Monthly Archives: June 2010

State Libraries and Bloated Posts: Prepare for Information Overload

[Disclaimer: I got carried away.  I’m sorry.  Yet for some reason I just have to get this library off my chest.  Feel free to skim, skip, or come back later.  I promise they’ll be more catchy topics in the future.  Even if it just means sharing humiliating bloopers and stories of sketchy men (my life is so entertaining, that these are sometimes separate categories).  I’ll do whatever it takes to make up for the length of this post]

Taking you all back to last week… After what felt like both an incredibly long and miraculously fast week, it was suddenly the weekend, which was to begin with a group excursion. Our destination: the Russian State Library in the Name of Lenin. (I have since been told that it’s actually conversationally called “Leninka” ‘little Lenin’ by Muscovites). Our program had arranged a tour, and while attendance was voluntary, I felt like I didn’t have a good enough excuse to duck out, plus, who knows, maybe there’d be something interesting in Russia’s largest library.

Why the dragging of my heels?

Because it was our day off,

And I’m lazy by temperament…

Even more than lazy, I’m hopelessly averse to group activities.

And even though I still spring out of bed by 7am when the sun beats a wide path through my curtains, I told myself I could have slept in.

But I went. I was also curious to get a glimpse of the notorious informational abyss that provokes only groans and signs from my colleagues who’ve actually try to research there. A few from the group have grappled for access to its vast and tightly controlled archive and concurred that it is one of the most difficult places to work. All movement requires multiple copies of concretely documented permission, books apparently take forever to get processed, which you can’t take them out of the library anyway, which leaves you fighting for a space to work where its quiet, and you won’t be hit on by some ne’er-do-well. Or so I was told.

With all this in mind, I got my act together to scope it out myself, and we’re all about to have a little more trivia in our back pocket as a result of it.

The Leninka is a large building, more like a complex of buildings, which fills up a large, central city block not far from the Kremlin. The plaza in front of it is fitted with a large statue of Dostoevsky seated, looking ever-so pensive and slightly discontent, as he is often wont to do.

Dostoevsky in Front of the Leninka

To have a brooding Dostoevsky in front is appropriate aesthetically and thematically, I figure. Foremost, having a great writer (and reader!) in front of a library only makes sense. However, the library is named after Lenin, and more and more recently, I’ve been seeing apparitions of public memorials that look like Dostoevsky AND Lenin from a distance. Oh dear reader, I’m not joking you. Either it’s my contacts, my sanity (a la some Dostoevskian Double or Gogolian fright) or there is a creepy similarity between the heads of Dostoevsky and Lenin when expressed in bronze. The prominent foreheads, the piercing eyes, the varying degrees of chin-hair…Of course, Lenin normally has much better posture, but they do have some resemblance when seated, curled up with a book, I reckon. But again, chances are high that I’m just having Russification hallucinations…bear with me.

Inside the library, we were met by our tour guide, a very friendly middle-aged woman who has worked at the library for at least 20 years, and who energetically and very informatively led us through the complex for the better part of an hour and a half. We had only but barely stepped through security (practically every public entrance—malls, grocery stores, school buildings—has security guards and metal detectors) when we came to the first item of interest: A memorial to those fallen in World War II.

Now, all over Moscow there are memorials in honor of World War II, the war feels much more salient and haunting here than in America. It’s in the back of everyone’s collective mind in a way that I’ve never noticed in the America I know (and granted, there are many I don’t know). Obviously, Russia also lost many many more men than us, was literally underseige for years, its whole way of life and social organization was radically impacted by the war. It was also the great victory—like Russia’s defeat of Napoleon—that established Russia as the defender of all Europe, as well as it own defender. Still… Seeing statues, eternal flames, and plaques dotted throughout the cityscape, I often wonder if the purges and famine that were contemporaneous to the war, and which then followed in “peacetime,” are perhaps the unspoken, but insistent addendums to the countless memorials throughout the city. Does the explicit remembrance of the sacrifices through 1944 carry with it the remembrance of all the sacrifices in its wake?

This memorial was quite simple, limited to just the wall of the stairway landing. It was comprised of two marble plaques full of names, and then thigh-high vases of flowers below. The plaques read:


There were maybe 200-250 names on the plaques and the flowers placed beneath were obviously very fresh and quite intentionally arranged. Our guide explained that the it was important for everyone working there to remember those librarians sent to the Front. She paused to let us imagine for ourselves some humble librarian trading in card catalogs for a rusty rifle, then led us upstairs to the Special Collection.

“FROM THE LIBRARY TO THE FRONT” sent a chill down my spine for some reason. There’s a memorial to those fallen in WWII right outside the Philological Faculty where I have class everyday —three ghastly cement obelisks jutting out from the ground protecting an oft-but-not-eternal flame at their base. But, in all honesty, that piece affects me about as much as the statue of Walt Whitman, which is also nearby. Which is to say, almost not at all. But these two plaques and their gerbera daisies stared at me.  Perhaps it’s because a library is so very much not the Front, and my vision of meek, erudite Russian librarians is so incongruous with the image of Soviet soldiers, that I particularly shuttered for the those conscripted to fight on the eastern front in the early 40’s.  To leave a library for the Front is to leave the most bucolic of urban spaces for the most violent and lawless of places, for a complete inversion of reality.  But I guess the reality is that war is always an inversion, so the Library only naively occupies some sacred place in my mind, above the catastrophe of modern history.  But I digress, and you all are all wondering—I can sense it–how this bohemouth sanctuary of books even came about in the first place…

So before I wax poetic about the Special Collection (by poetic, I mean nerdish), a (kinda) brief history of the Russian State Library in the Name of Lenin:

Back in the early 1800’s, one very important, very Educated aristocrat named Count Nikolay Rumyantsev was employed in a number of pretigious posts, include Chancellor of Russia (what that means, I don’t know. Maybe its like being a Vizier, but not evil like Jafar in Aladdin, who is the only Vizier that springs to mind….). Count Rumyantev traveled all his life, collecting from everywhere he went, and built a sizeable collection in his hometown of St. Petersburg. As per his will, he donated his very large collection of books, maps, prints, fossils and curios to the State. This collection was supplemented with the works of other Educated and Magnimous Aristocrats, and grew to be quite a point of national pride. However, St. Petersburg was apparently over-saturated with goodies, and the collection was moved to Moscow in 1862, as the people of Moscow did not yet have a free and public library. This move itself is evidence of the strangely competitive, slightly symbiotic sibling relationship between St. Petersburg and Moscow, who have often been consigned to sharing their favorite toys with each other when instructed to do so by Father Tsar or other well-intending elders.

The library was initially housed in the Pashkov mansion in Moscow, but as the collection grew, a new building—where yours truly trooped around—was built, and many parts of the collection (fine art, mineral samples and fossils) were sent to other appropriate museums. Thanks to the State’s massive acquistion of private property with the Bolshevik Revolution, the collection was really something to brag abut now (hey, you can’t take it with you!) and bursting at the seams in the old building. The design for the new building was the result of much study—architects considered the plans for all the major European libraries and gleaned what they considered to be the advantages of those, and melded them into one giant building in the style of “modernized neoclassicalsim” which is to say, it just barely escaped without becoming some terrifying symbol of Soviet modernism. It has the pomp and circumstance that’s fitting to a great (Soviet) hall of learning, but not too much pretense or glitz, so its neither distracting or overbearing. Not everything is shiny marble and red either, which is nice.  The only really silly Soviet thing in the whole place is a mural in the Great Reading Hall.  The mural isn’t terrible–its huge and in the classical Soviet style, but its just silly it shows about ten different montages of people hard at work for the State, and NONE of them are reading.  There’s a rocket, a mountain lair, a science lab, a manual laborer.  But no readers.  I guess its there as a subliminal message to everyone sitting on their butts with a book that the rest of society is out building rocket ships and extracting minerals…

The library was renamed after Lenin in 1925, shortly after he died, leaving his young Soviet project in the lurch (true, his soul and mind departed this world, but don’t worry, his body is still in tact under glass, like poor Snow White just waiting for a kiss).

From its inception, the library was hugely popular, and the only place of its kind by far in all of Moscow. The tour guide showed us pictures of long lines of men waiting to get into the new building library in 1926. Every single book published in the Soviet Union was added to collection, giving occasion for a few more expansions over the following decades. While they squeezed in more shelving, seating was a perennial problem. The long lines of visitors continued up until the almost-present. Our guide remarked, sadly, that she could remember for years coming to work in the morning to see a snaking queue of patrons, itching to run inside and claim a seat.  Nowadays, there’s almost always a free seat somewhere, leading her to surmise that reading is receding from national interest…

What are people up to instead of cultivating their minds? “Doing business, I figure,” was her answer. Oh Moscow, what are you thinking? Don’t you know an egghead is so much sexier than a businessman?! But I’m just being biased now…

As our tour wandered through the stacks, the processing rooms, and various exhibition halls, it was evident that being a librarian in the Leninka is very much a women’s job. I’m not sure if we saw a single male employee. But it wasn’t always so. Until the Revolution, we learned, all the librarians were men, all of the aristocratic class, very Educated, very Esteemed. While they were actually in charge of the library, the task of cataloging fell to those of a “lower social class”—i.e. women. That’s right, the incredibly large card catalog collection—still used today!—was written almost entirely by women, by hand. As we stood inside one of the main card catalog rooms, the guide reached over, pulled out a drawer, and grabbed a card from the middle of the box. Sure enough, it was written in a meticulous, slanted, unmistakably female hand. There are millions more where that came from!

Even before I knew I was surrounded by thousands of handwritten notes by ladies of the past, the card catalog room was entrancing.  I imagine that standing in a sprawling room with row after row of wooden drawers, some new drawers stacked atop old fixtures, each packed with little squares of information, is the closest thing I’ll ever get to standing inside a computer, albeit one adorned with houseplants….All this, I thought ruefully, all those beautiful letters and thoughtful labor, this entire room will be transfered to a disk that can fit in my palm. But probably not anytime soon. As of right now only about ten percent of the enourmous collection (we’re talking 40 million PLUS items in total!) is electronically registered. The rest remains to be done at a pace that could only be best described as leisurely.

Its not just the card catalog that’s keeping it old school. The library also boasts a cataloging system that isn’t used anywhere else, so their records are only compatible with, well, their own records. Add to that the fact that the public isn’t allowed into the stacks, and you have a system where people have to figure out the author of the book they want provided that its not in the electronic system (the card catalog is alphabetic by author, ) and then physically walk through rows of cards to look up the book’s position. Even if the book is in the electronic system, the eletronic system actually brings up a SCAN of the orignal card catalog (this I learned through hearsay, just fyi..). So no clicking on a call number to see what else you’ll find. And no wandering the stacks checking out the neighborhood of your subject area. Nope, you just fill out the request below, and wait for the paper trail to evolve into a book…

I included a shot of the back of book request form, because I’m pretty sure its an ad for milk.  I’m not sure if the library sells ad space on Request Slips to make money, or if they print on the back sides of old ads to save money…we may never know. But I wanted to share that detail nevertheless.

Back to topics at hand….While women were on just about equal footing with the men by the twenties, they had one more moment of exclusive labor in the history of the library—they were the ones who boxed the contents of the library in 1941 and prepared it for evacuation. Amazingly, the entire collection was returned to Moscow after the war, perfectly in tact.

Uh-oh, I can your sighs of patient boredom.  Don’t worry, no gender-labor theories yet!  Just more history!  The photographic exhibiton of the library’s history (which is the source of much of my information) wasn’t just photos of long lines and ladies working. That, I think, was simply the gist of the 1920’s. And 1930’s. And 1940’s…. There was also a great deal of material on the directors of the library, a position of great political and cultural prestige. One case displayed a portrait of every director to grace the library. It was a pretty fabulous sketch of what you looked like if you were in power over the past 150 years in Russia.

First, men with big mustaches in military jackets. Very very imperial. Then a few bearded fellows, stern, with solid jackets. Marina Tsevtaeva’s dad served in the early 1900’s, for those of you up on literary folk of the 20th century–he looked serious and earth-toned. There was one disgruntled looking poet with fly-away hair and revolutionary glasses, and then began the Bureauocrats. Facial hair faded, and it was square face after square face in a bland sea of button downs and the occasional thin framed glasses. There was maybe one moustauche after 1920. No military decorations, and no sparks in anyone’s eyes.  Most of them looked like the kind of person that would hold a grudge, but then again, not everyone is photogenic.

One director of the Museum was especially intriguing—a certain Comrade Vladimir Ivanovich Nevsky (1876-1937), about whom our tour guide spoke with great respect in her voice. He was a scholar, a soldier, and a “a true revolutionary,” who spent many years in prison, but emerged none the worse (or so it seemed) and served as director of the library for many years. A brief internet hunt after the tour revealed that he was one of the early Bolsheviks, and thus a “professional revolutionary” who participated in a number of uprisings in the 1910’s, and then climbed the Soviet hierarchy, eventually becoming Leninka’s director (in 1924), as well as one of the first Soviet historians. He was, the guide stressed, a man of “crystalline honor” who could not resist entering into a spat with Stalin over some matter of principle, the content of which was not elaborated on. Alas, she noted, he overstepped his bounds and ended up being “repressed….”

We moved onto other directors.

“Repressed?!” Such a horrible, vague explanation for so many disappearances in the time of Stalin. I investigated further. Nevsky’s ‘spat’ ended in his arrest in 1935 and two years later he was sentenced to death by firing squad. He was ‘rehabilitated’ in 1955…I’m not sure what he was ever convicted of…. Much has been written on the purges, and nothing ever does it justice, so I shall shamefully leave this lingering in the air, without the closure that anyone—save perhaps Solzhenitzyn—can offer, and try to console you with Beauty. Forgive me, dear Reader.


Oh where to begin, and how I wish I could have photographed this all for you! (Photography=Strictly Prohibited)  There were many manuscripts (illuminated and not) from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, including the first book printed in Belorussia and in the Ukraine (strange claim to fame, since those places didn’t exactly exist in the 15th century, but whatever…some sort of pan-Soviet shout-out there). There was an illustrated copy of the Old Testament from 1518 that included a portrait of the translator—a very uncommon addition by historical standards! There were a number of copies of Dante’s Inferno and Divine Comedy, including one copy of the Inferno that was about the size of three matchboxes stacked on top of each other! It was displayed with a magnifying glass, but I still can’t imagine how the heck someone wrote that in the 17th century. I know people were littler then, and must have had smaller, more nimble fingers than our present day over-fortified, keyboard plodding digits, but I’m still pretty sure they weren’t actually gnomes…

There were etchings from first editions, illustrations to Pushkin’s stories, beautiful stationary from various generations of the royal family. There were thick books with fore edge paintings of Japanese gardens or ships tossing in a storm . As Imperial Russia was perhaps the most devout and exaggerated Francophile there ever were, and as such, many first editions of French plays, essays, and novels were in the collection. A surprising part of the French language collection was a first edition of Ionesco, representing Russia’s special compatibility with the lovely combination of all things French and all things depressingly absurd.

As far as the actual “Russian” literature was concerned, there was one real gem of a story in the exhibition. It involves two heavy hitters of a Russian lit, and a girl who must go down in the books as attending to her looks (spoiler: no duels involved in this tale!). Turgenev, a Very Important 19th century Russian writer is a staple in the handful of 19th century Russki’s that everyone reads. Back in the day, he had a copy of Lermontov, another Very Important Figure in Russian literature, mostly because he’s sort of the literary aftermath of Pushkin (the Russian Shakespeare, who showed up pretty late on the scene, comparatively speaking). Lermontov is arguably the most romantic of all the Russian writers; I don’t mean ‘Romantic’, as in the style (though he was that as well), but his biography and persona is irrestibly seductive and, well, romantic—he was a soldier, a poet, a writer of stories about mysterious and dangerous adventures in the Caucasus. He died young and left us little literature, but what we do have is a delightful, emintently readable collection of works from the mind of a clever, sensitive, young man, who was prone to falling in love, compulsively doodling and occasionally moping. What a glorious combination!  (Some professors would have my head for that description, so keep it on the down low.)  Anyway, Turgenev (our first Important Man of Letters) had a copy of Lermonotov’s works (so: Important Letters by an Important Man of Letters) which he lent to a certain young lady. Our guide implied it may have been to impress her.

Oh! What heart wouldn’t skip a beat to have an early edition of Lermontov in hand!

Well, apparently hers. She was unimpressed with the content and, I surmise, the gesture, and ripped out pages to curl her hair with. Her mis-estimation of the book was caught before she destroyed the whole thing, and now the salvagaed remains sit under glass, beside a piece of twisted paper that looks like it may well have been wretched straight out of her preening hands and half twirled lock. Considering that the world is at no loss for the book—we have plenty of copies of Lermontov, just not many with Turgenev’s pawprints all over—I’m almost glad she did it and there was a little folly under glass along with so many beautiful, bookish perfections.

Now, as you walk through this Special Collection, each artifact or print came with some degree of identification, sometimes as simple as “XII Century.” Sure, leave us to wonder where it was made, how it ended up here, why it gets to be on display. Whatever.  What’s wild, is that–in what I can only imagine to be efforts to be entirely chronologically exhaustive–there were also items on display from the 21st century. Oh, that’s no sooo wild, you protest.  Bear with me.  Now, I dabbled in the book arts in college, but otherwise, I’m certainly not up on current book-related masterpieces or technological breakthroughs. Nevertheless, I was fairly shocked to see the little exhibition case on the 21st century:

Yup, animal-shaped erasers. Let’s bear in mind what 18th century fore-edge painting looks like:

You be the judge, but wow.

True, animal shaped erasers would have delighted many an 19th century damsel, who would have ripped a book to shreds, but that’s not quite the issue here.  Animal shaped erasers, marked “XXI Century” are under a glass case?  This is really going to represent my century along side illuminated manuscripts of John the Theologian, and gold-gilded stationary of the tsars? It’s exhibited a few feet from the 17th century and its copy of Dante’s Inferno that could strung on a chain and worn as a pendant OR studied for a decade? Let’s hope it was just a place marker for great things to come in the next ninety years…

But what really took the cake in terms of material shock was the exhibit in the main hall for the occasion of Library Day. Everyone from the library brought in something related to books. So there were—I am not joking, in the least—a half a dozen glass cases filled with figures holding books. On display in the main hall.  Little porcelain angels holding songbooks, a variety of cats and dogs dressed up in graduation gowns toting books, a troll reading under a mushroom. There were figurines of busty women with books in their cleavage, salt and pepper shakers of book-carrying kiddos.  It was a strange, strange, kitschy and heartwarming testament to what I can only imagine represented decades of gifts bequeathed to patient librarians by loving friends and relatives who balked at the task of picking out a book for a librarian and played it safe with book paraphernalia.(1) If you ask me, wine might be a better gamble, but then, I’ve never been inside the mind of a Russian librarian. Although now I feel just a smidgen closer…

(1) RUN ON SENTENCE ALERT! Sorry folks, if you didn’t already know, I’ve got no editor but myself, and sometimes you let yourself go…


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Filed under Literature, Moscow

Phonetics: A Few Fundamentals

“We are even silent in different ways.”

So began the first class of the first day of school. Phonetics. For many of us (myself actually not included in this) we haven’t been in a classroom in a while, certainly not as a student. Of the twelve participants in my program, two are professors, two are high school teachers (one of whom is a real live Russian), and the rest of us are graduate students. Of these graduate students, only three of us are still doing coursework. And heck, even if we still go to class, a few literature courses scattered throughout the week is nothing like daily 9am-3pm classes on Russian in Russian, in Russia. Comparison, there is not. (This my friends, is why I now nap between class and dinner, between dinner and bedtime, and still get in a full night’s sleep.)

So here we are in the Phonetics and Intonation class. Where we are greeted with the pronouncement that even our silence is accented, marked as English.(1) And that friends, is only the tip of a very daunting phonetic iceberg.

We start, as the song goes, at the very beginning (a very good place to start):


‘a, a, a, a, a, a, a’

“Excellent! I see that this group can say ‘a’ just like a Russian. I don’t think we’ll train too much more with ‘a’”

All seven of us have passed the first hurdle.

And so we continued, first with just vowels, then syllables with select consonants.

The professor, who is truly energetic, entirely patient, and wonderfully passionate about phonetics, manages to zone in on each of us without us feeling (entirely) like caged animals. She constantly reminds “Don’t be afraid!” after saying some consonant cluster that could never, ever exist in English (v’s and b’s and r’s and z’s all piled on top on one other!) Her body language is a bit intense, but effective. She leans in, knees bent, elbows bent, waiting to clasp her hands in victory at the moment we manage to navigate our tongues truly a la russe. Like a jockey on an invisible horse she bends towards us, fixes her stare on our mouths, and listens, rapt, for our ‘mi mi mi,’ squints and shakes her head at our ‘fi fi fi.’

“pi pi pi pi pi pi pi”

“Almost! Once more!”

“pi pi pi pi pi pi pi”

I am struck by the sensation that we are lost little birds, chirping for an Anglophone mama-hen that had abandoned the nest, begging a Russian one to adopt us…

But in reality, we are all grown ups, who, for whatever knuckle-headed reason, settled on Russian literature (or high school teaching) as the thing that beat out all the other things you can do in life. At least as a profession. (Or is it a lifestyle?)

Now, what I’m about to say is not intended as a self-aggrandizing rant of academic bravo which portrays us as a gaggle of over-reaching eggheads. Really. I just want to show you how far we’ve fallen/come. Hence I’m going to give you a teeny glimpse of our group. We have all actually decided to spend at least 5-7 years, after college, back in college. Hence, between the seven of us in this class, there are many, many years of higher education. Some dissertations have already been written. Research has been conducted in the farthest reaches of Russian-language archives domestically and abroad. Theories have been studied, absorbed, criticized, published, re-imagined, republished. Grants have been awarded. Students have been effectively taught. Jobs have been landed. All this by our own agency (again, I hold up the caboose as far as any academic achievements or anything resembling vocational legitimacy).



“No, no, that’s not a Russian ‘i’, move your tongue further”

Remember that project on the geography of memory in Soviet narratives?


“Further, it needs to be softer”

How about the paper on about the influence of Romanticism on 19th century satire?


“Now you’ve moved your tongue too far”

Thesis still coming along on Orthodox theology and modern aesthetics?


‘That’s it! A true, genuine Russian i! Fantastic. Now: li li li’

“li li li”

“Not quite….”

And so it goes… Through the alphabet, we go a’tripping.

In addition to learning, at long last, how to actually pronounce the language to which we have dedicated our youth, we are learning Russian intonation, the other, sneaker side of Russian speech. Intonation is the Russian linguist’s dream: the non-lexical, non-morphological level at which spoken Russian expresses meaning, purely based on where the emphasis is placed in a statement; rendering it a declarative, decisive, or skeptical statement, or even a question or demand. Similar things exist in many languages, its like a science-cum-badge-of-linguistic-greatness in the field of Russian language acquisition. As such, we practice it extensively, according to the widely-taught schema of 7 levels of intonation (the inventor of this heptal heirarchy is invoked by name in class for her contribution to linguistics). In general, our professors love systems. We constantly hear about “structures” “circles of structure” “paradigms of structure” “analogs” “algorithms” “structural classifications.” As of yet, we are only working with three of the seven types of intonation, but even so, there’s no wasted time.

The informal farewell ‘bye’ was one of the practice exercises. Spelled ‘poka,’ its pronounced ‘paKA’, (there is only one stressed syllable in any Russian word, which affects—just so you know—how all the vowels in the word are pronounced…this is part of the reason why us graduate students are so much better at reading Russian than speaking it).



“Hmmmm, that wasn’t really paKA, I didn’t have a sense that you were leaving, you were just saying “paKA.” There isn’t the right feeling to it.”


‘Almost, now you’re saying ‘bye’, but a Russian would emphasize it more. I still don’t feel it. Say it as if you don’t know when you’ll next see me. It’s a farewell, we’re leaving each other, parting ways, its not just a word.’


‘Aha! And there it is. A correct poka! How about that!’

That’s right dear readers, we are literally incapable of saying “bye” on the first try.

But don’t worry, we’re not just stuck with hello’s and good-bye’s. Our professor has us practicing phrases that will help us in everyday life, like “Did Petya go to the store?” “Are those your flowers?” “May I have some fat-free tvorog? (2)” Such sentences are only the practice shots for more important conversational moments in life, such as those relational face-offs when you need to know how to intonate “Oh still smoking?…” when we want our husband to put down the pack. How to make sure our boyfriends understand entirely and without confusion that, “Without a fur coat, the winter is cold.”

One of the great things about our phonetics professor, and actually, so far, about all of our professors, is that when we get something wrong, they nearly always give us the benefit of the doubt. First, they take a moment to absorb the mistake, be it phonetic, intonational, grammatical, syntactical, or just plain incoherent. They narrow their eyes, tilt their head, sigh—barely—to themselves and then nod knowing.

“I see why you would say that,” they begin, “you’re thinking of [insert far-fetched and terribly      complicated context for why we could have ever made our mistake] . Perhaps, it could be possible, perhaps…but it’s better said [insert actual Russian phrase/word/sound]. Very good.

So its not like we get away with making mistakes, it’s just assumed that when we make up a word/sound/grammatical form, we’re thinking of an archaism from Turgenev, combined with a sound change from South Slavic, that could very well lead to the type of syntactical innovation of the Futurist poets. But of course. These mistakes are only to be expected because we are, after all, educated people.

Educated people.

This is a very important category, I’m learning, around Moscow. Or at least, around MGU. At that opening ceremony (think jubilee!), each one of our professors was introduced to us as a very “educated” person [Russian speakers out there: образованный; it also has a slight connotation of being cultured, for brevity’s sake, I’m simply translating it literally, as ‘educated’]. Now, all of our professors are, in fact, educated. It’s sort of a prerequisite really. But where in English we might say, ‘accomplished’ or ‘lauded’ or ‘well-esteemed’, around here, it seems to be ‘educated.’ End all be all.

That’s not the whole of it though. The plot thickens because outside of the 8th floor of the 2nd Humanitarian Building of the Moscow State University in the name of Lomonosov, are Uneducated People. They’re lurking out there, and we must be aware of the dangers.

Now, the first time I was in Russia—another city, another program, (practically) another decade—the most pressing advice was on how to ward off hooligans, drunks, bad men posing as police officers, and other rapscallions who, I was told, would take your money, seduce you for a green card (or just seduce you), or at a minimum, tug your earrings out of spite (I’m not making that up). There was a sense that some shameful majority (or viciously large minority) of the general (male) population was out to get you, and could see you coming from a mile away.

They’ve been replaced. Or have undergone a metamorphosis, trading in their unscrupulous souls for dirty mouths. Now the thing to fear is the Uneducated, with their slang, their incorrect case usage and their failure to properly grasp the Russian verb system. These Uneducated People come up regularly in class. They’re tricky,–because you know what?–they’re in Moscow. Like a tribe of the undead amongst the living, they’ve left their villages and farms and infiltrated the Muscovite landscape. And they’re not who you think they are. Twice now one of my professors has noted that its not just the Ukrainians you have to watch out for—it used to be easy to spot them!—no, the Uneducated are seeping in from all over. We only just think they only come from the Ukraine. In fact, they might not be Ukrainians at all, and what’s more, some Ukrainians (names were named!) are themselves actually Educated. (3)

The Uneducated, of origin unknown (save not from Moscow proper) say things like “I feed myself” instead of “I eat” (one professor noted, with pain, how in their ignorance, they actually consider this to be “high speech”). They don’t reduce their vowels (shame, that’s what much of Monday’s class today was on!). They generally introduce vulgar phrases and shady foreign-isms into the language. And, apparently, they want you to too. Rumor has it that they’re positively evangelical about their bastardized Russian, and we, as vulnerable graduate students may fall into their clutches. The fertile soil of our receptive minds will absorb their curses on the subway, their shoddy grammatical constructions on the street, and our Russian—horror of horrors, unbeknownst to us!—will be defiled, rendered rude, kitschy or -gasp!- provincial.

Watch out kids, it’s a rough world out there. Silence might be Golden, but it still has an accent. And the Uneducated are out there, and they want you to talk like them. They may be confined to Moscow right now, but we’ve read the news, we’ve seen the movies. They don’t even know that they’re the Uneducated, ensconced as they are in linguistically primitive denial and ignorance. These sorts of things only worsen, spread to television, radio, perhaps our very own shores. You might not get mugged, but all those years of graduate work may be teetering on the edge of annihilation…

(1) How, you ask, is silence Anglo?  Or Russian?  By virtue ‘of the resting position of our phonetic apparatus’; that is, just by looking at us, the professor could tell our lips and tongue were poised to make English sounds, just as she can tell that a Russian mouth, when silent, is nevertheless poised to make Russian sounds, to utter hard t’s and soft i’s and countless zh’s and ch’s and sch’s and sh’s…

(2) A soft cheese common in lots of Russian dishes, especially sweets,  whose closest American approximation is probably Ricotta cheese.

(3) I intend no ill will towards Ukrainians, I’m just passing on (as close to verbatim as I can manage) this week’s lessons in life and langauge.


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The New Tretyakov Gallery and How 20th Century Russian Art was Wonderful At First

Moving along from yesterday’s sweeping generalizations-meet-travelogue, I’m shooting to offer a smidgen more of that high culture I came here to enjoy.

My Saturday walk along the river ultimately lead to the New Tretyakov Gallery, an enormous museum of 20th century Russian art overlooking a sculpture park, the river, and not far from an imposing statue of Lenin which survives, ever so sternly, to this day in a main intersection of downtown Russia.

The New Tretyakov is a huge rectangular building, four stories high, that looks, to be completely honest, like every other gigantic mid twentieth century building in Moscow. The inside is almost unsure of what it wants architecturally—is it minimalistic, or just plain plain? Other than a few interesting light fixtures on the first floor, everything was flat, square, unpatterned, untextured, heavy stone and thick glass. Yet, more in an empty, low budget way, that an ideologically sparse and stream-lined way. I guess that is only appropriate for a building dedicated to Russia’s 20th century visual arts. The only variation in the entire place was that the exhibition rooms are different colors, a touch I really enjoyed and will have to go on about later.

When I got there at about noon (on a Saturday), the place was dead. In the hour and a half I spent there, I maybe saw five or six other patrons. Most of the time, I had each exhibition hall to myself. There wasn’t even security in every room (security being a babushka on a wooden chair, yapping if you get too close to the painting). Perhaps all the cultured Muscovites are out at their dachas? (1) Or tourists, when faced with the time constraints of site-seeing in a city as vast as Moscow, skip the New imply opt to go to the (old) Tretyakov Gallery, where the gems of medieval, classical, and realist art are housed? Either way, I felt like I had the place to myself. After getting an unexpected discount on my ticket, I trudged up the stairs with my remaining energy to the fourth floor, which is devoted to the permanent collection of 20th century art. The collection on this floor alone is so vast and so interesting, I didn’t really make it to much else…

The atrium of the 4th floor is a rotating exhibition, and this one was dedicated to Russia’s victory over the Nazi’s, a holiday (The Day of Victory) which was only just recently celebrated (see car photo). In addition to a couple of tv’s playing footage of Russian soldiers’ triumphant return to Moscow, there was a monumental—and I mean, enormous—painting of the newly arrived troops standing in red square, in front of the Kremlin and Lenin’s Tomb, with the spoils of war thrown at their feet (the pictured spoils being Nazi flags and banners, not East Berlin). The troops were brave, handsome, and stood facing the equally stalwart and well-postured generals who awaited them. It was painted in a very classical realist style, so it was interesting to look at, if not altogether innovative…I must say though, for a piece of epic national propaganda, it didn’t quite stir me the way something of its proportions should have.

The fourth floor moves in chronological order, so you begin with turn of the century avant garde painting and end in late Soviet (pseudo-) realism. The first room, with walls painted a pale grey-green, is home to a collection of paintings by Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. These two were a few of the most important Russian avant-garde painters; they were married to each other, had very productive individual and collaborative careers, and both eventually left for France in a wave of artist-immigrants during Russia’s early political upheavals. Neither of them returned to Russia, and both died in Paris. They painted in a number of styles–embracing, exhausting, and discarding –isms the way the early 20ths century was so wont to do. They’re famous for bringing “European” trends into the Russian art world and expanding on them, such as painting in the tradition of neo-primitivism (think Gaugin), rayism (think a funky spin off of Italian Futurism), Cubism, or Cezanne-ism. They work is very beautiful and often whimsical, and Larionov particularly favors lots of every day scenes—the barber shop, a soldier writing graffiti on the job, a little pig crossing the road (sneaky little pigs crop up in a few of his paintings). Goncharova pulls off the portraits much better, and was ultimately (in my humble opinion) the better painter of the two.

Now, I’ve studied these guys in class before, and so I had a few ideas and images and key terms floating around in my head already when I went into the exhibit. However, what was interesting and so delightful about actually wandering around my own private room of Goncharova was that in person, it was so much more compelling and also so much harder to categorize. Obviously, slides don’t capture texture, or scale, or the mood of a real live oil on a real live wall. But there was something more—the painting in real life was simply more captivating. It was fiercer, more energetic. This is true for many of the pieces I saw that day, but most striking when I thought about pieces I’d looked at at length on a screen or a page. For example, the label on this painting (below) included it in Goncharova’s “neo-primitivism” phase, a period during which the Russian elites imitated folk style painting (think simplistic, color blocks and lots of outlines) and painted Russian ethic minorities and peasants, as a homespun alternative to traveling to far away locales like their French neighbors (who says fetishism can’t start at home?).

Natalya Goncharova, Jews in a Street, 1912

And yet, this painting of Jewish women (who would have qualified as somewhat exotic, and certainly outsiders, because of the predominantly highly segregated social classes of Russia) is hardly primitive at all. These women don’t look like totems or fertility goddesses, they don’t look even fetishized. Yes, yes, there’s a rejection of realism, a “folk-like” stacking of perspective, etc etc—I’ll spare you. And jump in if you think I’m wrong, but I was struck by how much more humanity there is in Goncharova’s subjects that in her European counterparts. Even if this painting was part of a project of primitivism and folk imitation, the actual result is far more emotionally complex than what is normally called neo-primitivism. Each woman has a different expression, and each expression hints at some personality and emotion, there’s a different kind of spark or sorrow in each one.

The following rooms had works by many of Larionov and Goncharova’s collegues, who were all members of myriad groups, collectives, and associations that would spring up, explode, and merge in the first fifteen years of the 20th century art world. As I walked along, the paintings stayed—in my mind—delicious and captivating for the next twenty years. There were a few Chagalls, including this favorite (we’re now in a blue-colored room, which plays well off of the work of the 1910’s and early 20’s). Look at the little goat and the man curled up on the wall. Peep her delightful petticoat and heels! The hints of cubism in the costume of the two unleashed lovers make them all the more flightful, instead of the sad kind of cubism where everthing turns brown, heavy and flat and distorted (I’m giving away my general lack of love for too much cubism…)

Marc Chagall, Over the Town, 1914-1918

I am an absolute SUCKER for portraits, and so I have to just include a few of my favorites that I saw. If you like 20th century European painting, you’ll probably like these, if not, my bad, this post just isn’t for you…

Mashkov, Portrait of E. Kirkaldi, 1902

Ilya Mashkov, Self Portrait, 1911

Konchalovsky, Portrait of the Artist Georgy Yakulov. 1910.

Konchalovsky, Portrait of Vsevolod Meyerhold, 1938

(NB: THe Tretyakov had this info on the above work: The portrait was created by Konchalovsky during the time of the mass repressions and not long before the arrest and death of Vsevolod Meyerhold, the theatre director and reformer. With the objective of showing the conflict between the individual and the surrounding reality – at this time Meyerhold was already removed from his job – the artist has chosen a complex solution in his construction of the composition. The background, which is a carpet with multi-coloured ornamentation, provides a decorative, ornamental plane, while the figure is drawn in volume and held to a monochrome tonal range. The clash between flat plane and volume, the contrast in the spots of colour, the fractional forms of the ornamentation and the figure of the model – all of this creates a special emotional tension which reveals the content of the image. This is how Vsevolod Ivanov described the painting: “A man is reclining on a sofa. It would seem that he is resting. The handsome carpet and calm dog seem to support this view. But his creative thought does not cease for a moment. It is as tense and disturbed as the design of the carpet…”)

All of the sudden, after all these brilliant, playful, soulful portraits (and occasional landscapes), we arrived at Minimalism and Suprematism, and the exhibition room went white. Stone, cold, white. Malevich’s Black Square was front and center, (2) Tatlin installations were in the corner, and there was hardly a color to be found amidst the sharp corners of black and white and the occasional grey. Sigh…it just seemed so strict and lifeless and mournful after the color and texture of the avant-garde. It was a mechanical, reductionist ideology in paint, a rejection of the oddity of life and the complicated, rich dual legacy of European high culture and Russian peasant culture in Russian art. Now Russia’s art descended into metal plates and spokes, right angles and the worship of manufacturing. Alas, alas, alas. But that’s just my opinion. Quick, someone explain to me why I should love this stuff!

At least though, the Suprematism was still about something in terms of art (we can hash out what that means later!)—it was still seeking some visual purity, some liberation for the artist, something mysterious and illusive that could be communicated in (lack of) color and shape. The work of art was a unique medium to express something that evaded drama, literature, or even music (they did try to use supremist ideas in dance actually). It’s no real justification that perhaps the goal was nothingness, and art should never be about nothingness, but at least they thought art had within itself something powerful and fragile that needed to be taken care of, cultivated. After Suprematism, the exhibition devolved into Soviet kitsch. Technically, kitsch is not the name of the movement(s), but oh, was it kitsch. We’ve all see the photos of the strapping lads and lasses, with an obfuscated but pounding sexuality, generic faces and good citizenship written all over them. Imagine room after room of this. What’s really the sad thing about this, is that it’s nothing but types, completely boring archetypes. There’s no individual, no spark, no whimsy. If the avant-garde was painfully self-indulgent at times, the Soviet Momumentalism portrays the person personality-less and lacking any inner life. One very important exception is the work of Soviet painter Petrov-Vodkin, who did some very Soviet, very interesting stuff, below. The Tretyakov described his “neo-classicism”: “[It is] the combination of two contrasting aspects: clearly marked movement and captivated stillness as well as a decorative clearness and troubled sharpness of colors which transmit to the viewer an anxious perception of time and a premonition of something unknown.” Ohhhh……

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin Petrograd Madonna, 1918

In one room, there was a really exceptional statue. I loved it from afar. It’s of two soccer players, and one of them is kicking the ball out from the other one, who is almost perpendicular to the floor as he slides towards the ball. There are no extra (structural) supports for the players, so they pose totally suspended by their feet which connect to each other, to the ball, to thus to the base of the statue. There’s a fantastic, powerful sense of movement and presence. I felt like, hey, well, there’s a real silver lining to Soviet Momumentalism afterall. Plus, its World Cup season, and so this moment of physical prowess seemed so realistic and impressive at the same time.

But no! I walked up closer, and there it was again—the Soviet flaw: no single strong character ever has a convincing expression (sometimes those suffering at the hands of injustice or capitalism have convincing expressions of sorrow or hunger). The strong only express strength. Perseverance. Patriotism. The two soccer players, legs nearly entwined, arms outstretched, ball, trapped between the two of them, were sporting entirely stoic faces. If the eyes were closed they could have been asleep, dreaming peacefully of communal labor and daily exercise. I had just watched the America-Slovenia game the night before, and I couldn’t forget the expression on the Michael Bradley’s face when he scored our second goal. The ecstasy, the elation, the wide-open mouth and crazed eyes. That’s how a soccer player should look. Not like a judge in small claims court with a month left till retirement. Damn.

Enough mouthing off about mid-20th century art. My first day of class is calling, and I’m sure I’m testing patience with a multi-page entry on a museum visit….

(1) Dachas are Russian summer homes, and remarkably common for most working class, middle class, and upper class people. A recent poll actually showed that over 30 percent of Russians also rely on food grown in their dacha garden.

(2) Funny factoid: When Malevich and others were busy being avant garde, breaking artistic norms, shocking the public, etc, they were so incredibly competitive with each other, that they actually back dated their own work. That is, they would paint something, then date it earlier that the actual completion, so that they could look even more cutting edge and innovative than their peers.


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Starting on Friday (my second day in Russia, but my first real live full day in Moscow), I actually ventured out of the dorm building and had a few encounters that seem worthy of sharing with my patient readers.

The first thing on Friday’s to-do list was a diagnostic test over at the Philological Faculty, where the entire group is enrolled for the summer. We all have vastly different backgrounds and experience (some have lived many years in Russia, others are full time professors, I’m—obviously—holding down the caboose in terms of experience), so we had written and spoken evaluations intended to illuminate how to divide us into three well-suited levels in terms of coursework. The evaluations themselves were uneventful; it was the official “opening” of our program that preceded which was the occasion for far more hullabaloo than any old oral exam.

We had been forewarned at orientation in DC that ours was a cherished program for our Russian instructors, a chance for them to offer the full depths of their formal and experiential knowledge. We are all (or, in my case, will be) teachers of Russian, and hence, unlike all the other students that flicker through MGU, we are kindred spirits, not here simply to learn Russian, but to pass it on to others with pedagogical precision and passion.

This was heartily emphasized in our welcome. The welcoming committee was the core faculty of the department, with the five main professors in attendance. They each gave a formal welcome, one going to so far as to note that our common language was not Russian, but “the language of educators,” that we, as teachers of the Russian language, communicated on a level that no one else in this vast campus could fathom or imitate. Oh dear…

Each one solemnly began:
Oh Respected Guests, fellow Teachers, we welcome you here in this year of Jubilee….”

Yes, that’s right, the year of Jubilee! Look out Zion, its five years early. Yours truly is a member of the 45th Summer Program for Teachers of the Russian language. Each speaker stressed this; one even noted that perhaps we had not expected the 45th year to be a Jubilee. Mistaken! It was a Jubilee. “Take Note! Forty Five is, of course, a year of Jubilee!” One professor, so bent on expressing to us the significance of the Jubilee, asked us what year anniversary it was of the Summer Program for Teachers of Russian (they never, ever, just call it the summer program). We replied “45”, as this was now the third welcome we had received, stressing the Jubilee. Moreover, all of our handouts, programs and schedules also had the heading:


This third professor then continued—“I assume you can all do math, so please tell me then, how many years have we been offering the Summer Program for Teachers of Russian?” It felt like a trick question. Partly because it doesn’t require math to deduce “45” from “45th” [Note: in Russian, ordinal and cardinal numbers are equally as similar as in English, so there isn’t a huge lexical leap to make]. We actually just stared and one girl, almost whispered, “45?” We assumed we had misunderstood the question. But no, the answer was indeed, 45! The 45th year is the Jubilee for 45 years! Well said, class! Well, computed, fellow teachers! Just need to make sure we understand what we are participating in. She sat down.

A quick note on the professors. They were all beautifully, almost heart-breakingly completely stereotypically Russian, hence I have to mention them, if only in order to justify my own Russian stereotypes…Like every Russian educator I have ever met, they speak beautiful, perfectly enunciated Russian, their very intonation expressing the respect they have for their mother tongue. Their rhetoric is very formal, but not exactly stiff. They are comprehensible without dumbing themselves down.

Of the five of them, four were women, of those women, three were babushki and one was a devushka. In Russia, there are really two predominant types of women, devushki—young (decked-out) ladies, and babushki, grandmas. They are each equally emblematic of Russian types and it’s a two-party system that Russians themselves quickly acknowledge: the devushka, a stiletto-ed waif in cropped leather jacket and denim-meets-spandex skirt, and the babushka with the broad shoulders, square glasses and indomitable gaze. There is rarely anything in between, no zhenshini to be found [“women”, idiomatically, elegant middle aged ladies]. You basically go from being Paris Hilton to being Kathy Bates. I think it happens in your thirties or forties, but the details are unclear.

Sure enough three of our professors looked like they were in their fifties, maybe early sixties, but none were zhenshini. Instead, all had the same tired, washed out expressions, square bodies, earth-toned baggy business suits, and orthopedic shoes. Both my grandmas have more pep in their step, although perhaps less sting in their stare. The fourth was a devushka (or, as some less generous would say, a zhenshina who thinks she’s a devushka). At least in her thirties, if not her early forties, she was nearly six feet, at least four feet leg, six inches (max!) of skirt, and all kinds of tan. Her hair was a brilliantly unnatural blond, done up in a French bun. Her eyebrows looked like the arched work of a draftsman and her shoes were, to say the least, hardly orthopedic. The one male professor was a jovial, nutty professor type, who was easily outweighed by the babushki and out-heighted by the devushka. He was remarkably less intimidating than his colleagues as well, and the fact that he kept laughing to himself at his own hushed side-comments didn’t hurt. I’ll find out tomorrow in our first day of class if they stand up as much to Russian standards of education (quite high!) as they did to physiognomic expectations…

Now, skipping ahead (though I may fill you in on my brief evening with vodka-drenched South Koreans later)….

On Saturday morning, I decided to seize the day and got an early start on my walking expedition of the city. I’ll spare you all the details, but a few highlights:

The Overlook: MGU sits on top of a hill on the south side of Moscow, and so when you walk directly out from the front of the building, you reach an incredible overlook about ten minutes from campus. This was my first stop, and well worth it. It was early enough in the morning that Moscow was not yet completely obscured in smog, and the sky was absolutely piercing blue above MGU. A sloping park lies between the campus and the city, so there’s a lovely swath of green bordering the Moscow River and then the white and silver buildings of downtown. While campus had been dead quiet (and what campus isn’t on a Saturday morning?) the Overlook was bustling. There were mostly Russians—entwined couples and souvenir hawkers—and busloads of Asians.

Souvenirs lining the view over Moscow

After snapping a few shots of my own and bundling my camera back into my purse, an older Asian women (Japanese?) came up to me, waving her camera. I smiled, nodded and started to reach for her camera, but she pulled it back and shook her head, then pointed at her friend, who was also holding a camera. Then she stood next to me, and indicated that he was going to take a picture of us, not I of them. This was the first time I’d been asked to step into a photo rather than take it, but I tried to smile not-creepily and keep my eyes open, despite the fact that we were staring directly into the sun. The old Japanese woman rubbed my back and cooed in Japanese and seemed quite pleased with life. I wondered if they knew they were getting an American rather than a real live devushka. Maybe they didn’t know my skirt was eight times too long and infinitely too flowy for me to be a Slav…plus, I wasn’t even wearing mascara, let alone the kind of eye make-up that would mark me a Russia worthy of getting past Face Control…

Moscow State University (MGU), from the Overlook

To our left was the sweeping panorama of Moscow, with its skyscrapers and golden domes. To the left was the imposing four-winged stone tower of MGU topped with a Soviet star (see above). But the actual photo was just of the two of us, with the busy street dividing MGU from the Overlook in the background. We were perfectly positioned as to include nothing scenic in the shot other than ourselves. Even more, as soon as her friend took the picture and barely had she taken her arm from around my waist, when another Japanese tourist jumped in, and put his arm around my shoulder and posed for a picture. Now the original photographer and the lady both snapped away at the two of us. Finally, the first photographer handed over his camera, and stepped into our now well-established frame, which consisted of me, a highway, and a distant potato kiosk called Koshka-Kartoshka.

I was clutching my purse the whole time, now convinced it was some little known but perfectly masterminded con game, where I would end up purse-less, camera-less, or wallet-less at the end of the round robin of snapshots. How clever, I figured, to use aging Japanese tourists and the American sense of politeness to capture a young traveler in a round of waist squeezing and pick pocketing! They weren’t going to fool me! And yet I couldn’t just walk away, they were so doting, so clueless, all smiles. So I smiled too. Damn they were good!

The last man I was photographed with—the first one who took the original snapshots of me and the woman—energetically spoke to me in Japanese [planned distraction!], and finally kept repeating something, which the woman translated as “BOOO-tiful!” The man nodded, I squinted, and the woman clicked her pink Sony camera with one hand while shouting at me “Booo-tiful!” My hand clutched my purse a little harder, my smile grew a little more forced…

Then, like that, they scampered back to their bus and lo and behold!, my wallet and camera were in tact. What do you know…no need to become a cynic yet.

After the photo shoot, I ended up walking through the park, all the way along the Moscow River until I reached the center of the city, a few miles from campus. The walk along the river is a beautiful one, with shaded paths, benches, and even a monastery on the banks. Lots of people were out fishing, and a few out sunbathing. One fisher, dressed head to toe in camo, offered me a few shots of vodka, to give him good luck for his day of fishing. As I didn’t understand this logic, and only drink vodka before 10am on very, very special days, I declined, but marveled at the generally festive spirit in the air. Despite signs every couple of meters admonishing the public not to swim in the Moscow River, old men were splashing about. Public bathing in Russia is something that I immediately loved the first (and only) time I went to Russia, seven years ago. I marveled at how people of all ages, all sizes, congregate around water to swim or more likely just to sunbathe, regardless of how sightly or sparse the urban scenery. The Moscow Riverbank is certainly a lovely sunbathing spot, but I’d seen many a Russian strip down and congregate around far less…

Anyway, I had out my camera, intent on capturing a few shots of the local leisure I found so delightful….as you’ll see below, I got slightly more than I bargained for, but for your sake, the posted shot is pretty PG. I swear, I didn’t expect that as I clicked the shutter and a man sprung out of the water.

Skinny Dipper and Monastery Along Moscow River

There’s much much more to say—oh all the kooky people and strange impressions!—but if I write too much it will take forever to upload. Until next time…

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First Impressions of Moscow: AIRPORT TO DORM

Twelve of us arrived at Moscow Domodedovo yesterday, bleary eyed and a bit surprised by the chilly weather awaiting us outside. Our flight, direct from Washington after a day of orientating, was fairly uneventful, save for the masses of high school students who accompanied us on our journey. They were Russian students, presumably either financially or academically advantaged, who’d all been in the States on a short-term exchange. They wore matching bright blue t-shirts, but otherwise all of them seemed to be decked out in various Americana—hoodies with logos from universities, lots of Abercrombie logos, and huge key chains with catchphrases in English. In general, their level of energy on a ten hour flight was impressively boisterous, but the final moments before touchdown were the most memorable. As soon as the pilot announced our descent, they began shouting to each other (they were scattered in pair and triplets across ten or twelve rows), reminding the group of the great things awaiting them back home. One girl yelled out “BLACK BREAD!” and another responded “POTATOES WITH BUTTER!” Really? You couldn’t find any potatoes in America? You’re shouting in anticipation for black bread? Either Russian cuisine is mysteriously close to the Russian soul, or they were with very negligent host families….

When we were only a few minutes from landing, a few students started singing the national anthem (which is the Soviet anthem tune, with new words) and almost the entire group caught on. The exchange student next to me rolled her eyes at her colleagues and continued to read an American Cosmo, while her two compatriots in the row clutched gigantic stuffed animals and looked over her shoulder at the 88 sex tips being offered in this month’s addition. Otherwise, the song caught on with the group, so we actually touched down on Russian soil amidst dozens of patriotic voices in harmony, not altogether off key either. Then the most exuberant returnee started yelling “We’re in Russia!!! We’re in Russia!”

Indeed, we were.

We parted ways from the younguns in blue at baggage claims—bless their future exploits but spare us their company in enclosed spaces—and ventured out to the bus that would take us to the dorms. The ride was surreal and lovely, thanks to the shifting Moscow landscape and jetlag. Set quite far out of the city, the road from the airport goes by new developments of sizable brick homes, empty fields and forests, the occasional horse grazing or babushka peddling strawberries along the highway, then the skyline grows denser and finally the crush of outer Moscow, slow, congested traffic surrounded by billboards (BUY! BUY! BUY!), shops, car dealerships and the most depressing looking apartment buildings (likely) ever.

Thanks to the notoriously terrible traffic, it took quite a while to reach Moscow State University (MGU), where we would all be staying. Despite our exhaustion and the general sense of resignation that ought accompany travel in Russia, we were all very curious about our housing. We’d been told we’d be in dorms, but whether or not we’d have singles, doubles, quads, en suite bathrooms, etc was all very vague. Hearts were sent pounding when one program coordinator suggests we’d be living in “blocks” with “I don’t know, probably bathrooms on each floor”…[Mental Image: Me, twenty Russian students with sour morning glares, fifteen exchange students from around the world feeling simultaneously entitled and insecure. We’re all clutching towels and toiletries, or anxiously crossing our legs. We learn to strategically wake up three hours before class to avoid [domestic] Moscow traffic jams].

Ends up we’re all in two room doubles, sharing a bathroom with only our roommate, which is really a best-case scenario. My room is a cute, tiny spot with wooden floors and a cot-like bed and a big window looking out onto the park across from MGU. When I say cot-like, I actually mean a metal-framed divan with three scraggly seat cushions and a sandbag-mattress atop. Not sure if it best suits a front porch or a waiting room bench, if pawnshops had waiting rooms. I’m sure there are chiropractic advantages to this, even if it’s five inches shorter than I am. I also have a desk, a little closet, a set of shelves that includes an old fashioned fold out writing desk, and a little table that I’ve turned into my tea station. The university itself is on a hill, overlooking most of Moscow, and flanked on most sides by beautiful parks and slopes. The one quite urbanized corner of campus is where the subway is, along with an enormous grocery store and fancy-pants mall, stocked with all American and European shops (Body Shop, L’Occitaine, Tommy Hilfiger, Starbucks). Ahhhh, the chance to buy American goods as twice the price and thrice the prestige…

Thanks to jetlag (or subconscious jitters?) I woke at 3am with nowhere to go and no chance of falling back asleep, which had its silver lining: summer in Moscow means that its only dark about 5 hours, and so my chronologically impaired internal clock woke me for my first Muscovite sunrise at 3:30am. It just about made up for the absence of a morning shower, as there’s no hot water in the complex [read: head in cold water, not yet strong enough for full immersion]. Rumor has it that it will return, much waited, by Monday…Fingers crossed. Either way I now know when get up if I want to spy peach-pink light on the hills on Moscow.


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