultures, although I work with
students used to foreigners teaching them on a daily basis so it's slightly
off. One of those cultural differences is in the way people think; when I'm
asked if I like something I'm expected to answer honestly and say I hate the
food here, there is really no tact in it and politeness in American terms doesn't
exist. Honesty or tact, which is more important? I don't know, at times I welcome
the change at others my conscience beats me down.
December 3, 2003
Izhevsk and Russia Today & in the Past
During my day with Tatiana Macarovna, we had an hour off between classes, at which
point she was supposed to tutor a little girl, but she left as her friend and I
tutored the three girls. She didn't leave due to laziness, but rather to give
the girls a new tutor; she works harder than most people I've ever met.
Tatiana Macarovna's friend, Kathryn, is an American here "giving to the
people." She doesn't teach English and has no association with the program
I'm in, but is friends with Tatiana and occasionally helps tutor a couple of
the girls. Kathryn told me about the villages she's visited and the stories
make this bleak town of Izhevsk sound like heaven.
After class, these two girls we were tutoring and I walked down Karl Marx Street
to the center. I asked about Izhevsk and I was immediately informed the
AK-47 was invented here. Izhevsk was a very important city in the Soviet Union due
to the weapons and steel production so the city was closed off during World War
II (WWII), even from Russians not native to the city. I was also told that Izhevsk
was called "Ustinov" during much of the communist times and only regained
its present name in the early 1990s.
In the afternoon, I finished the day with Tatiana Macarovna's youngest class;
they had never met an American before, so I had to spend about five minutes signing
autographs, which is actually quite fun and flattering. My day classes vary greatly
by age. There is no "kindergarten," but first class up to eleventh class;
there is no high school, just continuous study.
My night class with the adult students was interesting today and Tatiana Macarovna's
pro-Soviet feelings encouraged me to steer the conversation in that direction. Everyone
under 18 was either pro-Russia or had no opinion saying "politics don't
interest me" while everyone over 18, except one girl, was pro-Soviet Union.
They said the Soviet Union was better because it was stable, they had a certain
and positive future, the army was glorious, and everyone always had food and housing.
Although they couldn't travel in the past, now they can't afford to, so
that freedom doesn't matter. In the U.S.S.R. they may have been naïve (their
words, not mine), believing their lives were the best in the world, but they had
job stability and hope.
They all agreed the greatest time in Russian history was immediately following WWII:
they were victorious, had plenty of food, and had a certain future, a great one.
This time was under the rule of Josef Stalin and most of my students said Stalin
was a very bad man, but I got the impression society feels his crimes are almost
forgivable given the life and hope that he gave the country. In addition to their
world then, everyone was "one" because they all joined Konsomol
(for ages 14-28) and Pioneer (ages 9-14), making friends as they worked
as one. One girl said her parents can't comprehend how she has friends without
such organizations today.
A goal of the Bolsheviks was to create a new government and more importantly
a new type of person, the ideal Soviet man or woman. This person was formed through
education and culture, today the people of Russia are the children of that system,
of that program; they maintain that mentality, knowing its fabrications, yet still
yearning for the days of naivety and hope. I disagree with and will fight communism,
but these Russians wish it back; with the knowledge of truth, they still seek out
the world of lies. I however believe this says more about the growing disparity
in the socio-economic classes and core Russian ideals then the political stance
of modern Russians.
To solidify the Russian ideal and, I suppose, why communism did work in Russia was
simply put by one girl. She said that there is the "Russian way" and the
"European way," the Russian way is as a team: since a man can't built
a house by himself he has his friends and neighbors join him to build it, the European
way is to try to build it by one's self only buying more and more from stores
to help him build it. While not a perfect analogy, her point was that communist
ideals go hand in hand with the Russian mentality and culture, that's why it
worked... to a degree.
Although these students argued in favor of communism, they also seemed disappointed
at the leadership of Brezhnev and Khrushchev, a time which "was terrible"
because these two leaders tried to be like the west and sold their forests and oil
for pennies (or if I may, kopecks). The people under their rules had little
food and life was not as good as communism demands life to be. The only highlight
was when they beat the Americans in the space race in April of 1961 when Yuri Gagarin
was launched into orbit.
Today, Russia's future is uncertain, something only the sub-20 population can
appreciate. During our debate, this pro-democratic group focused on the positives
including the free market economy, but immediately pointed out the fact that they
are too young to remember the Soviet Union, stating it almost as if their opinions
Everyone agreed the modern Russian government is worse than that of the Soviet government
because today everyone is bribed. "During the Soviet Union we had no choices
and only got what was Russian made; now we have choices, but that doesn't matter
because we can't afford any of them." In fact, one person pointed out the
fact that few people can afford cars, only two people in this class even have driver's
licenses and neither owns a car.
After class I went to get a hat and a few people from class joined me. After reaching
the "mall," I bought that much needed hat for 350 rubles then we ate at
a restaurant called "Golden Guilda." My students are starting to invite
me out and I feel like I'm actually starting to fit in... slightly, very slightly.
Okay, although I don't fit in, it's nice to have a social life, even if
that means going shopping, which I despise.
I got home later in the evening to a crying Katya. She said that her sister and
she have been fighting a lot lately; Anya is 18 and today I was informed she is
pregnant; Katya hates her boyfriend. Katya's afraid Anya got pregnant on purpose
in order to guilt her boyfriend into marriage. I heard that's a common tactic
here, especially with the fierce competition to marry a man in this city that is
predominantly women. If they marry, he will most likely move in here, something
Katya is not thrilled with. It's common for young couples to live with their
parents/grandparents until they have enough money to move out.
December 4, 2003
Russian Food & the Challenge of Eating
The bell signaled the end of my second class so I headed down to the ground floor
for lunch. The cafeteria stands opposite the school's entrance, I washed my
hands in one of the seven or eight sinks, took a deep breath, and headed in. I hung
my coat on the 2 x 4 with nails sticking out of it (a.k.a. the coat rack) and prayed
for a culinary miracle.
The food is served Russian style: sour cream on nearly everything. They don't
serve any drinks other than juice or tea; I pick up my juice as my stomach hides
behind the façade of my smile to humor the lunch lady.
The pressure to order builds, the longer I wait the more food the lunch lady gives
me. This is the most pressure I've felt since finals, my mind races... thus
far I've had stewed lentils, salad, pilaf, soups, breads, and both juice and
The salads aren't salad as we know it, but a plate of shredded vegetables covered
in oil or mayonnaise… Oh no! She's reaching for a salad… I quickly sputter out
"No salad today, thank you!" In one third is cut up green onions, another
third is purple stuff, and the last what appears to be cabbage of some sort. She
begins to find something to give me; I need to think quicker...
The soups are always served with sour cream, even if asked not, but are consistently
good... "Soup please." Okay, I bought myself some time, think Justin,
think… The pilaf keeps getting worse, but is still edible; I just don't understand
how you can take rice and meat and make it so bad, there's nothing else in there
other than spices.
No pilaf on the menu, how about the pastries; they are really hit or miss. The first
roll I had was stuffed with some brownish-grey stuff that was painful to choke down.
Later I had the some roll with rice and eggs, which was ok and later with apricots,
which was poor. I also had a croissant sprinkled with poppy seeds before rolled,
edible. A roll I had yesterday was a hot dog type thing with a roll wrapped around
it. A fairly good roll is a flat bread-type thing with mashed potatoes on top. There
it is… "That please!"
I contemplate my options: do I venture on or walk away? The lunch lady seems to
be looking around for something else… she'll just keep giving me food if I don't
do something and I feel bad leaving much of it. Walk away Justin, walk away… Thank
goodness, one more meal survived… my stomach thanks me.
I move to the table on the serving counter's right, look through the pile of
spoons and take the only one that doesn't have any visible food stuck to it.
The "cafeteria" has a few old, crooked tables; the chairs are but stools,
a piece of wood with two bent metal bars screwed on to create make-shift legs.
My soup is flavorless, it must have been boiled for hours, the roll is very good
and the juice cannot go wrong. After savoring the flavor of the roll I put my dishes
on a table near a window looking into the kitchen. The student on cafeteria duty
gets up and cleans my table. Every student has to take turns with kitchen and cloak
room duties so for these days miss school since they are all-day jobs: the lunch
room is open much of the day, children coming and going as they please. There is
no closing time, it closes when they decide it does and everyday differs.
I remove my coat from its nail and go back down the hallway; windows on my right
looking out onto Karl Marx Street, on my left are classrooms. I stop at the boys'
bathroom on the second floor; it is not labeled and has no door. The bathroom is
two rooms; the first is small and damp with a single sink on the left and on a good
day a bar of soup sits on its ledge. Passing through the doorway (with no door of
course) you enter the bathroom itself. There are only stalls, but no doors to the
stalls and no toilet paper.
Tatiana greeted me after lunch with more candy, I only took one and she told me
that that's bad luck in Russia, you must always take at least 3, one for you,
one for someone else, and one for the future. Before everyone showed up, I asked
Tatiana about food and drinking traditions… I got the impression it's ok to
drink alcohol if you're with a group even if you're the only one drinking,
whereas drinking by one's self automatically puts him in the alcoholic category.
The students started coming in the half wallpapered, half painted ten foot tall
room as the heat seemed to rise. The heating is always on full blast so I opened
the window (turning the heat down would be too logical).
For some reason I became agitated and so threw the lesson plan aside and started
asking questions about life in the school system… I am completely naïve to everything
apparently. "No we're not all lesbians, if that's what you want to
know." No, that's not what I wanted to know; there is definitely some sort
of cultural gap here, all I asked was "Why do girls hold hands?" They
hold hands both in school and in the streets, but only in pairs of two. It seems
very odd, but soon I'm sure I won't even notice, like the filth on the buses…
ok, I still notice that, but it doesn't bother me any more... okay, again not
true, but at least not as much as it used to.
December 5, 2003
Udmurtia & Random Observations
I had no classes today, but came in to tutor Alisa and Katya, both of who are in
the 11th class. Our assignment was politics, but it didn't take long to change
subjects as we walked around the city for about five hours; I asked them all about
Izhevsk, Udmurtia, and life here. They gave me a list of places in the city to see,
the hot spots for 16-18 year olds. The list consists of theaters, discos, bowling
alleys, cafes, and ice skating arenas.
Then they told me about the famous people of Udmurtia; there are more than I had
believed. The first is of course Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, the most famous Russian
composer. Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, a village just 60 km east of Izhevsk.
The girls said the city is uneventful other than his birth place/museum, but it
would make a good day trip. Tchaikovsky was born in 1840, but just ten years later
he moved to St. Petersburg (where he lived the rest of his life) to attend boarding
school. He later gained fame with works such as "Romeo and Juliet," "Swan
Lake," "Evgeni Onegin," "Queen of Spades," and his most
famous "The Nutcracker Suite."
The second famous person of Udmurtia is from a village just outside Izhevsk called
Logachi, Galina Kulakova, who won eight Olympic cross country skiing medals including
three gold medals in the 1972 Olympics alone. She competed in the 1964, '68, '72,
'76, and '80 Olympics; in total she won four gold medals, two silver medals, and
two bronze metals. She still lives in her village nearby.
The third famous person of Udmurtia is from Izhevsk and his invention is more famous
than he is, Kalashnikov, the creator of the AK-47. He still lives here and Katya
told me that his grandson and granddaughter are students in one of my English classes
so I'm going to have to find out who they are.
Our talk was continuously interrupted by the simultaneous tour of the city they
gave me. One of our first stops was the monument for Friendship of the Russian and
Udmurt people overlooking the pond (it's called a pond not a lake, because it
was man-made). Just across the street is the town square, which presents a better
view of the monument, which a lot of locals joke is actually Kulakova's skis.
Our next stop was the president's (of Udmurtia) private palace, the national
museum, and Pushkinskaya Street, ending with the Circus, National Bank, and Lenin's
Library (with the statue of Lenin in the front) on Sovietskaya Street. Lenin's
Library was the oddest part of the day: Alisa made me face the statue of Lenin,
which I find to be quite fascinating and was very impressed with. Then, to my surprise
she asked me to turn around to see a very modern bank; she wanted to surprise and
impress me with this bank, but it's exactly what you'd see in any city in
the US. The single most uninteresting building to me was the most interesting to
her. Talk about different perspectives, I didn't know how much the US offers…
until now, in a moment like this. I didn't realize walking around the city,
but seeing the pride and joy on her face, that was what hit home.
Seeing dozens of people on the streets today steered our conversation to fashion
in the city. The winter dress is odd, coats are typically fur and look like they
cost a fortune, coats that only the extremely rich in the US wear. Girls dress like
they're 80 years old, 15 year olds dress in fur and fancy boots, but since every
15 year old girl wears that it's not dressing like an 80 year old, but it still
shocks me when a woman in all fur and fancy boots turns around and she is about
Some men wear leather coats, but they are rare and that is a symbol of wealth. Another
style, which is not common, but also not unusual is men in big black coats with
one hand in their chest coat pocket like they're grabbing a gun, they walk the
streets like this, they're not simply getting something; it's very odd.
Hats are either very typical American or the stereotypical big fur hats. Some women
wear knit hats or simply a scarf over their heads and many women also wear hoods
when it's really cold. Every girl wears a scarf and some men do too.
Many of the girls here look like prostitutes, especially the rich; one girl was
wearing dark eye shadow and bright red lipstick, braided hair, tights with a skirt
and tall boots to her knees; Alisa asked what I thought of her so I said she looks
like a prostitute. Alisa said she is obviously very rich as was her "friend,"
an old fat guy wearing leather pants.
I also noticed that as people walk through this city everyone's head is down,
I can't tell if this is normal in the summer too or if they just try to avoid
slipping on the ice slicks they call sidewalks.
Our next stop was Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the center; I asked the
girls if it was ok to enter and take a look around, but they said they really need
to have a skirt on so we passed. They never go to church and few people their age
We finished my tour with the "friendship theater," a couple ice rinks,
Vavalon (the dance club), a hotel (a rare thing in this city), and the
My night class was cut short by a visit to a bar. Enough formal education they said,
then suggested we go to a bar… well actually a café. It's funny how some things
are completely opposite and others are identical. Tonight I played pool with a few
adult students at a café, where they ordered pizza and beer. Upon entering Izhstal
(a movie theater with a café welcoming its guests) we checked our coats, as you
do everywhere in Russia, then entered the café. It was nice and looked like any
place one would find in the United States.
I "indulged" on the first American food I have seen in a week, a 70 ruble
pizza, which turned out really quite poorly on American standards, but good in comparison
to… well everything else here. It had onions, tomatoes, a little cheese, mushrooms,
and… you may want to sit down for this one… mayo, I guess because it resembles mozzarella
in that they're both white!? I only ate half and "shared" the rest
with the group, it was enough to satisfy me and not too much to make me projectile
vomit across the café.
It was late when we left; I made my way to the bus station in the center,
more of an outdoor bar than a street at this time on a Friday night. Drinking in
the streets is legal and very common, I don't think there's been a day I
haven't seen at least one person drinking in public. Not further than a block
from here school children are walking at night, yet the streets are very safe and
I haven't yet felt threatened although I'm in the center every
night after dark by myself… plus I obviously stick out as an American with a bright
blue down jacket, yet still no threat.
Drinking is common in the center and being drunk by 7:00 is not rare. On
Wednesday there was a drunk guy talking to me on the bus at no later than 8:00pm;
he then started singing and falling, it was an interesting bus ride. I tried to
ignore him so stared at the pictures of the scantily clad women, which cover the
interior of the bus and many of the city's billboards.
December 6, 2003
Putting myself on this "island" has truly taught me more about myself
than about Russia and its people. This experience magnifies my weaknesses, my strengths,
and is teaching me to overcome my faults. I have been failing to see the positives,
I can't figure out why I have ever wasted any of my life worrying, I have so
much, yet still expect more, I don't appreciate the here and now, and dislike
others because I fail to see life through their eyes, I know only my own narrow
perspective. I get nervous about things that never come to pass, yet fail to apprehend
With every weakness comes a strength that cannot compensate, but instead must be
harnessed to forge ahead and overcome these obstacles I call weaknesses. I have
dreams and goals, I want to be the best I can be, I'm beginning to recognize
life, but will never understand it; I'm not sure we're capable of truly
understanding anything. Life is not about what if's or could have's or should
have's, life should be lived now; if I'm never happy with now and always
want a better future, I'll never realize the present until it's the past.
I should think about and be excited about the future, but never want it, yearn for
it, or live in it.
If I'm not happy with myself, I can never truly be happy. That's why I'm
here, not because it's Russia, but because I need answers, I need to find happiness
and I need to find myself. I have cleared my eyes, but still cannot see. The world
is foggy and the only way to live is one step at a time. Life's not about discovering
yourself, but being happy with yourself and improving that person. It's simple;
if I'm happy with myself here and now, I have as much as any man could want
and more than any man has ever had. That's all; I know it's selfish.
December 7, 2003
Dance Clubs, Church, & Transportation
Last night was, well, interesting. Maybe this social life is a curse, not the God-send
I believed it to be. Vavalon, one letter away from Babylon is a place I will never
return to. The dance club is filled with smoke: breathing was difficult at best,
the people… I'll get to them, but I'll try to start optimistically.
The stage and set up is excellent. The first floor has a bar on one end and the
stage, about five feet off the ground on the opposite side. The dance floor between
the two is about 50 by 50 feet and lights up like a true 1970's disco (at least
the ones I've seen in the movies). The outside is lined with tables and waitresses
were running everywhere.
As we entered Vavalon, we dropped our coats at the cloak room then passed through
a metal detector; the security guards were wearing tuxes… my first red light and
I wasn't even in the club. We found our reserved table on the second floor,
which looks down to the dance floor and stage. Tables line this semi-circle with
perfect views of the stage. Just above our heads hung suspended lights of all colors
and strobe lights shining on the dance floor.
My table ordered drinks just prior to the opening act and I noticed no one here
drinks vodka. Beer, cocktails, even wine and rum, but vodka just isn't popular…
well, I'll throw that stereotype out the window.
The show began with a German girl of about 20 or 25, who was very talented and gave
me hope for the rest of the night. She played an acoustic guitar and had an incredible
voice. Many of her songs were in English and her voice and depth of passion stood
out in this still very closed society. I praised her performance with an applause
however soon found myself to be the center of attention… I was the only one in the
entire club clapping; I continued until my enthusiasm turned to confusion and slight
embarrassment. My table told me not to clap because her music was strange and she
wasn't good. Well… I had the second red light of the short night and I had to
ask myself if this journey was worth continuing. I remained curious so stayed.
Within a half hour the headliner came out, one of which is Bjork's cousin. Ok,
I know it was the third red light, but I couldn't help it, you should have seen
these two, like actors straight out of a 1940s futuristic space movie set in the
I was sitting on the edge of my seat, prepared to crash and burn, but the anticipation
and rising excitement in the club made me quite excited too. "I don't really
like Bjork"… I know I shouldn't have said it, but it was so natural, what
was I supposed to say… "Actually it's Bjork who is strange and not good."
They jumped down my throat; turns out Bjork is like a goddess here and apparently
so is her cousin.
Bjork's cousin was dressed in a black suit, dark sunglasses, and in front of
him, his instrument, an Apple computer. I had signed up for an electrical music
concert? His buddy was wearing a matching outfit. The concert started when the one
guy pushed a button then bobbed his head as the other guy was infected with some
sort of twitch consuming his entire body; the students at the table called it dancing.
Some girl came up for one song and sang; she was excellent, but the electronic music
was too much for me, everyone became infected with this dancing twitch, each possessing
a light-up square as if touching another was a cure to this disease they loved so
much… I had to get out.
I didn't know this kind of culture existed in Izhevsk and looking back I kind
of wish I didn't find out.
I was picked up early this morning by a red-headed Udmurt who spoke no English and
even less Udmurtian; he works for an American in town, Johnny. Johnny's assistant,
Kathryn and he are the only people I could find willing to go to church (they actually
go every Sunday). Although, I had met Kathryn before, this was the first time I
had met Johnny; initially, I thought he was somewhat arrogant and later I knew he
was arrogant, but I very much like him.
This trip made me feel like I was in the mafia, or going to gulag, the
Soviet prison system. The Russian van we were traveling in wears a brown exterior
with three seats in front and five facing each other in back. I was in a seat that
was facing back and in the seats facing front were Johnny's fiancée, a tall
attractive Russian women, and Johnny's protégé, a 20 year old who looks Russian
based upon his dress: a long black button down jacket with a very tall and pointy
collar. The protégé, Dennis conversed with our driver in Russian.
Being my first time with Johnny, I wasn't sure if he was legitimate or some
sort of mafia boss who uses church attendance as a means to lure his victims. We
talked on the drive, more formalities than anything else, but nice to talk to a
couple of Americans none-the-less.
We arrived at Kazansky Church (named after its most famous icon, that of Mary by
a painter from Kazan), a very beautiful and modestly elaborate building dominated
by red brick. As we approached the church we had to sign the cross three times,
the cross was slightly different from the Catholic cross; the sign starts at the
head to stomach and then right shoulder to left; after this we bowed… three times.
We began up the stairs, crossed and bowed another three times at the front door,
finally three more times after we entered. We entered near the front of the church
and moved even closer to the front, there are no pews, but only people: a crowd
The church was littered with numerous icons highlighted in ancient Slavonic. Nearly
all icons in modern Russia have been mass produced by a factory owned by the church
but still produced with prayer and faith, making them icons. The icons are typically
pictures of saints, most modern, but a few obviously survived communism.
The first part of the service was in ancient Slavonic, the father and his two assistants
were facing the altar, not us at this point. This rhythmic Slavonic went on for
awhile and I have no idea what they were saying. The father and his assistants faced
a very ornate façade of three doors, at first they came out of the left door (from
our point of view).
After a lengthy segment of the service, the father and his assistants turned to
face us. The whole church spoke in a rhythmic unison accompanied by the instrument-less
choir that vocalized more of a chant than a song, quite in sync to the preaching
for the remainder of the mass. There was much signing and bowing throughout the
Communion was very strange because only the children and those who confessed their
sins during the past week receive communion. First they came to the front and from
a spoon received something as the two assistants held a cloth under the receivers'
face and then wiped his or her mouth. After this each recipient moved to the left
side of the church and received the actual bread and a cup of water. After a person
drinks the water, it is dipped into another bowl to be cleansed, then filled with
water and passed to the next person (there are five or six cups in this rotation).
After the worshipping body finished communion and spoke in unison two times the
priest gave a sermon about Ekaterina, because it's her name day. Soon after
this the service ended, everyone kissed the cross and priest's hand as they
flowed in a counter clockwise motion and exited.
I was introduced to… it seemed everyone and Katherine received gifts because it
was her name day. Father Victor also gave Johnny the extra bread from the mass.
It was at this point that they explained to me that Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy
are so similar in beliefs that the seven sacraments are equivalent and transferable
between the two churches.
Among the people I met with was the priest's daughter, a girl of about 18; so
long as a man entering the ministry has no intention of becoming a bishop he can
marry and have children.
After this, Johnny and Kathryn showed me the church and told me of its history.
In the 1930s this church was destroyed, but the archbishop refused to leave: he
died that day along with religion in Izhevsk. Recently, plans to expand this church
caused a dig of the old foundation; they found some bodies, all of which had bullet
holes in their heads, their identities are unknown, but that archbishop is suspected
of being one of them.
Ironically, on this same plot of land are the tombs of the communist leaders who
were responsible for the destruction of the original church. Many felt their bodies
should be removed, but father Victor insisted they stay because in their last years
they repented… plus father Victor believes they are now a part of the church's
history and should not be forgotten.
Prior to the destruction of religion, a cathedral (any church that an archbishop
presides over is a cathedral, whereas any church with a "father" are churches)
stood here which towered well above any other in Udmurtia. Nearly all the churches
in Udmurtia were destroyed; the ones that were not leveled were turned into theaters,
or other such things, but in nearly all the altar was replaced by a toilet. Religion
was non-existent and most of the people who kept it alive were the children of that
last generation of the monarchy in the 1910s and their children, who were given
hope by a slight religious revival in the early 40s.
About 80% of the population in this church is elderly and typically all women. The
great religious revival I've read about is but a figment for the remaining 20%
consists of all ages, but mostly the youth attending with their grandmothers, none
over the age of five.
Religion here confuses me in the sense that the only people that follow are babushkas
and they are very ignorant to theology (I guess in a way we are all ignorant to
theology), for example sometime during the Soviet period in Izhevsk it was taught
and believed that you cannot show your teeth, it's a sin and so these women
have not smiled in their lives until only recently, if even then, yet they are still
hesitant and follow very strange traditions that are, most likely, very untrue but
thought to be true for years and only now trying to change.
Kathryn and Johnny invited me over for tea and I happily accepted. One dish the
servants brought out was Udmurtian pastries with potatoes in the middle, almost
like a mini mashed potato pie. They were excellent and as I ate the best food I'd
had in days, Johnny continued on about the city's billionaires (in US dollars)
who struck it rich from the oil industry, but I was too pre-occupied with nourishment
to pay much attention.
Once I finished three or four of the pastries offered I again contributed to the
conversation and realized Johnny is truly giving and has great intentions. He has
a gift to make me feel like everything that's his is mine. He lives here in
order to give back to the Russian people which is incredibly noble. On the other
hand I feel like he's cheating himself because he lives like an American with
five translators, two or three drivers and a protégé while he's waited on hand
and foot… which I must admit was really quite a nice change.
Johnny told me of the young generation and their arrogance, including one student
who said to him "I'll just bribe the judge if I have to." Johnny was
greatly offended by this comment, but I'm not: sadly that's the state of
being in Russia and if you have money and connections it's easy to manipulate
the system so long as you don't step on the wrong toes.
After visiting Johnny, he insisted I get a ride home from his driver, but I had
all day free so spent some time walking around the center before taking
the bus home. My uneventful wander ended in the center at my bus stop.
Although dirty, the transportation here is excellent; the buses come every four
or five minutes and today I only had to wait about two minutes. At the worst of
times I have to wait ten minutes, but that's only during off hours. All the
transportation looks and feels very Soviet: big, ugly, dirty, uniform, and working,
although never well.
I entered the middle of three doors on the bus (the front door never opens) and
the conductor asked for my pass or money (it costs 4 rubles), typically the bus
is so packed it takes the conductor three or four stops to get from one side of
the bus to the other, but on a Sunday afternoon she just glanced at me and I flashed
my pass, she nodded and moved on to the only other couple who got on.
Despite being somewhat empty the bus is full of snow and slush, something that is
almost synonymous with public transportation in Izhevsk. Today I can see the floor,
but until times like these one won't even know what color the floor is, only
seeing dirty water flowing back and forth.
On a good day (not today) I can look out the window at the other traffic; the cars
are often covered with dirt and you typically can't tell the color of them.
Like in the US, traffic drives on the right side of the road, but cars are from
everywhere so sometimes the driver is on the right and sometimes the left, typically
the cars are Russian made so the driver sits on the left, but in this country, assume
Most of the buses including this one are just typical old buses and there seems
to be a code of silence on the buses, unless you're drunk, in which case its
common practice to make a fool out of yourself. Most passengers opt to stare out
the windows aimlessly even if the dirt blocks their view beyond the window. I tend
to be among the crowd staring out the window. The bus slowed as its doors opened,
I jumped out before the bus ever came to a full stop as the bus continued on.
December 8, 2003
I woke up today and had a mission; some friends were going to surprise a friend
of theirs, Nadia for her birthday. We got flowers then we rushed across the city,
through Lenin District, primarily an industrial area, to her apartment. On the way
we saw the sun for about 15 seconds along with a stereotypical scene I feel obligated
to mention: there was a small white Lada (the typical Russian-made car) with two
passengers, both men with beards, one of which was in a military uniform... classic.
It's tough trying to find your way around the city because there are no street
signs, just the name of the street on the sides of buildings. The day was fun, but
I have little to write as the day was long.
December 9, 2003
The more time I spend with my host sister the more I realize she is a girly-girl,
but most girls in Russia are. Dennis, one of her classmates told me all Russian
girls are very "feminine" and that's when I realized why they seem
so unattractive to me. Katya needed one and a half hours to get ready to go to class
today, everything has to be perfect before going out: her hat, scarf, coat, and
hair, it's ridiculous.
I met Katya at Udmurt State University today to talk to her English class. I was
not real impressed; the school is only six buildings and the teaching is… well horrid.
The university's exterior is interesting, kind of run down, but that adds some
history and character. Upon entering, each building has a coat check or two, huge
mirrors with a little shelf running along the bottom, and a food stand. All these
mirrors, which dominate the entrance of each building are lined with girls doing
their hair and scarves. It was here that I met Katya.
The university system follows that of the elementary school: students stay together
every year from kindergarten (or their equivalent) through high school, so Katya
is with the same people all day everyday for five years in university also. Plus
she told me that one must choose his/her major (although they call it a specialty
or main subject) immediately upon entry and you only receive a "diploma"
if you graduate with honors; if you just graduate you receive some other certificate…
I'm not sure what it's called.
Universities are hard to get into, but they're the same as schools; professors
get paid little and so do very little; I know one woman who was a professor, but
quit in order to become a secretary, a better paying job.
University is five years, but typically students enter at 17 or 18 so graduate at
the same age many American students graduate from college. The universities also
give grades on two scales. One is to earn it, but this is very difficult. The second
is to pay for it, which is uncommon, but almost the rule in highly sought after
departments like law. This allows the rich to get good grades, a diploma, and therefore
good jobs because they always grade at the top of their classes.
We entered Katya's English class (mind you these are English majors) and I was
appalled at how terribly they spoke English, it was truly pathetic and the teacher
spoke little better. She asked if the students wanted to talk to me or watch a movie;
having already failed in their attempt to talk to me before class they choose the
movie so the teacher put it in the VCR and left. Everyone talked to each other in
Russian and no one watched the movie but me. At one point the girls left to get
tea, later they left to get food, once the guys left to smoke; the teacher stopped
by two times, half the class was gone each time, but she thought nothing of it and
left… why did she even stop by?
The best part was when there was a break; they stopped the movie and restarted it
after the break, but they weren't ever watching the movie so why even bother
stopping it? I spoke Russian better than the English teacher spoke English… and
she's teaching the English majors English at a university.
En route from the university to the center I walked with a student I met
named Denis, who showed me the old KGB building, into which the black KGB cars would
enter with their new prisoners. The building still adores the hammer and sickle
and these "gates to hell" are impressively intimidating.
The KGB (along with its forefather organizations prior to the KGB's establishment
in 1954) in Izhevsk would go out in black cars, pick up the people and enter these
gates; the people would never be seen or heard from again. A lot of people turned
their neighbors in to receive a better apartment, to prove themselves good members
of society, or the paranoia spread through the culture made them believe their neighbor
really was a spy.
Dennis said his grandmother's two brothers and another relative were all sent
to gulag and never seen or heard from again. I believe this to be one reason people
here are so closed off and are so paranoid about talking to anyone new, while always
locking their doors (although everyone seems to have a welcome mat outside their
door, none of which are ever stolen).
December 10, 2003
An Evening at the Ballet
After buying a couple maps today I took a quick swing down Pushkinskaya
then headed off to the ballet. Pushkinskaya is the most beautiful street in the
city, much of the street is in the St. Petersburg style, which consists of three
floors, yellow, beautiful really and dominates the city's beauty. More recently
they've added two more floors to most of these buildings in the same style.
The opera house or theater is just off Pushkinskaya Street and my early arrival
allowed me to look at my recently purchased map. The city consists of five districts
and I live on the eastern end of the city… in fact on the very last street in the
city, beyond which is only fields, hills, and trees.
I didn't have to wait long before Kathryn, Alisa, Katya, Natalya, and Alisa's
mom arrived. We had the director's box and hence great seats for Shelkunchik
(Щелкунчик), the Nutcracker. The ballet itself was ok, but the music excellent,
and the place was sold out. Our tickets only cost 100 rubles a piece; in comparison
Vavalon, the night club costs 200 rubles.
The ballerinas and orchestra get paid very poorly and the people of Udmurtia and
Izhevsk supposedly have little interest in the fine arts, unlike in Moscow where
it is greatly respected (although it was sold out, it was nearly all school groups).
Most productions here are far from being sold out and many people from Izhevsk mock
the arts here as a very bad stage and theater. The building however has a nice set
up including three levels, a nice stage, pit, boxes on both sides, the stairs are
marble and the rest mostly concrete.
After the performance we went to a late dinner at Kama on the center square,
across from Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It was very fancy; we even had to ring a
door bell to get in. After checking our coats, we found our seats in the very well
designed and decorated restaurant, the walls were covered with pictures of Izhevsk
from the turn of the 20th century, from which Izhevsk looks like an entirely different
city. We were treated with free samples of wine due to a wine presentation in the
This was the first formal meal I had in Russia and it was odd, because many items
on the menu I had actually heard of. I had French onion soup and chicken Kyiv; both
of which were excellent. We spend our time talking and little else; this was Russia,
but at the same time it was a nice break from "real-world Russia," if
only for a brief moment. This is how I imagine much of Moscow and St. Petersburg,
but those are only two cities in the world's largest country; Izhevsk, I think,
is Russia to most of the population.
December 11, 2003
After class I went to Alexander's house for dinner then headed to the "bars."
The first, a karaoke bar was playing the Scorpions' Winds of Change, but no
one was singing; it was awesome, but everyone hated it.
The next couple of places we couldn't get into, because they were full or wouldn't
let Alcy in because she's 17 and you must be 18 to enter or buy alcohol, although
anyone can drink by law. We eventually found "Charlie's," a great
jazz club with a live band. I'm no jazz fan, but it was the most glorious sound
I've heard since arriving to Izhevsk. After their first song had ended, I began
to clap… again I was the only one applauding (well Seth was too), what's wrong
with these people, do they have no taste in music? Yes… the answer is yes. All that's
popular here is the ultra trendy modern, stiff, techno and electronic music.
On a bathroom break I realized a bazaar phenomenon; the pickup spot in any public
place is in the basement, which is where the bathrooms always are. There were more
people here than in the bar upstairs, everyone drinking and chain smoking. There
was a girl in the guy's bathroom just smoking and talking. There were urinals,
the first I've seen in Russia and the toilets were holes in the ground, but
to get to them you had to walk up a few steps. There were no doors protecting one's
privacy to the toilets and no door to the bathroom, so if you were taking a number
two anyone walking down the hall got an eyeful. Some public toilets have a person
outside charging money to use the facilities. One woman even asked if I was using
the toilet or urinal, because the toilet costs more to use.
After getting back upstairs I met a Canadian, Brad and soon Alcy was on her way
out. Her mother was irate last night because she got home late, at 10:05 and she
was supposed to get home by ten. Parents seem to be the extremes here, Seth has
the impression all are very strict, but my babushka doesn't seem to care or
understand anything that the girls do and the girls don't even have to come
home if they don't want to. Alcy's mom however is extremely strict. I don't
know of any father punishing a child here, it either seems to be the mother's
job or the father is not around. I get the impression few families have a father;
many men are alcoholics and few people have a male role model since the Great Patriotic
War (World War II) took so many fathers and alcohol has taken so many more since.
December 12, 2003
Family Life & Culture
My babushka is interesting to say the least. Since I got here two weeks ago she's
only left the house once. Typically she's up before me and does... well, really
nothing. All she does is knit or stand in her room; she watches TV, cooks, and stares
out the window, mostly the latter. She always wears the same afghan and just moves
around the house. I don't think she likes me and she always seems to be waiting
for the phone to ring or for someone to come to the door so she has something to
do. Personally, I believe the only thing keeping her alive is her two granddaughters.
For the most part, old people are, in my perspective, rude and quite honestly I
don't really like them; they are impolite, expect everything, give nothing,
hate the country, think all is going to hell, love communism, hate the younger generation,
who they believe only they really know Russia. They are bitter about the failed
promises and they constantly live in the past. Their children and grandchildren
are to take care of them and so they do nothing on their own; they rely on others
and expect to be treated well. They feel they deserve a seat on the bus; they have
no manners, only push and shove; when they talk they only complain.
They were promised a great future under Stalin and now without that future they
live paranoid, bitter, resentful, needy, and downright unpleasant. They don't
look back on their lives with thoughts of what they accomplished, but instead look
back and resent all that they don't have or lost. I feel bad for them, but they
fail to live in the present.
They were mindless robots their whole lives, being given what they needed and being
told what to do and how to think. All of a sudden they were given freedom, given
choices, but this came at the cost of all that was handed to them. Before they didn't
work and received and now they expect to receive and don't. They've never
had to work hard, only listen mindlessly and now they are bitter that they aren't
treated like kings.
Yet something inside of me has a great deal of pity for them because many of them
physically can't work and can't make money: all they had was lost. For this
I feel bad, but you can't change your life by complaining, they're a pain
in the behind... not to mention, in general they're very anti-American.
Every time I talk to Babushka or any older person I repeat to myself that these
little old ladies may be rude and pushy, but when they were children if they didn't
push and shove to the front of the line, they didn't get the good food or no
food at all. From my perspective, they have always been pushy and rude and they
always will be, but what I interpret as rude, they interpret as survival.
On a different note, Anya is 18 and pregnant; what gets me is she's happy about
it. She wants to settle down and find a guy so she doesn't have to work anymore
and can just sit at home all day. She doesn't seem to have many friends and
the father of her child has never been over, but Katya doesn't like him and
hopes they never marry. He's apparently going nowhere, not like that's unusual
and so he's not well liked, sadly most guys are similar.
Moving on, Katya volunteered more about herself today, something she has shied away
from since I arrived. Her mom is in Greece with a new husband and sends money often.
Her mom went there on vacation and liked it so much she never came back. She got
a job as a daycare monitor, got paid much more than here, married and got citizenship.
She has not returned since; that was three years ago. She's seen Katya only
once, when Katya went to Greece; Anya has not seen her mom since, but their mom
does call about two or three times a week and sends money often.
Katya's father is a local alcoholic (Babushka volunteered this information,
Katya has never mentioned him) and he hasn't been here in years from my understanding.
He called when the girls were out a couple days ago, Babushka answered and yelled
a lot, then screamed at me about how much she hates him, as she continuously flicked
her jaw bone with a finger (the symbol synonymous with accusing one of being an
alcoholic). He called asking for money and she said no because he's always drunk.
I don't know if he lives in Izhevsk, but that's the impression I got. Sadly
this is a typical situation; a few of my other friends have already lost fathers
to alcoholism, although that word is taboo.
After leaving home and later class, I met Katya from my class at Planetta Pizza,
which was excellent. We had a 30 centimeter cheese pizza for 70 rubles; I'll
be back there. After the heavenly meal Katya and I walked around town and I had
to ask why she felt embarrassed to ask me to have lunch with her today. She said
it's very rude for a girl to invite a boy out, plus girls won't invite boys
out because they fear rejection or embarrassment plus they may obtain the reputation
of being rude and "easy." Typically the man makes the decisions on when
to go, where to go, with whom to go, etc. So I'm beginning to make executive
decisions now, but still need to work on it.
Back to the pizza; the pizza was the best meal I've had and the conversation
superb. It was also very bad because now I have an enormous and unquenchable craving
for American food and to make matters worse, Johnny, met us and took us out to Baskin
Robbins for dessert (a relatively new addition to the town).
December 13, 2003
A Show & Russia's Diversity
I went to a show last night, only understood part, but I'll get to that in a
minute. The show was at a concert hall in Kirov's park and only cost 50 rubles,
so why not go? Seth and I met some of our Russian friends there and as I watched
I noticed the new generation in Russia, they are very social and much more outgoing.
Unfortunately, I also realized the rudeness in Russia; as one group was performing,
people started leaving and talking, not whispering, but just talking.
In stark contradiction to the musical performances I've see (like the first
girl at Vavalon and the Jazz band), the people here clapped a lot. After the event
they opened a small bar in the foyer area. It was odd since everyone there was in
school; in fact it was a school sponsored event with chaperones. It didn't take
long before most students were drunk and a disco started. The dance primarily consisted
of electronic music, including the country's favorite "Satisfaction,"
not like the one we know, but a really horrible techno version.
Seth needed something to drink so I joined him in the horde and pushed our way to
the front in order for him to buy a warm beer. Lines only exist in some places and
even then loosely; at places to eat there are lines but skipping is common place.
The buses are the worst and there's physical pushing and shoving to get a seat
and be the first on and off. There's nothing like a 70 year old woman giving
you an elbow in the gut to get a seat. Before Seth bought his beer, he asked "should
we be polite or Russian?" "When in Rome…" and so we got to the front
Having been in Izhevsk, and more specifically this performance, for a short period
now I'm beginning to see the diversity of the city, not an ethnic diversity,
but by personality, interests, beliefs, etc. The variety is not horizontal, but
vertical by age; people are very different, not by interests, but by history, experience,
and time, as if each generation grew up in a different country, different political
system, with different freedoms, mentalities, etc.
The diversity also spreads to socio/economic classes, but unlike in the US it is
very hard to move from one to the next due to the corruption. The rich really only
allow the rich into their sphere and everyone else has few opportunities. Few students
excel at school because they can't compete with the perfect grades received
by the bribers; they can't get into politics, and any well paying job requires
money, power, and connections.
The younger generation is diversifying, but in an odd gang-like way; there are "rappers"
and "punks" and they hate each other, it's an excuse for violence
and crime when they have nothing else. Simply put, Russia today is a mix of all
ages and people and interests searching for a common identity, but none is within
sight, only with the maturation of the under 25 generation can a unified identity
be found... whether or not that's for the best.
December 14, 2003
Bowling & Bars
Last night we went bowling, but I got yelled at for "pounding the ball into
the lane." It's surprising to see a place so modern and nice in Izhevsk;
it's a welcome change.
After bowling we went to Periscope, the fall out bomb shelter from the
"Cold War." Going to a place like this makes one slightly regret the fact
that the United States didn't build dozens of these in every city. It's
incredible and is now a bar/restaurant/pool hall: incredible and so surreal! We
went down the stairs, about 15 feet below the earth when we reached a hallway with
lights on the ceiling, loose large tiles on the floor, and solid concrete ceiling
and walls. At the end of the hall you enter the first of many rooms in the bomb
shelter, the doors are about one foot thick and to close there is a steering wheel
type thing like on a submarine. It was fascinating and really is the epitome of
the "Cold War." It was also fitting that here in this bomb shelter, I
was informed that the US caught Saddam Hussein in Iraq today.
I seemed to drift away in my thoughts here, entirely removed from reality because
this place seemed so far. I heard Seth talk about Buddhism and religion and it made
me think about life. How are we to know the truth, only God knows that. So why do
we seek the truth if it's impossible to reach? It seems to me that searching
for knowledge, wisdom, and self improvement are noble, yet still that perfection
we yearn for is impossible. The only thing we'll ever truly know is that we'll
never completely know anything at all. Despite that, seeking perfection sends you
on a path of improvement, even if you never reach the desired destination.
December 15, 2003
Today is Seth's birthday so our first class was consumed by Russian tradition.
Tatiana had the class sang happy b-day to Seth in English then they sang songs in
Russian, including their birthday song, an overly dramatic drawn out tune. For much
of the time we held hands in a circle around Seth and moved around counterclockwise
singing, then we all went towards him, leading with our hands and tickled him. For
such a closed off society, this seemed like an invasion of privacy. Seth then had
to pick a "young lady," which is odd for a 28 year old to pick out a 17
year old, but he did because Tatiana made him. We sang another song with similar
actions and everyone in the circle wished something well for Seth.
Once the singing ended, we pulled Seth's ears because the lymph system is there
and it is supposed to help the body; one pull for each year. After this we opened
the window, took snow off the window's ledge, and started a snow ball fight
in the classroom, which was quite fun.
The following class had a test so Tatiana, Seth, and I went to the back of the classroom,
drank tea, and ate chocolate and cake. As we ate, Tatiana told us about Russian
tradition/superstition: a person may never celebrate his or her birthday before
his actual birthday because it's bad luck. What's worse is if you do celebrate
early you'll die early so you can only celebrate an early birthday for a deceased
Ironically, the Russians don't think that they are superstition and I've
been asked on a number of occasions why we believe such superstitious nonsense.
They however have so many more superstitions and they are followed as if they're
Back to Russian tradition, the buying of a cake or cookies and organizing a party
is the birthday person's responsibility; only after your friends see the cake
(ideally in the morning) will they know it's your birthday and then they take
some time during the day to buy the birthday person a present. The birthday celebration
should take place, at least for part of the celebration, at the birthday person's
house and festivities should never run past 11:00pm.
December 16, 2003
I went to the museum today, but found some great entertainment on the way. There
was an accident (no injuries), but the cars were left in the middle of the intersection
although it was only a fender bender. The road cops called in for backup so they
had three cars with about six cops. Two were trying to measure the distance of the
car from the start of the intersection with a tape measure, however the tape measure
was only about ten feet long and the car about 40-50 feet into the intersection.
The two men held it, visually marked the spot then moved and continued until they
reached the car, very inaccurate and quite funny. As this was going on, the rest
of the cops were just talking to each other and smoking in the middle of the intersection
as cars drove around them like nothing happened.
I made it to the museum which is a bright yellow building outlined with white. Alisa
and Alcy told us about the three tier pricing system, students, adults, and foreigners.
They insisted that we pretend we are Russian so we get a discount and it only cost
The museum has three exhibitions: the civil war in Udmurtia focused on Votkinsk
and Izhevsk, historical Udmurtia with old furniture such as clothes, papers, lifestyle
stuff like weaving, and thirdly an exhibit consisting of animals and plants of Udmurtia.
The civil war exhibit was the highlight.
The revolution began brewing in 1912 with the true split of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.
After the overthrow of the royal family, the Bolshevik or October Revolution took
place in 1917, creating almost a class struggle throughout St. Petersburg, Moscow,
and soon the rest of the country. It was this struggle between the people that was
the civil war and Udmurtia was one of the many battle grounds.
December 17, 2003
My disagreement with sexism in Russia led to exposing cultural differences and a
lot of American bashing in my night class today. The Iraq war is always popular
when American bashing is the topic of choice, but it's not real original and
I was quite proud of my students when they decided to use a new angle. They threw
me for a loop when they mentioned the judging scandal in the Salt Lake City Olympics.
Luckily, I had come prepared for battle, I wore my fatigues, boots, gun in hand
with extra ammo and I had already dug myself a fox hole, which was much needed considering
the numbers game looked pretty bleak. I threw my hand grenade, knowing if they survived
the blast their vengeance would come passionately and with great vigor…
I pointed out the fact that the scandal all began when the Russians bribed another
judge so really our bad judge was seeking justice, not that it was right. So I had
metaphorically opened Pandora's Box… I brought it upon myself, but Russia has
given me a new perspective and it would be a shame if it didn't return the favor.
They survived the blast and their counter-attack was from my blind side.
In Russia, a person's priorities are first grandparents, then parents, then
one's self; in the US the grandparents and parents take care of their child:
my class interpreted this as selfish, egocentric, and disrespectful. I had but one
choice: I needed allies and quickly. With their victory within reach I had one last
card to play, the one card I truly believe above all else and so I played it. "No
culture is right or wrong, just different, although you may disagree with the American
mentality you have to try to understand why it is how it is."
The Russian camp was divided on my fate so they gave me a chance; I explained the
United States' vision of the present and future, a parent's dream of seeing
their child succeed. They returned with a jab, they stressed respect, and giving
up everything for your parents; they even called me selfish. I explained it's
a parent's mentality to give and try to let their child fly on their own power.
Here the mentality is, in my opinion selfish; the parents only think of themselves
and steal the child's youth, whereas Russians see the US as the child stealing
their parent's golden years.
One girl, the anti-American, believed herself to be the victor, I saw myself and
the rest of the class as the victors, for we had gained a great deal of knowledge
and understanding, the other girl gained nothing but self pride.
As the sparks withdrew I unknowingly threw more fuel on the fire when I said "I
don't really want to talk about that" when asked my opinions. I thought
this response would brush the dirt off and a fresh start could be made, however
I actually got yelled at; it is considered one of the most rude and offensive things
a person can say. When asked a question the response must be 100% honest even if
it's as simple as asking how your day was, hiding information is as bad a lying.
I'm glad I got all of my offensive actions out in a matter of minutes. When
the dust settled we were all friends again and so we continued on with a new topic:
orphans and orphanages. Parentless children are a huge problem here, but what's
worse is the condition of the orphanages, which are in terrible shape. A lot of
these children have chosen to live in abandoned houses instead of an orphanage,
occasionally you'll see an orphan begging for money or sniffing glue on the
streets, but it's not common. In the Soviet Union they sent homeless people
to gulag because they made cities look bad; today there are very few homeless people
or they are simply not very visible.
After class a few of us went to play pool and we began talking about the differences
between the sexes in Russia. There has been no women's movement in Russia and
the view of roles according to sex are still apparent everywhere. A couple women
even told me that women shouldn't pay for anything and should receive presents
every day. No man in the class seemed at all surprised by this and most even agreed.
One woman even said that she doesn't like Women's Day because she deserves
presents every day, not just once a year.
The sole voice of hope consisted of a 17 year old girl, who believes men deserve
presents and gifts and flowers, but she quickly withdrew her comment by saying "Russian
men are bad and women should just stay in the home and men should work."
I've noticed other differences between the sexes in my day classes as well.
The boys seem to have little motivation, are shy, and are more anti-social. The
girls are a different story; they are more outgoing and social, tend to be more
harder working, but most also tend to be fixated on finding a husband. The attitude
tends to be that the guys are less than desirable except a few so they'll fight
like dogs over them until the woman gives up and settles.
December 18, 2003
A Walk Around Town
Between classes Tatiana and I had tea and pastries as we often do. Tatiana, my strict
communist friend and boss brought up an interesting fact about money and Russia
today. She talked about the younger generation and their greed; "in the Soviet
Union" (one of her favorite phrases) they were taught money is worth nothing
and they shouldn't seek it out, especially since they could get no more than
Now things are changing and there are "gold-diggers" and more troubling
is the emergence of crime. Russia is still very safe, but this is slowly changing.
The younger generation sees money as valuable and so there's a growing greed
to get it, motivations have changed and survival of the simple life is evolving
to the want of the extravagant life - the need for the unnecessary.
After class, I went for a walk in the worst part of Izhevsk. I walked down Deryabina
Street to check out a statue and historic building; along the way were factories
on my left, most of which were surrounded with barbed wire fences, one building
however had an ornate black fence with stars, hammers, and sickles on the top, above
this was more barbed wire.
I soon came upon a bridge, which crosses over the damn and came upon a path that
went along the river, so naturally I took it. The river was not frozen because of
the rapid flow, so I could see the water color: a very brownish-red like rust. There
was a steep hill covered with trees to my left, but little else to distinguish the
One thing that was present was an excess amount of garbage on the ground. I find
it ironic that as the United States became conscience about littering and recycling
we failed to focus on the environmental benefits of public transportation, whereas
Russia, the yang to our yin is the opposite, public transport is great, but other
forms of pollution are horrible… the factories are terrible, littering is more common
than using a garbage can, people throw garbage everywhere. This is one reason the
water is so terrible and undrinkable (well that and the nuclear recycling plant
upstream); it's hard to go too far without seeing a beer can or cigarette on
the ground. Given this, in general I'm shocked at how little these people waste,
garbage cans are scarce and they rarely fill up because people have only what they
A couple minutes down the path I saw an old abandoned building on my left, some
windows were boarded up, others were just out. It looked like an old factory made
of red brick, but what struck me were the footprints headed around the back. Five
minutes earlier I saw children coming from this direction, with our recent conversation
on the conditions of orphanages, I couldn't help but believe they may live here.
As I continued there were wood houses surrounded with barbed wire and old buildings
that were run down and beat up. It gave me an uneasy feeling and I felt susceptible,
but I continued on out of curiosity.
I reached the end of the path and turned right to find a monument listed on my map,
but instead found a very heavily armed fortress… in a matter of speaking. The walls
are tall; the first gate is for cars; people could walk around it, but the second
is different, very tall gates, with guards, barbed wire on top, no one even allowed
close without permission, this was no monument, except perhaps to the weapons giant
Russia has become since the initiation of the "Cold War." My host sister,
Katya warned me before I left that this huge bleak spot on the map was the steal
and gun factories. Fittingly, the monument is called "A Monument to War"
on my map.
It was also at this point that I found out where all the men have been hiding. Everywhere
were groups of men smoking and talking, each with his fur hat, black coat and black
pants. I stuck out and dozens of men watched me as I passed. I reached the end of
the street and went left towards Gorky Street. As I neared Gorky Street, I heard
the echo of the bells being played from the tower of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
December 19, 2003
A New Family for Seth
After class Tatiana, Seth, and I went to meet Seth's new host family, some friends
of Tatiana's. They have an incredible apartment, very luxurious by American
standards and three daughters. The father is the head engineer of an oil company
here and they showed us pictures of their trips to northern Africa. They have three
bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, two closets, and a bathroom with a shower, tub,
washing machine, sink, toilet, and still more room. They have a piano, guitar, and
plasma wide screen TV, dish washer, anything one could ask for including a water
The food they served was the best I've had; it had meat and tomatoes, onions,
green beans, some mild spices and water. Mid-meal I was informed the deputy governor
lives next door, but this family has a better apartment than theirs; their kitchen
table costs 125,000 rubles, that's about $4,000; Tatiana only makes $125 a month;
you do the math. For dessert we had "bee" or honey cake, the best yet.
It's hard to believe that just outside this apartment's doors is Russia
as I know it, as nearly everyone knows it. The social class difference is disgusting,
yet a somewhat acceptable by-product of democracy and an open free market economy.
The economy may create the gap, but the corruption widens it.
After departing Seth and I showed up to our night class a half hour late. We were
pretty apologetic, but we quickly reminded the class of the culture they had just
taught us the previous week… it's rude to leave a place early even if that means
you arrive to the next place late. By our customs, we felt bad so we let them ask
us questions about life in the UK and US. Soon this turned to crime and came full
circle back to Izhevsk and Russia.
Crime is on the rise here, five years ago there was nearly none, but now it's
much worse, but still rarely serious; there is rarely a murder, typically only fights
and robberies. As I've mentioned, I feel 100% safe in Izhevsk, I've never
felt threatened in any way.
December 21, 2003
Both older and richer Russians seem to have the idea they deserve much and are never
getting their due; this bothers me. Because of the culture's respect for their
elders, the older generation tends to take advantage of this and I get the impression
they feel they deserve everything and get very little of what they want (in a way,
the behavior of spoiled children). They feel they believe they deserve it because
of their age; from my perspective they are typically just cold and bitter. They
feel they should get everything they want and when they don't get it, or feel
threatened, they blow up and yell and scream.
Most older people really resent me: I'm that threat they hate; while getting
on a bus I got yelled at, but what got me was not that they yelled, but that I told
them I would wait and still they didn't trust me. We were in a position to go
and just having that opportunity was a threat so we got the royal bolacking (compliments
to Seth for this phrase). I try to see this thinking as "not wrong," but
simply different, however it is hard to keep up this attitude.
We, as Americans give a great deal of respect to those who earn it no matter the
age. Russians' mentality is that their age is an indication of all that they
have given throughout their lives and so now it's the younger generation's
turn to give and now this older generation is the recipient. This society is based
more upon respect for your elders than the United States, where we focus on our
future, our children and grandchildren. In the United States, a parent's greatest
dream is to see his or her child a great success, but in Russia the parent's
dream is to have a child who will care for him or her. In the United States as parents
we give our time and effort to the next generation, whereas in Russia it is their
childhood that is the time to be selfless. It is demanded that one matures quickly
and in a lot of ways their childhood is lost in this mentality.
December 21, 2004
Soviet Children's Pioneer Camp
Yesterday I went to a camp outside of town with a bottle of wine, an Englishman,
and six Russians. The bus station in Izhevsk was busy, with long lines, and mud
covered floors. There were also numerous taxi drivers walking around trying to get
people to take a taxi instead of the bus to their destinations. We talked to a couple
cab drivers, but prices were too high so Nick got bus tickets for us.
After buying the tickets we went to the other half of the building, the relaxing
hall to wait. Here we bought chocolate and snacks as people came and went; the floor
got wetter and stray dogs occasionally made their way in.
The third stop on the bus trip we exited and there was nothing for, well as far
as the eye can see, other than our camp sign. We weren't actually in Zaveleva,
but that was the closest village to where we were. For the first time I felt part
of the Urals, the area consisted of large rolling hills, mostly covered by trees.
The road ran off into the distance in both directions. The north side of the road
was all trees, except in the distance to the east, where on a hill was a small village
of wooden houses. On the south side of the road were trees about 500 meters away,
but otherwise it was just open fields filled with snow, untouched by anyone.
We settled in and said we were students so only had to pay 130 rubles (instead of
250) plus another 80 rubles for food. The camp looks like an old army barracks but
in reality was a pioneer camp. We had two rooms to sleep and another to put our
stuff in, which locked.
After lunch we played soccer and went sledding for a long time. We tried to play
pool, but they have only one table and it was full. After this we decided to relax,
but no one brought cups for our wine. As in Russian tradition some people gave us
cups so long as we had a drink with them, so we each had a shot of vodka.
After a short while, we went back outside to go sledding and here met a number of
people, who gave Seth and me more vodka, which is rude to turn down in Russia, to
welcome us to their country.
After this we went back outside to explore the area and the fresh snow fall. We
found a box of gas masks left over from the communist times in case of biological
warfare, so Nick and I tried them on. We then went for a walk in the woods, only
lit by the moonlight, there were trees everywhere and we came across old abandoned
buildings that were white and only open from one side. After entering the area you
were in the middle of a circle and could enter any building from here. Each was
only one story tall: all white concrete. It seemed like something you'd see
in a movie where you'd go in and be ambushed. After seeing the virgin snow going
only deeper into the woods we turned back.
Back in the housing building Seth and I learned a few Russian superstitions including
not whistling in a building and always shaking a bottle of vodka before opening
it, because back in the days, there was "bad vodka" and so they had to
mix it up until it became tradition. My Russian friends said it would be nice to
offer the people on our floor vodka, and fortunately, Nick brought some. So we shook
the bottle and had another drink with our new friends. It's tradition to toast
while drinking and to have some sort of food; we had croutons and chocolate.
We woke up early this morning to head home and I learned another unfortunate Russian
tradition: you should drink vodka the day after partying because it cures the hangover.
We paid for our rooms and went to get the noon bus, but I felt so strange, we were
in the middle of nowhere with nothing for miles, and were standing in this vast
land trusting a bus was going to come by and stop for us. It was a very strange
feeling; the bus arrived, at which time we got on and paid our 20 rubles each and
It's very odd because in the US when you take a bus it's from city to city
and there are always houses between, or stores, but here there are only a few sporadic
villages yet the bus had stops in the middle of nowhere, or anyplace they see a
person looking for transportation. These places/people are so far removed from the
world, yet buses are running three times a day on a road that hosts no one but a
lot of oil trucks.
December 22, 2003
More Food Wars & The Land of Confusion
I found some food I enjoyed at lunch, it felt slightly uncomfortable, as if I had
been transported to a parallel universe. I had bulka mar, which is the
roll with poppy seeds and kapyeta, which is cabbage boiled for hours, not
bad; it has no flavor. On the way out I saw the rolls with potatoes on them called
vatryshka c kartoshkouy (there are a few versions of this and all are good)
so grabbed one to inhale before heading upstairs.
I was going to eat on the way to class, but I was informed when a person eats in
the presence of another it's common to share; it's rude to eat with other
people around unless you have enough to share. Even in the streets beer is passed
around and when people do come together, there are "community dishes;"
people just eat out of them with their forks and spoons instead of dishing onto
their plates then eating it.
After class a student of mine named Alexei started talking to me. He's such
an odd guy, but I think he's just fascinating; he has a perspective like no
other, it's not Russian nor American but something else entirely. He's socially
awkward and has no tact when starting a conversation, so as I was talking to one
student he started communicating, presumably to me about Russian culture and its
Alexei told me that "Russia is the land of confusion" and I like it… it's
very true, but he said no one says that but him; he then said you can tell a lot
about a culture from its fairy tales. Fairy tales from Western Europe and the United
States are generally about a hero who knows what he's doing, where he's
going, and his final goal is set: he has direction, and he spends the entirety of
the story chasing that dream, that goal. The moral of the story: hard work pays
off. Fairy tales in the Middle East are of magic and luck; he believes that shows
they know where they're going, but must put faith in God or Allah and trust
their lives in His hands for without Him nothing is possible. The moral of the story:
nothing is possible without God. Russian fairy tales are about heroes who know not
where they're going, what they're doing, and don't know what they're
chasing, but in the end it all works out. In Russia the people are also confused,
but with confidence that the end will work out. The moral of the story: I have no
Alexei said this is the major problem in Russia: Middle Eastern and Western fairy
tales have a direction and goal, whereas Russian fairy tales have none, it's
not a path or a direction, it's nothing at all but a meander with nothing to
chase no goal to reach for or direction to take. I kind of like it, "the land
December 23, 2003
National Foods & The Izhevsk Elite
I stopped by Seth's again today and noticed all the satellite dishes attached
to his building like leaches. You can tell how nice an apartment is by how many
satellite dishes are attached to the side, most only have 2 or 3 dishes for the
entire building, but Seth's apartment is littered with a dish for nearly every
Seth's host family taught us about national and republic foods: the Tartar "national"
food is a crunchy tasteless bread stuff with honey, not quite a meal; Udmurtia's
dish is perepechi, which is a very good pastry with a filling; Uzbekistan's
is pilaf, and Russia's is peroshki. I wonder what the United States'
would be: pizza, hamburger, McDonald's? Can a "national food"
be, well not a food, but rather a fast food chain restaurant?
Seth's family also let us watch a movie there after they left. We watched "8
Mile" with Russian voice-overs and I got thoroughly frustrated: only two people
do the voice-overs: one man and one woman with no expression or emotion. Now I'm
beginning to understand the importance of explosions and the lack of content in
many modern "Hollywood Thrillers."
December 24, 2003
Trying to be a Tourist
I made it to class early and started with the young kids. It's proper in Russia
for children to ask to leave or enter the room during class unless asked to do something
by the teacher that requires they leave the classroom. If a child is late or returning
to class he will wait at the door until the teacher stops talking and then asks
permission to enter. I've never noticed this before because only the young kids
follow this rule… Tatiana is very easy going about some rules and just wants her
students in the room when they arrive.
I went to Leninsky District after class and I got lost twice; first I was trying
to find a small wooden church and was convinced the map was wrong so left, but later
found out it does exist. Leninsky District is interesting, it was here that the
city was founded with the steel factory and as the industry grew so did houses…
all wood homes, very old and in very bad shape. Only recently (about 10 years ago)
were apartments built here, but most of the district is still wooden houses (which
sporadically dot the city) and factories until you reach the edges of the district,
where there are more stores, cafes, and apartments.
From most vantage points, the district is considered poor, however when I saw hundreds
of wood houses on a hill, I decided I really like it. The district is really a combination
of a village in old imperial Russia and the industrial growth of the Soviet Union.
It's an odd combination of massive machinery, steel plants, tall smoke stacks,
the train yard, and finally the apartments of modern Russia surrounded by modern
stores. Although I failed to find the church I managed to fall in love with the
region that most residents dislike the most.
Afterwards I decided to walk much of the way into town before my night classes,
plus I needed to buy some soap and shampoo and the store was on the way. The security
in this store was very skeptical of me as they are everywhere so one security guard
followed me around the store. When I checked out, the cashier was on her cell phone
so she scanned my stuff and continued talking until a few seconds later when she
said a number and kept talking, I set down the money and she gave me my change.
Horrible customer service is very common here because no one tips and these workers
get paid very little; where's the motivation?
It was snowing when I left the store, but I found it treacherous trying to walk.
The sidewalks are in poor shape and you can hardly walk at all. I did however, enjoy
seeing all of the cars broke down. People here tend to stop their car or truck anywhere
if something's wrong: right side, left side, close to an intersection, in front
of a bus stop, anywhere except an intersection itself and just get out and start
looking at their car. Today was the worst due to the weather, I think about ¼ of
the cars are broke down on the sides of the road and the police are everywhere because
of that and due to accidents.
Speaking of police, I have a real love/hate relationship with them here. I fear
them more than feel they are keeping me safe, but I rarely see them. The road police
have a terrible reputation even among the locals, who see them as corrupt and untrustworthy.
The other branch, the regular police are seen as somewhat honest, but I try to avoid
both. The police strut around in their blue camouflage uniforms and black jackets,
both of which say Militsiya on them. Their cars are Russian made and are
painted similar to US police cars although they are about half the size. The police
rarely seem to do much, but they have the power to stop and search anyone; my friend's
brother was actually robbed by the police in Moscow.
At my night class I made a huge mistake… I asked a bad question about alcoholism
and they went silent; after class I learned from Seth it's the same for money.
The people are very well aware that they are borderline third world and that they
have more of an alcoholic problem than any other country, but they're proud
and they don't like to accept anything that may expose "flaws."
My professor of Russian history back in college said that Russia has a real psychological
complex on facing their past "faults and flaws." Russians are a very proud
people and my professor believes self-reflection can only be self inflicted, but
thus far their pride has overpowered facing "flaws."
My students were willing to talk about their personal drinking habits, but not that
of society in general. I also learned never to mention how something is cheap or
about society's drinking problem because they get seriously upset. It is no
place for a foreigner to point out their faults (although it is acceptable for them
to point out the United States') and quickly one of my students asked if we
could change the subject so I obliged.
December 26, 2003
Christmas & Terrorists
Yesterday was Christmas for much of the world, but not for the Russians so I had
a normal workday. After my classes I went to another university, the Agricultural
Academy. I liked it, the area is quite beautiful, on the edge of town, and overlooking
Kirov's park; the population here is typically younger and the atmosphere more
vibrant. The class was very welcoming and interested in meeting me; they gave me
two kinds of cake and tea. Their English was not great, but they were not embarrassed
to try and their curiosity overcame their fear of speaking English in front of a
large classroom. We talked about agriculture (since it is the Agricultural Academy)
and cultural differences particularly in regards to Christmas, New Years, politics,
and economics. Everyone, from the students to the professors, was extremely welcoming
After my lecture I met up with Seth, Tatiana, Brad, and Alcy for a small Christmas
celebration. Brad, Seth, and I took off to buy ingredients for pizza, the Izhevsk
foreigners' Christmas tradition I'm told. This was the first time I'd
been to a grocery store since arriving; typically I just go to small shops to pick
up little things since I get free lunch at school and at my apartment. This store
is very different from the small shops or US grocery stores. They had no mozzarella,
so we bought three kinds of cheeses, hoping for the best. They had no pepperoni
or the closest thing (hunter's sausage) but a random person recommended something,
which we bought. Tomato sauce isn't popular, but we found a couple of hidden
jars in the fish section. The rest of the fish section is about 1/3 dead fish and
then there are two large tanks with live fish… sort of… really half dead swimming
around in water that was about nine inches deep. There were so many they could hardly
move and were all squished against each other. What's worse is that there was
a girl whose job it was to pick up the fish the customer pointed at and then throw
it in a bag. The next 1/5 of the store was dedicated to beer, vodka, and wine.
After finding everything we could, we checked out, then went to another store to
buy frozen French fries, apparently the only place in the republic where you can
We then headed over to Brad's apartment… we started cutting the cheese (no grater)
and the kolbaca (sausage), but soon realized we didn't have a can opener
for the tomato sauce so sent Seth to borrow one from a neighbor, something unheard
of in Russia. We didn't know what it was called in Russian, so he tried to explain
through the closed door; eventually the guy gave it to him and offered him a beer
which they drank in the hall. As they talked Brad made the sauce and I continued
to cut. Once done, we went out to the hall until I quickly realized this guy's
very prominent anti-American views, so I quietly disappeared.
Brad got some flour from another neighbor and we continued cooking. While doing
this we had French fries in the oven and Alcy was clearly upset that we were in
the kitchen. She has the typical Russian attitude and wanted the guys out of the
kitchen and her in it. I hate stereotypes, and a prominent one in Russia is that
Russian women are submissive and obedient... besides a couple exceptions most girls
fit into that stereotype. For many, their dreams and goals do not go beyond being
a house wife, which, although noble, is not what a lot of these girls want. Here
the women's place is in the kitchen and we men don't belong there.
Before, during, and after our meal we talked about the Soviet Union. Tatiana and
Olga told us why the Soviet Union was better than Russia and they made a good argument,
but it still didn't convince me. They talked about how money didn't matter,
music, sports, dance lessons were free and given by people who loved their jobs,
people worked because they loved it and everyone got paid to do what they loved
and now that's not true, people only want money, a concept conceived with perestroika.
Money is now more important, vodka lost its place in culture and alcoholism began.
It sounds nice, but I'm not sure it was as peachy as they made it out to be.
While on the topic of the Soviet Union I questioned the horrendously ugly apartment
buildings and their history, particularly the significance of the number of stories
each has. During Soviet times primarily 5, 9, or 10 story apartments were built;
for example all 5 story buildings were built under Khrushchev. I tried to ask when
the nine story buildings were built (the apartment I live in), but Tatiana wasn't
sure and was in the middle of a pro-communist speech. She frosted the cake on her
pro-communist debate when she attempted to explain that communism is based on ideals
from the bible and these ideals are flawless because they were given to us by God.
After dinner Brad pointed out another fact of Russian reality today. There are two
women associated with Chechen terrorists in Izhevsk threatening to bomb the city.
Tatiana said it's more than a rumor; it was confirmed by the police. Nothing
can be done however, because these two women have never actually set off a bomb,
their husbands do the dirty work. Tatiana said that these terrorists do this every
few months; they send their wives to nine or ten cities and threaten all of them.
Sometimes a bomb will go off in one, sometimes none, but it always scares everyone
and freezes the cities.
They are terrorists and they're good at it, they create terror through every
city they visit, even if they don't hurt anyone. The Chechen people are Muslim
and have been demanding independence since the 1830s when they were taken over by
Imperial Russian rule. Stalin deported them to central Asia, then Khrushchev brought
them all back to Chechnya in the 1950s.
I'll avoid forming an opinion on the situation, but the Russian viewpoint is
very clear: the land has been part of Russia since the 1830s, there are a lot of
Russians in the region which the Russian government feels responsible to protect
(although they do not make up the majority), and the Chechens attack innocent Russians,
killing them like "terrorists and cowards."
December 28, 2003
Banya & a Birthday Party in the Woods
Last night I met Kolya and some of his friends for an evening at banya.
Kolya introduced me to everyone, one guy's introduction included the number
of exams he's paid his way through (Kolya knows my disbelief that bribery is
so widespread). This guy seemed somewhat proud of the fact that he paid 300 rubles
to a teacher last week for a perfect score.
The roads were dire (many cars put spikes on their tires for traction) and we were
sliding everywhere. There are no visible lines on the streets and passing is typical.
Cars seldom slow or stop for pedestrians; most drivers don't seem to be paying
attention. I've learned to watch myself when I cross streets and to move quickly
when I do.
After about twenty minutes on the roads in our reckless vehicle we somehow made
it in one piece to a random street in the forest. Here we met Kolya's father
waiting for a bus and then preceded through the woods until we reached the gated
community. After telling the night guard who we were, he let us in, but we had to
open the gate ourselves.
The small road to the dacha itself was snowed in, but of course my Russian
friends had a shovel in the car so we began digging a path. After ten minutes of
digging we tried to drive through, but only made it about 25 feet until the jeep
got stuck so we gave up. We loaded our food and clothes and started hiking to the
dacha through the two or three-foot deep snow. I wore very tall sheep wool
boots that went up to nearly my knees for the trek, compliments of my Russian friends.
There were a lot of dachas in this complex and each lot was very similar:
a simple dacha, a greenhouse, and a banya. The dacha
itself is two floors; the second is inaccessible in the winter, so we stayed on
the first floor, which is two rooms with a small porch. The dacha was made
from logs and hay, which stick out everywhere. Although it looks rough, it was well
made and keeps the heat in.
We immediately started the fire in the dacha then went to the banya
to start the fire there. To the right, fire wood, which I later chopped; the door
entrances are so small one must duck to enter. The first room is for clothes and
towels with hangers and a bench in case it gets too hot in the banya itself.
To the left is the actual banya; a large table and bench extend from front
to back. On the left stands a small table with a large metal box on it, this was
filled with water, cool water; on the right is the oven, a fire in the bottom, in
the middle an area covered with rocks, and on top a tank of hot water with a dispenser.
Ten minutes after the first group entered banya, we took our turn. The
room was scorching hot so we striped down and went into the oven. They put me in
the hot seat (which they only told me later), actually the seat furthest from the
furnace, then when hot water is thrown over the rocks it shoots out steam towards
me. The steam felt like it was boiling on my face as sweat poured from everywhere
and breathing became difficult. They told me to breathe through my nose so I tried,
but it didn't help.
My Russian friends attempted to explain to me that this is healthy and therapeutic:
a cleansing process, which opens my pores forcing me to sweat out the dirt so I
should stay in as long as I can handle it. After only about 10 minutes I couldn't
handle it so we all ran outside (did I mention it was about -25 degrees outside)
and jumped into the snow then ran back in. It actually was quite refreshing and
I liked the snow diving so did it a few more times.
Talking to these guys in our birthday outfits was odd at first, but soon mattered
not. Russian men seem to have no shame and have no problem walking around naked,
something I found quite strange at first. We talked about a variety of topics, but
quite a bit on banya; Russians have died in banya from drinking
vodka, the dehydration killed them, or some other side effect of being dehydrated
in 110º Celsius temperatures.
Once our time in the banya had come to an end I had to cleanse myself with
the cool water and then dry off with my towel and head back to the dacha,
at which point we had tea and cookies. As we ate they made me sit and relax because
it's part of the healing process of banya.
On the way home, only after nearing Izhevsk did they explain that Russian cars are
called "coffins on wheels" because the cars aren't safe, the roads
aren't safe and no one can drive well. They thought it was funny, I'm glad
Enough about yesterday, today I went to a birthday party for a girl named Masha,
who I had never met, but she was kind enough to invite me through a mutual friend.
We picked Masha up then went to the market where they were selling everything imaginable:
from motorcycle engines to live animals and carcasses at the meat shop; the live
chickens beside the huge ax were enough to steal my appetite. We got everything
we needed and jumped on the trolley bus (basically a bus with two long metal arms
connecting it to wires running above the street) through Leninsky District to the
opposite side of town to the middle of the forest.
After hiking into the forest we found a nice little location, shoveled, set up a
metal frame, started a fire, and threw a pot of water over the fire. While the water
was heating up, we each tied a cup and fork to a ribbon, which was tied to our coats
around our necks. "This is so our cup is always close to us in case we need
to drink." For a birthday it's necessary to drink vodka so we finished
a bottle by about noon, then ate salad, cucumbers, fish, and pelmani. We all ate
too much so temporarily lied around, but we soon perked up to play some very strange
games then went sledding on plastic bags.
The highlight of the day was Misha, he was very proud of this house, which belonged
to his brother and sister-in-law. We had two hosts here, Misha's sister-in-law
and another girl of about 20 or 25, each had a baby and they continuously joked
about how they have to remodel the place (which was a mess).
From lunch until the end of the day Misha and I talked a lot; the 20 year old works
in the steel factory, doesn't speak English, has no motivation, is going nowhere,
yet he's one of my favorite people I've met in Russia. He's very proud
of his job in the steel factor and told me about its history as the first factory
in the city and his role working with the furnace; he's proud of everything
they make and their exports. He didn't seem excited when I asked if he liked
the job, but he was very proud, he showed me the company's brochure: Izhstal.
He's not egotistical or arrogant, he's not rich, he's not educated,
he works hard just to survive and he knows nothing else. He seems like an outcast
in life and even here at this party, but I'm glad he came.
December 29, 2003
The day started with class at 11:00, one of my most painful classes: no one wanted
to talk, it was like pulling teeth. After class I got my picture taken with the
girls and Tatiana told me that it was our last day together because she's leaving
for southern Russia on the 2nd. It was kind of sad, for I do really like her.
I'm going to miss a lot of people at the school and for some reason two of the
first people will be the janitor and lunch lady, both of whom love me. I think the
lunch lady likes the fact that I learned all of the food names making her job easier,
she always greets me with a handshake and a smile. Food is served out of huge metal
tubs and it is really quite disturbing, but she makes it slightly more edible.
The janitor is a little crazy and always rubs my head as if I'm a lucky charm.
Tatiana told me that she always talks about Seth and me; she tells the girls that
we'd make good husbands and encourages the little 15 year old girls to flirt
with us. She seems to clean Tatiana's room a lot, Tatiana feels it's just
to visit Seth and me, especially given the fact that she always seems to clean the
room when we're around. Tatiana, I can tell, is a little fed up with it so just
ignores her now.
December 30, 2003
Home of Tchaikovsky & Missile Factories
Today we went to Votkinsk to see the village, (Izhevsk is a town according to everyone
and the term city is reserved for places with a population of over one million).
The drive between Izhevsk and Votkinsk is uneventful; the landscape only consists
of forests, fields, and some rolling hills. There are a number of police officers
on the route, but they don't sit on radar like police in the US. They have a
station leaving and entering town as well as a couple other roadside turn-offs and
they put out a sign to pull random cars over. As we passed the police stops, my
driver, Katya's dad put his seatbelt on, because its law for people in the front
seats, but then as soon as we passed the checkpoint he immediately took it off.
Votkinsk is on the Votka River and has a "pond." Upon arrival we went
immediately to the Tchaikovsky museum. The house is very big and overlooks the pond.
Like everywhere, my Russian friends told me to say that I'm a student to get
the discounted price and to keep my mouth shut so I'm not charged the foreign
price, so I paid 80 rubles.
The museum was simply his house, which is huge with 10 feet high ceilings and old
elaborate furniture. Most of the rooms looked exactly the same and all is from the
1800s. The most interesting part was the pictures of the family and his birth certificate.
The grounds were better, consisting of his banya, the wagon they took all
the way to St. Petersburg and back, plus the rest of the grounds, which include
a chapel, log cabin, and the huge garage. From the house, you overlook the pond
and now there also stands a statue of Tchaikovsky across the street from the house
on the shore of the lake or pond.
From here we walked around the pond to see the enormous rocket factory that stretched
across nearly the entire south side of the pond. It is no longer in use, but during
the cold war it was one of the largest manufacturers of rockets in Russia, after
which the rockets were sent to a village near Moscow to be armed with nuclear warheads.
There are supposedly some Americans living in the woods nearby to monitor the factory
and make sure it remains inactive.
Across from the factory is the pond and on the southeast bank of the pond is the
central downtown building adorned with a huge religious painting and in front is
ironically a huge statue of Lenin, the man who ended religion for so long.
Nearly the whole village is wooden houses and even the central stores are all wood,
but we went to Anya's cousin's house and she lives on the edge of town in
a communist bloc apartment. They have a great view from their balcony overlooking
the downtown area and a large park.
We brought a cake as is the tradition and they served us tea and eggs with ham,
which my fellow Russians didn't accept well, saying it's easy to make and
people only make it if they're in a hurry. Everyone seemed disappointed at this
except me; I was happy given the fairly normal meal for Russia.
January 1, 2004
Happy New Year
Yesterday's New Year's party started at about 7:00. Vatalya was about 20
minutes late again (there's this unspoken rule in Russia: guys have to be on
time, but girls can be 15 or 20 minutes late; if by some miracle she arrives on
time and the guy is late he's got hell to pay).
Once everyone was there, Seth and I ran out to buy more food then returned to the
apartment at about 7:50 or 8:00. Preparing all the food took a long time; we cut
apples and oranges, bread, sausage, and cheese, then cleared the dishes. I cut the
bread, because bread must always be cut by a man… "A house where the man cuts
the bread will be prosperous."
After preparing our meal the guys, by tradition, drank vodka and everyone had wine.
We sat around for a good long time however time crawled by slowly so we played a
few Russian games, which do little more than help the time pass.
As mid-night approached all lights were turned off and candles were lit, we gathered
in the dining room and turned the TV on. Volkov, the "evil" president
of the republic spoke and when he finished it was the New Year. We popped the champagne
and everyone had a glass, except me, it makes me horribly sick.
It's very traditional to write down a wish and burn it at this point, but we
didn't bother. An hour later we again prepared the room by dimming the lights
and watched Putin give his speech in Moscow, to mark Moscow's New Year.
We continued the games and just hung out until about two or three in the morning
when the girls tried to get cabs, but there were none available so we continued
to celebrate the New Year each and every hour. We never got around to the pelmani,
the dish I was looking forward to all night (sort of like meat ravioli), since no
one else wanted it.
At 6:00 am the buses started running again so by about 7:00 am we got on the buses
to go home, the #40 bus was packed, but the #2 trolley bus was empty, so I took
this to the center and got back home at about 7:45.
I only slept until 10:00 am when I got up to get ready for my next trip.
January 1, 2004
Russian Village Life
Seth and I managed to buy tickets to Uva with only minor difficulties. They thought
we said Ufa (Уфа), we arranged it and they asked for 400 rubles each at which point
we realized we said Ufa and not Uva so we got it situated and bought tickets on
the bus today for a 1:30 pm departure.
Our seats on the bus were taken so we stood for the 2 hour trip. A very nice woman
talked to us on and off for much of the ride and she let us know when to get off.
We got off at the edge of town, where Sveta and Olga were at to greet us and give
us a ride to the house.
When we arrived we found the house packed, including Yuri, Sveta, Igor, and Varvara,
all of whom live there and then also Brad, Gavenge from Istanbul, Elena's brother
Sergei, his daughter and later a neighbor named Katya joined us.
The house was incredible, like an American house, bricks, two stories, and a basement;
very big and modern, it has everything an American house would have. In the holy
corner in the kitchen there are about 10 icons; one is from the 15th century, two
from the 17th and one from the 18th century. They said they got the house and their
store during perestroika; the icons I think they said were taken from a
church in the Soviet times and hidden. The house only cost $15,000 and it's
literally 2,000 square feet if not bigger.
After dinner, Katya, Varvara, and Olga sang for us. Katya has the most incredible
voice and she's going to a jazz school in Moscow next year after she graduates.
After about two hours of their concert we decided to go for a walk in the woods
nearby then headed off to bed.
Before our night concluded however, the doorbell rang; it was Det Maroz
(The Russian version of Santa Claus). He was Sveta's friend and he was incredibly
drunk and kept picking Sveta up and spinning her around. He said its tradition in
Russia to drink enough that you put on the costume and go around to your friends'
houses. It's also, according to him, tradition to drink vodka with Det Maroz
and sing a song for him, so we all had a drink and sang him a song I didn't
know. It was hilarious and he was completely drunk... but its Russian tradition
he says and he's Det Maroz.
January 2, 2005
Sleigh Rides Through the Forests & Banya
We slept in, then after breakfast/lunch we went to the sanatorium, which is basically
a sports complex with nearby trails in the woods. We went for a walk in the forest,
while having snowball fights and looking at the incredibly detailed wood carvings,
which are from a contest last year of objects symbolizing Udmurtia, all hand carved
After our walk it was already getting dark but not too dark yet, so we went on a
sleigh ride in the woods. We fit eight people plus the driver on the sleigh and
we were off. Our ride leapt into a fairy tale as we held onto each other so we wouldn't
fall off. The snow was lightly falling to the earth and with each turn we tightened
our grips to prevent falling out.
After the sleigh ride we got back in the car (all nine of us) and went to Sveta's
store. On the way we got stopped by the police, but they knew Sveta so let us continue.
The remainder of the evening consisted of a trip to banya; the ladies first,
and then us. Banya was extremely hot: 110 degrees... Celsius. It was similar
to the first time I went to banya, but this time we had food in the outer
room, better snow to jump into and a vanik, which I used and was more confused
than impressed with.
Like the last time I went to a banya, we heated ourselves to near medium
rear, then jumped in the snow in the -20 degree weather and back into the heat.
After we finished, we each washed off in the shower then wait 20 or 30 minutes in
a towel to let our bodies relax at a warm temperature, then move to a cooler room
and finally dress.
Banya is a tradition in villages much more so than in towns or cities and
every Saturday night you can look around and nearly every third or fourth house
has banya going, while the rest of the people are guests at one of the
other banyas. Also, here both men and women partake separately and use
the vanik (a birch branch) often to get the blood circulating through the
The evening concluded at a club in town with everyone. There are only two clubs
in town and the other is typically only for children under the age of 17 or 18.
The walk to the club was through the powder-like snow falling on us as we passed
through the woods down a dark street with cars only occasionally passing. It seemed
so perfect and as we passed other people we said hi and happy New Year. This would
never happen in Izhevsk, but here the people are much more friendly and outgoing.
As we were walking I learned that you can't walk under a ladder, which is bad
luck, especially on New Year's Day because how you spend your new year is how
the whole year will go. I was told that they know a woman, whose coat burned on
new year's day from a firework and that year her house burned down.
On the walk I also learned that if you give knives as a present the receiver must
give back change otherwise the two parties will fight each other with the knives.
I wouldn't have minded prolonging the walk, especially since we were going to
a dance club, but we were soon at the town square, greeted by a statue of Lenin,
behind which was the club.
We each paid our 30 rubles, checked our coats and went upstairs to the café. We
all had a beer, wine, or tea and unfortunately went out to the dance floor. The
music, as usual, was horrible, mostly techno and electronic music. The best song
was "Lady in Red," which I've now heard at about three places in Russia.
By the end of the night I was looking for anyone who didn't want to dance and
spent a lot of time talking to the girls in the café. No one in this group speaks
English so I got some good Russian language practice in; I was nearly fluent by
the end of the night, well at least I thought I was.
After the club (some people left early), we began to go home and continued our fairy
tale, just to be very quickly sent back to reality. Gavenge tried to get a taxi
(or a passing car in this case), but when it failed to stop he gave them the finger
which is the response many Russians give passing cars that don't stop. Unfortunately,
this only encouraged the guys in the car to stop, punch Gavenge, and leave. It ended
quickly when Katya stepped in and told everyone to stop and we refused to fight
We got back at about 3:00 am, at which point we left Katya, exchanged addresses
and we kissed each other goodbye, each person kisses the other on the check one
time and only when they won't see each other for a long time.
January 3, 2004
A Changing Me
Sometimes I think about me; I don't know if I've changed a lot, or if I'll
change my life from this experience, I guess I won't know until I'm gone.
On one side I just want to be home, on another I want to move to Uva and live "Russian,"
while on yet another side I want to travel, to see and experience the world.
I guess I'm losing my site again and am forgetting to live in the present; after
I leave Izhevsk I know I want to return, but honestly I don't know if I ever
will, that's the toughest part… the unknown… little in life is known though.
This week is rough in the sense that I'm going to be leaving soon; on one hand
I can't wait to leave and want to book an earlier train ticket, but on the other
hand, well, now I have a life here and friends. I guess it's just very bittersweet.
January 5, 2004
I night I went to U-Dance, which was part of an old fall out bomb shelter. We were
searched upon entry then went downstairs into the shelter itself where we bought
our tickets for 150 rubles. It's a nice place, except it was fairly empty so
the atmosphere was drab. The club is decorated with war memorabilia and each room
has been transformed into a coat room, pool room, dance floor, cafe, a small movie
theater, etc. I spent the first half of the night just seeing the place, then settled
down away from the dance floor and music. The building is great but by about 2:00
in the morning I was ready to go; I got a cab and on the way home I noticed the
Soviet art on the side of many of the apartments; this art consists of red stars,
hammers and sickles, ideal Soviet men and women, etc., each of which is between
about six and nine floors tall... unbelievable.
This morning I met up with Katya from class, who took me to buy a CD and painted
wooden eggs, then she showed me a church and just hung out. After this I exchanged
money, bought a plant, water, and a matroshka (wooden nesting doll) I really
liked for my grandparents. I returned to my apartment, gave the plant to babushka
who loved it, I thanked her for letting me stay with them, I called a cab and finished
packing my stuff.
Just as I was about to leave, I received the biggest shock since I've had since
I arrived in Russia... my babushka began to cry. For all this time I thought she
hated me and was ready to push me out, only to find her crying. It makes you think
about this older generation I have avoided the past month and a half. Maybe they're
not bad, just misunderstood. I guess that's most of the world though… misunderstood.
I guess I just thought she would slam that door and celebrate upon my departure,
but instead she broke down and offered me lunch. I wish I had gotten to know her
better, but she never exposed herself to emotion and so our relationship was unknown
I feel bad for her, not only did I at times regret her, but something prevented
her from smiling or showing any sort of kindness to me; I don't think that's
her fault, I think it's the fault of the former Soviet government and culture
she grew up in. She was stripped of so much happiness, and yet she is unaware of
it; all the while I lived in her apartment secretly condemning her attitude and
I got my cab 10 minutes later and so I left the crying woman I had only just met,
but never truly knew. A Russian once told me when I arrived that Americans are like
peaches and Russians are like coconuts. Americans are friendly and easy to get to
know on the outside, but rarely let anyone in too deep; we never open ourselves
up and talk about our deepest darkest secrets, we have a tough core. Russians are
just the opposite, they have a tough outer shell, but once they accept you they
expose all of their secrets and emotions. I guess babushka had a thicker shell than
most and I only began to crack it when it was time for me to leave.
I got to the train station, but none of my friends were there so I waited inside
until they called the Moscow train; I went outside by myself. I looked at my ticket
and the nearby clock, the scheduled departure time was nearly a half hour ago. All
train tickets are written in Moscow time instead of local time… it makes no sense
to me, but this is the land of confusion.
I carried all of my luggage near my cabin and waited until three of my friends arrived
to send me off. Ten minutes later a couple other friends arrived and another ten
minutes later I was on the train. I wished the girls well then waved goodbye as
they faded into the distance.
I soon met my cabin mates: a girl, 17, a woman with a baby, and a guy, Vladimir.
It's common in Russia to drink on long train trips and so Vladimir offered me
a drink, which I accepted. The two girls were quiet, the baby laughed a lot and
Vladimir talked a lot.
The landscape is monotonous, I've seen it before and I have other things on
my mind. I have a lot of time in front of me on this train. This is my home for
the next 22 hours.
* * *
Vladimir finished the bottle of vodka about an hour and a half ago so is now passed
out. We arrived in Kazan about 10 minutes ago when Vladimir awoke and I stared out
the window at the Kremlin (kremlin is the Russian word for "fortress"
and there are many throughout the country although most people associate the word
with the one in Moscow), a huge complex with two towers, and of course the external
walls highlighted by more towers, Vladimir said it's similar to the one in Moscow,
which I'll see soon enough.
Reflecting on my time in Izhevsk, I've noticed that in the past month and a
half I've learned to stop worrying; I had a lot to do today and a lot tomorrow
and the next day, but nothing I ever worried about has come to pass so have given
up worrying… people waste too much of their lives worrying. I don't have enough
time in life to worry. I am beginning to understand that the happiness of those
around me directly leads to mine and not vice versa.
January 6, 2004
St. Basil's, Red Square, & the Kremlin
I couldn't sleep last night since it was so hot in our kupe (room on
an overnight train) plus I was dehydrated. I am severely lacking liquids, vitamins,
and nutrients right now.
Our train arrived to Moscow and I bought a ticket for the metro, which was pretty
empty at this time in the morning. I got off at Ochotniu Ryad (Охотний
Ряд) and asked for directions to my hotel, which really no one had ever heard of
and I was given bad directions once, sending me about 30 minutes out of the way.
I did eventually find it, but the door was locked. Just when I was ready to sit
and wait until it opened, a security guard opened the door and let me in.
It was a little difficult, but I managed to get a room for 780 rubles and what's
better is that I got to check in right away and get breakfast. The city is absolutely
empty right now and this main street with eight lanes and two parking lanes is empty;
it makes me a little uneasy, and my room doesn't help since it's very tiny
and dirty with shared bathrooms.
Once I settled down, I went to Red Square early, about 9:00 am and found most of
it to be closed off, I'm not sure why. St. Basil's is more incredible in
person than in pictures, but the square is, well, just a square. On one side is
the Kremlin, the opposite side a mall and then St. Basil's and another church
opposite it on the long end of the rectangle. Lenin mausoleum is in front of the
I went into St. Basil's to view its walls and ceilings covered in the original
paintings and many of the original icons are still decorating the walls, but it's
just a museum and store now. The mall on the square was very much like a western
mall and resembled any other mall I've been to, except the stores are much nicer
than most stores in the US, like Rolex and Armani.
The price differences here are substantial compared to Izhevsk. Two meals today
cost 400 rubles and I saw one of those matroshka (wooden nesting dolls)
Santas, very similar to what I bought in Izhevsk, but the one here cost 1,000 rubles
and in Izhevsk 75. Water here costs 20 rubles for half a liter, in Izhevsk I bought
5 liters for 25, but what really struck me was that a Twix in Izhevsk cost 17 rubles
and here only 13.
It's very difficult to tell who is and isn't a foreigner in Moscow: tennis
shoes are somewhat popular, down coats are more common, and US jeans are extremely
popular. I get the impression this city strives to be like the west, or more accurately
the amenities of the west.
Traffic is pretty horrible here and it seems like every other car is either a BMW
or Mercedes. Pollution is bad also and the city is dirty, the sidewalks are dotted
with gum stuck to the ground and people litter constantly. They both salt and shovel
here so the streets and sidewalks (at least in the tourist district) are clear and
the sidewalks are very wide. It looks like a very old historic city but feels like
a modern city.
After stopping off at the hotel for lunch and a bathroom break, I left for the Kremlin.
I showed my UW union membership card and got in for ½ price at 150 rubles. About
2/3 of the Kremlin is government offices that are closed to the public, but the
other 1/3 is primarily churches, which are very impressive.
One cathedral has icons painted all over the ceilings and contains tombs. Another
church seems very unauthentic and more of a museum than a church today. The church
that looks like the oldest is perhaps the most impressive. It contains paintings,
icons, tombs, and the pews of past tsars and tsarinas.
After leaving the Kremlin, as I was wandering around aimlessly, I got stopped by
a cop. He saluted me and I him back, then he asked for my documents and I gave him
my passport. He checked it closely and once realized everything was in order he
began to push his luck. First he asked where I'm staying, which he knows because
it's on my papers, next he asked when I'm leaving Russia and I said tomorrow.
He then said alright, gave me my passport, saluted me, and told me I could go. I
was sort of nervous and briefly lost my Russian, but got it back just in time to
prevent him from getting upset. I could tell he just stopped me because I look foreign.
He was obviously searching for a reason to fine me so I would bribe him, but it
failed and I walked away with all my money intact.
I continued my stroll, with a little more confidence around Red Square, which is
much better at night, since it's so dark outside and the buildings are lit up.
After this I just relaxed for the evening and got ready for my flight.
January 7, 2004
I got up at about 9:00 am, washed my hair and took a picture of McDonald's for
my dad then couldn't help but notice that the city is deserted: no one is around,
no people, no cars, no stores are open, the metro is empty. I had the impression
that Moscow was like New York City and never sleeps, but it seems to be much more
of a night city than a city that never sleeps, but then again yesterday was Christmas
I'm at the airport now; let me do the math: form the airport, $60 for a taxi,
$100 for a train ticket, and $35 for a tip equals $195; on the way back it cost
1,220 rubles for the train, 7 rubles for the first subway, 14 for the second, 75
for the train to the airport and 780 for the hotel, 150 for the Kremlin, 50 for
St. Basil's, 300 for food, 60 for juice equals two days of sightseeing, 2,625
rubles or $90. Yup I did better the second time around.
Continue the above trip to: Switzerland
* * *
July 27, 2004
While we were flying into St. Petersburg we saw the most amazing palace, which we
later found out was Petergof, Peter the Great's summer residence. We
landed alright, but our driver at the airport had another pick up half an hour later
so we waited. At the airport we met a few of the other people that will be trekking
Mt. Elbrus with us.
We got to Hotel Moscow, sort of a rundown hotel, but with a great location and soon
found our way around the city. We went to Alexander Nevsky Prospect, then
to dinner for fish and mushrooms, welcome to Russia.
Our hotel stands at the end of Nevsky Prospect, which is an impressive
street, but nothing compared to the nearby the Hermitage. We were staying
near the end of the street right on the Neva River. From our room I could see Tikhvin
Cemetery, the final resting place of both Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky.
July 28, 2004
Hermitage, Aurora, & More
Today we toured the city, highlighted by the Hermitage or what was once the Winter
Palace. The palace sits on the river and the approach from the side welcomes you
with the palace on the left, an incredibly ornate building draped in greens with
a touch of white and highlighted with gold. After seeing the building it was difficult
to decide what is more impressive the art or the building itself, which I suppose
could be considered art in and of itself. On your approach, to the right of the
Winter Palace, sprawls the vast open area called Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Plochade)
decorated with the Alexander Column displaying Imperial Russia's military prowess
and victory over Napoleon in 1812 along with the dominating columned General Staff
Among the other sights we saw were the Battleship Aurora, Decembrists' Square,
the Bronze Horseman (made famous by Alexander Pushkin), St. Isaac's Cathedral,
and St. Peter and Paul's Fortress, which is the final resting place for most
of the czars since the time of Peter the Great in the early 1700s. The fortress
was also a high security prison, which has held such famous names as Gorky, Trotsky,
Dostoevsky, and Lenin's brother.
July 29, 2004
Petergof & Food
I had a tough time getting to sleep last night given the long days. It was 11:00
pm, or as we like to say in Russia 23:00 and it was so light out I had to hide under
This morning we got up and went to Petergof, which is just south of the
city. The palace has large grounds, great buildings, but the most impressive aspect
of the complex is the fountains. Behind the palace, facing north towards the Gulf
of Finland a cascade falls down numerous waterfalls between golden statues until
it reaches a small stream leading to the Gulf. It was here that the czars lived
in the time of Imperial Russia.
We again took a stab at the local cuisine; this time we had the Stroganov, which
was quite good. Stroganov was invented in St. Petersburg; there was a large party
for the upper class hosted by a man named Stroganov, but he didn't have enough
steak for every guest so he asked his chef to find a solution. The chef cut the
beef into little pieces and poured it into a sauce with a mushroom base. The dish
went over very well and Stroganov was born. Stroganov's palace is on Nevsky
Prospect and so I found it fitting to try the dish here... plus it's much better
than most Russian food.
July 31, 2004
From St. Petersburg airport our plane took off very flat yesterday, like a rocket,
taking a long time to get any altitude, much different from the U.S. planes. We
arrived at the Mineralniya Vody airport, which is simply concrete slabs on the floor
and old fenced walls with some sort of translucent plastic glass. As we entered
the airport we came upon two police officers checking documents and everywhere there
were police, many of whom had semi-automatics over their shoulder.
We found our Russian guide and waited about ten minutes to get into the next room
for our bags. Our bags were all unloaded from the plane onto a giant trailer, which
sits about 1 foot off the ground, then the trailer was brought into this room, the
garage door closed and the door for us was opened. As everyone tried to find their
bags on the cart it looked like a feeding frenzy much like the taxi drivers hoarding
us earlier. We got our bags and on exit the tags were checked.
We put our stuff in a rundown bus and ran into the next building for the bathroom.
Here, they again checked our plane tickets and we passed through a metal detector.
After we hit the bathroom we headed out but first we got water (cheaper than water
in St. Petersburg). The place that sold the water also sold porn and kama sutras
sitting on the shelves beside the water... typical Russia.
The bus ride was a couple hours long, perhaps about three and when we got to Chaget
it was dark; our trip followed the Baksan Valley most of the time. At one point
there was a road that headed east towards Chechnya and it was a lockdown; also as
we were leaving the airport we had to drive around concrete blocks with armed guards;
no one is allowed to park close to the airport because of the possibilities of bombs…
the larger the car the bigger the bomb, bus parking was quite far away.
August 1, 2004
Acclimating & Shopping
Today we got up and started up the mountains, first up a long chair lift then to
the mountains, the scenery was breathtaking, and not just because of the altitude.
We are only a couple kilometers away from the Georgian border here.
After our hike we went to the market and I played translator as people negotiated
August 2, 2004
We hiked from our hotel through town and up to the observation tower, a 3,500 foot
gain in about four and a half hours. The observation tower is interesting and seems
to be the home of a surveyor and his wife. The woman was putting just-washed clothes
on the line and he was playing with some surveying instrument.
There was a lot of garbage and rusty metal lying around sporadically on the mountain
and the tower was conveniently facing the Georgian border. On the way back down
to Chaget, we stopped to see an incredible waterfall then continued on down the
road to our town.
August 3, 2004
On the Mountain
We got up earlier than usual because our buses needed to get us at 9:00 am instead
of our usual 10:00 departure. We loaded up the vans and headed towards the gondola.
We all took our share of food and our group broke into two groups for the gondola
ride up to Camp Mir.
We found our quarters here... at the bar; a group of "big Russians" wanted
the barrels we had rented so even though we had a reservation we lost it to the
Russians, which is, well, very Russian. Our American guide, Vern seemed upset, but
he's displaying a good face even though his frustration is showing.
We dropped our stuff off at our bar (camp) and grabbed our day packs for a hike.
After about 40 minutes we passed the barrels and after about two hours we reached
the huts. The path was incredibly dirty, with garbage everywhere and human feces
behind random rocks. On the way we saw the snow cats, which are huge and hold twelve
After lunch I went outside and it began raining, thundering, and later hailing so
we could be in for a storm; Vern said it typically lasts three days when a storm
comes in, and we must be prepared for the worst.
August 4, 2004
Our Home in the Chalet
Today we awoke on the floor of the bar, I mean camp. We tried to get on the chair
lift, but it took probably one and a half hours before it started. Once we eventually
got on we went on to the barrels where we loaded a "cat" and started climbing.
On the way we had some good quotes, here are a couple of the highlights:
Vern: Well some people like to do it that way; I guess they do it that way because
they're f*cking idiots.
Vern: Since when does Ben have two syllables?
Duane: Since I grew up in the south… in Mississippi Be-en has three syllables.
We made our way to high camp, the chalet at 13,000 feet. We had lunch and continued
up to the Pashtakov Rocks at 15,200 feet. We practiced self-arrests then created
sleds out of plastic bags and slid down to 13,000 feet; it was a blast and we got
down pretty quickly.
To describe our "chalet", well... imagine plywood and press board with
an aluminum roof nailed together as the entire building is somehow clinging to an
edge of a cliff, part of which is hanging over the edge. It stands on the rock cliff
and is quite crooked. Our outhouse sits off the side of a cliff and smells pretty
August 8, 2004... I think
Summit Day & Back-Tracking
I'm lost on what day it is, the 8th I think, so I'll have to backtrack to
We awoke half an hour late on summit day, at 3:00 am, because the weather was unstable.
After getting up we ate oatmeal and watched the sky. Vern was unsure of the weather
because it was very windy plus there was a very, very light snow, but warm; he said
with both the warmth and the wind it's unstable so we had to wait. Half an hour
before we left the temperature dropped and the wind slowed, both good signs, our
summit attempt was on.
We all finished eating and going to the bathroom so left, very focused. Ten minutes
before departure Vern told us to put our crampons on, then we headed out. Our cat
arrived exactly on time and we loaded up, the eleven of us (minus Armand who left
early) plus Vern was our twelfth.
I don't know how long the ride was, I was focused and squashed. At one point
I remember someone pointing out Venus and a few stars; the sky was clearing up and
the snowing had stopped. We were left off right under Pashtakov Rocks and began
hiking. On the way to the rocks we passed Armand with our two Russian guides who
showed up: Nicolau and Artu. We also passed a guy hiking on his own.
We hiked for about half an hour when we took our first break, I felt great and didn't
even sit down, plus the weather had warmed, so I took off my fleece leaving me with
long underwear on top and bottom, gortex on both and fleece pants. I also wore my
We stopped a couple of times along the way and I kept feeling stronger on each stop.
At the end of our first break Armand caught up and he was doing terrible; he dropped
his water bottle at one break and at the next he fell… I'm not sure he even
realized he was falling until he hit the ground. He stopped on his own but Vern
was there before Armand even noticed he was falling.
We continued on to the saddle together with our two Russian guides, Vern and the
12 of us. As we sat I changed into my light balaclava (with my heavy one on over
it) and earlier I put my fleece back on. I was warm and decided to leave my down
jacket with my pack; we only took enough food and water for two to three hours and
enough clothes to stay warm for a summit bid and back. Most people brought their
It was at this point that another climber was at the beginning of the end. With
one of our guides a no-show, Vern hired the photographer, Anatolii to help guide.
Vern asked our second hurting climber if he wanted to continue and he said yes,
although he was on the verge of being hit hard with hypoxia, nearly bad enough to
turn around. Vern tied him up to Anatolii and said that if the group caught up with
them they would have to turn back. Paul didn't seem to understand a thing and
simply stood there looking at him, Anatolii also didn't understand enough to
move. Finally, Vern got the point across and the two started up the final stretch.
Our break continued for some time and I later looked up the hill to see Paul and
Anatolii, the solo guy and three guys with sleeping pads. Our break was at least
ten minutes, at which point we got started again as did a very light snow and breeze.
We climbed for some time and were within sight of the top ridge, the end of the
steep part and there it flattens out. We had probably 20 steps to the top of the
ridge when I began noticing the wind and storm pick up significantly. I was following
Tom and his footprints were beginning to disappear before I got to them...
Ten steps left; Denali ran through my head even though I've been there… the
wind, the snow. I thought we were just more exposed here as we were approaching
Five steps, the footprints were almost completely gone, I was making my own. We
then hit the rocks and the snow began to diminish visibility. We sat for a break
and within 15 seconds of everyone getting there Vern was yelling over the howling
wind to cover our faces. About 15 seconds later he said we're going down.
By the time we stood up, visibility was down to about 15 feet and the winds were
around 50 mph. I couldn't tell if the winds were simply pushing the snow on
us from the mountain or if it was snowing that much harder, but within about 10
minutes we had a foot of snow. In addition, the snow stuck to my glasses and they
were hopelessly iced up… visibility was down to nearly nothing and the only colors
I could see were white. Our descent and the rise in the weather all occurred within
a matter of 10 minutes and the urgency rose to an unexplainable level.
Vern was screaming to get down and "keep breathing or you're going to die!"
Luckily we had Anatolii and he knows the mountain better than probably anybody in
the world. We literally ran down the mountain, seeing nothing other than the colored
blur ahead of me. I had my ice ax in my right hand and my left hand was pulling
my balaclava from my face, allowing air to get in around the frozen mask preventing
me from getting oxygen. I didn't know where I was or where I was going, but
only followed the yellow blur in front of me. My constant breathing allowed me to
stay relaxed and focused.
The wind was loud and I only occasionally heard Vern's voice over the wind.
Vern stood about 10 feet below us watching us to prevent us from falling, then after
the group passed, he would run ahead of us again.
It was like I was in my own little cloud; no idea where I was, where I was going,
only following the yellow blur, breathing, and occasionally hearing Vern yell "keep
going or you're going to die!"
I had a couple things pop into my head, first I truly thought someone would slip
and never be found in those conditions; second I asked myself what the Vegas odds
of us dying would be, next the odds of frostbite, third, whether it would be better
to stop and hope the storm would pass; finally the word "die" gave me
the vision of a green hill side with the little quirky guy from Princess Bride saying
"to the death" and "when death is involved."
Although there was a sense of urgency, half the time it was as if time was slow
and I calm and relaxed, while at other times I wished it all over, and still others...
The urgency gave me a sense of relaxation and a sharpness of mind I've never
experienced before, mentally I truly was alone, so focused, I forgot I was at altitude.
I wished and prayed it to end, but couldn't until I finished the journey.
I guess I just assumed no one could see better than I so ran like hell. At one point
the yellow blur disappeared and got yelled at for getting off the trail. At another
point someone grabbed my coat and I turned around to ask what was wrong, but I got
no response... I think I was simply his guide.
After what seemed an eternity we reached the saddle and got our packs. The conditions
were as bad here as on top and we soon left, but for the first time I noticed we
now had four more people: the solo Russian and the group of three with their sleeping
From here things seemed to get slightly better, perhaps only because the terrain
was more level; we moved quickly, but once got lost so stopped to check the GPS.
As we were approaching the top of the rocks the rest of the day looked promising
with the weather clearing slightly.
However after getting south of the rocks the wind and snow started again, the wind
created icy spots on the glacier and a couple crevasses were opening up, but still
only about a foot wide each. The white out reached the severity of the top, but
without the altitude or steep edge beside us.
At one point I took off my glasses, but still couldn't distinguish between the
ground and sky. When one ended and the other began was a mystery because of the
white out. It took some time and two more GPS checks to find our chalet; we rolled
in at 3:00 pm; eleven hours after we had left, but now completely exhausted.
We spent the rest of the day sleeping, warming up, and trying to eat. Vern offered
a second summit attempt the following day, but I was drained, my neck, back, and
calves were very sore, we were running out of food, I discovered my abilities, and
had nothing to prove from another attempt.
The next day, on our encouragement, Vern did a solo summit and we recollected on
It seems only a couple people were real nervous, however many were hypoxic and their
memories are a little blurred. I was apparently not the only one with the thoughts
of us turning into a book like "Into Thin Air" going through my head.
Vern told us (probably out of politeness) that he would climb any mountain in the
world with any one of us. When we asked him what his closest call ever was, he said
"four hours ago." We didn't believe him, but it definitely was scary
and we're all lucky to be here; we made it without a single injury mostly due
to Vern and Anatolii.
Anatolii was rewarded not only with the money Vern paid him as a hired guide, but
also everyone bought the photos he took, so I think he made a killing, thankfully
not literally on this trip.
To learn more about our journey, you can
Read Our Cybercast Online (we were part of Team Dancing Dozen, the August
trip) or visit the site of our tour company,
Alpine Ascents International, based in Seattle Washington.
Despite the weather problems, our tour company was fantastic and our guide, Vern
was entertaining and invaluable when the snow decided to get the best of us... Mother
Nature can be an unpredictable beast.
August 6, 2004
Faberge Eggs, Lenin Mausoleum, & More
Moscow is expensive; a cab cost 700 rubles, food's expensive, souvenirs are
expensive. Today we saw Bolshoi Theater, Red Square, and the Kremlin, but
more exciting (for someone who's been to Moscow) was that we stayed in Hotel
Ukraine, one of the seven sisters.
We also got to see the armory in the Kremlin, which was impressive, especially the
Faberge Eggs. The carriages in this museum were great as well. I also got to see
Lenin today, which was creepy, but well worth it.
● Learn more about Russia ●
Return to Justin's Travel Blog ●