Before I left with five Mansfield University students, my wife Monique, and my daughter Jenny to spend a semester at Volgograd State University in Russia, I had promised the parents of the students that I would try to write to them by e-mail each week to keep them informed about our trip. I arranged to send messages to Dick Walker in the mathematics department at Mansfield and for him to forward them to parents and a few other people who wanted to follow our experiences. By the end of the trip the list of people receiving the messages had grown to about thirty.
Here are the twenty-four messages.
September 9, 1999
I found a voice mail message from Bernie on my phone this afternoon. It arrived at 4:30 our time, which means it was half-past-midnight in St. Petersburg. What follows is my transcription of that message.
We are here in St. Petersburg. Everybody is fine--pretty tired from the eight hour time change and all the walking and touring we have done. We arrived exactly on time--to the minute. Lufthansa is very proud of that.
We have had tours of St. Petersburg by bus, by boat, and by foot, led by Sasha Kubyshkin and the guide that we've had. We have seen some of the canals, the rivers of the city, and its 370 bridges. We've toured the Hermitage. We've walked the streets by night.
Our hotel is on the Nevskiy Prospect [Bernie spelled this for me. I would have never spelled it like this] which is the Broadway of St. Petersburg, right in the center of town. It is a lovely, magnificent, splendid city. One of the students said it best. "I'm having the time of my life!"
The problem is me. I keep losing things. On the first day I lost my sweater, and then got it back. The second day I lost my black bag, and then got it back. Now I've lost my little camera.
We leave Friday for Volgograd. We will arrive there on Sunday. I'll write from there as soon as I can.
September 14, 1999
Just a note to say that everything is okay here in Volgograd. We are getting settled in our rooms and our routines.
Here is a phone number anyone can use to reach me at home:
There is eight hours difference in time between Mansfield and Russia, so try to call about three PM to reach us at 11 PM.
I'll try to write a longer letter later this week.
September 15, 1999
Some comments from the MU students:
On landing in St Petersburg--2 Coca Cola signs (bad for Michael, good for Katrina).
Tiffany: the biggest problem here is going to be not the economy or the politics, but crossing the streets. In Russia, pedestrians yield to drivers!
Jonathan: lots of pretty women and cheap food--a coke is 40 cents, an ice cream 12 cents, a hot corn on a cob 4 cents.
Lamar: and we found something like a Philly cheese steak on the train to Volgograd!
Also Lamar: I had some misperceptions. I fit in. I don't feel like an outcast.
Katrina: the women are dressed to the nines. I've never seen so many high heels!
Michael: amazing music. TLC, Lauryn Hill, "A Kiss to Build a Dream on" played by some guys in a park in front of a statue of the Russian national poet Pushkin.
Monique: delighted to be back in her beloved Russia; visited with Sasha Kubyshkin the dormitory where they first met in 1976.
Jenny: loved best the 36-hour train ride. But the rest of us are sort of fed up with her chattering Furby. It may be out on the street one of these days.
Just a brief report on our living quarters and the atmosphere here.
Michael, Lamar, Tiffany, and Jonathan are in their dorm rooms and happy with their Russian roommates. They tell me (I have visited the rooms but not spent a night in them) that except for the lack of hot water (that will arrive on October 1--I don't know why) they like the rooms better than the dorms they have stayed in at Mansfield. There are no communal baths. Each suite has two rooms for two people each and has a bath for the four students. The rooms are not fancy but clean and bigger, the students say, than the rooms in Maple or Laurel. The students got their first payment of Russian currency today and they say they have plenty of decent food to work with. They have a frig and hot plate (Tiffany, whose roommate is the daughter of the director of the dorm, has a stove too). They tell me they are pooling their resources and cooking lunch together each day.
Katrina is living a few bus stops from the university with Olessia Shlopak (some of you remember her from the semester she spent in Mansfield a year ago). Katrina says she thinks that is working well for her so far. She is studying Russian with Olessia, enjoying the hot water they have and the visits to her parents' house for meals at times. All the students have been to Olessia's parents. Olessia is a bright, trustworthy, and wonderful woman. She knows the city and how to maneuver in it and has been very helpful for all of us.
Monique, Jenny, and I are in a nice apartment about fifteen minutes from the university by bus or group taxi (a minivan that costs just a bit more than a bus and runs just as often).
We are all into our classes--even Jenny. More about that later.
The political situation is tense throughout Russia because of several explosions in (apparently) protest over the ethnic problems in the south of the country. So the Russian people--always, in my experience and, more importantly, Monique's, kind and careful about the comfort of visitors--are even more watchful. They have been guiding us and making sure we are all okay. We're being very careful.
More to come,
Our five students have been passing a cold among themselves but they all seem back to normal today.
In spite of that we've all been meeting lots of people--at the university, at Jenny's school, and among contacts in the city.
Tiffany, Jonathan, Lamar, and Michael have their roommates and students in the dorm--the international students on the third floor where they live and others who have come forward to say hello. Katrina has friends of Olessia and her family and others.
Jenny has a few friends at school--Stass (the son of a university professor) who speaks some English and Basia, one of the girls in her class. Jenny's in a ninth grade class rather than an eighth grade one.
Monique and I knew lots of people before we got here and we've met some others but the biggest treat so far has been having three days with Lawson Lobb and Jill Harris, the Australians who (some of you remember) lived in Mansfield for two semester about five years ago while Lawson was teaching math at the university. They are on a tour of Russia and stopped to say hello.
All eight of us and Lawson and Jill had an evening at a large children's library (with a staff of sixty) where we heard folk music, danced, ate Russian home-style food and relaxed.
Today we're all going to the "Mamaya Kurgan," the monument (bigger than the Statue of Liberty, apparently) that dominates the skyline of this city and honors the Russian victory in the Battle of Stalingrad--where Hitler's army was stopped in its march to the east and the end of World War II began to seem possible.
Sunday we're all going to the opening concert of the Volgograd Symphony Orchestra, a major Russian orchestra.
Before that, on Friday, the students have to work but Monique, Jenny, and I are going to a Cossack village with the Cossack singers who visited Mansfield in April to make another of their films--and Monique and I are to be in it. We haven't figured out what Monique will be doing, but I am to be the husband of Nadia (the bass, you may recall), who betrays me with another man. So I think I spend most of the film crying.
I'm hoping this leads to a Hollywood contract. I wouldn't mind starring with, say, Julia Roberts.
PS Here is the equation Jenny brought home the first day of school. It's not, by the way, a special school--just the neighborhood junior high.
y = ax2 + bx + c when a is not equal to zero (the 2 after the first x is the squared sign).
In Jenny's second math class the students are working on adding vectors.
September 25, 1999
The earlier messages you've had have come from the international office at the university. This one comes from an internet service center in the middle of Volgograd.
I wish all of you who were charmed by the St. Thomas Day Cossack Folk Ensemble could have been here these past days.
The students had classes on Thursday and Friday but Monique, Jenny, and I crossed the Don River (on a wooden pontoon bridge) and joined the Cossacks, their ethnologist, and a television crew in the village (Sirotino--a Cossack stanitsa) a couple of hours north of the city where the group learned most of their music.
It was a magic experience--pretty primitive in some ways (electricity but no plumbing) but wonderful. We met the women who taught the group their songs, heard them all sing together some new pieces they are working on, slept in a little cottage, watched horses run wild through the streets, and played our parts in the group's third film (we'll try to bring copies of the three).
On the way back to the city we picked about fifty watermelons and divided them among us. Of course, the Cossacks sang in the bus. Their music is as great as before.
There's a sense in this of living in a world already vanished. And there's the feeling of warmth and acceptance that we've had so often these past weeks, the feeling, as Monique put it, that people are treating us better than they treat themselves.
We'll see the students tomorrow at a concert and report on their impressions.
Hope everything is okay in Mansfield, California, Virginia, Maryland, France, England, and those other places getting these messages.
September 30, 1999
Our students have nine classes of one hour, 20 minutes each, with six different professors. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are pretty heavy days, Thursday and Friday a little lighter. Here's the schedule:
Monday--a class in Russian culture and two in Russian history. These are in English. Classes during the rest of the week are all in Russian.
Tuesday--two classes in developing Russian speech habits.
Wednesday--a class in Russian listening comprehension and one in practical grammar.
Thursday--a class in speech habits.
Friday--a class in practical grammar.
I'm sitting in with the students in their speech habits classes. The group is clearly getting better control over the language. On Tuesday I was with them for a three hour period. Tiffany and Jonathan have an edge because of their eight weeks of Russian at Penn State last summer, but Lamar, Katrina, and Michael are catching up.
I am impressed by the speech habits textbook--written by the professor teaching the class. It includes lots of comparisons between life in Volgograd, Russia and Mansfield, Pennsylvania. I am impressed too by the rapid pacing and the great intensity of what is going on. From 1:10 until 4 PM on Tuesday the students spoke almost exclusively Russian (just enough English to gloss some words), did interviews, recited poetry, sang songs--all designed to get them to use everything they know in Russian.
There are only our five students in each class. The lessons are set up just for them. It's all pretty heady, it seems to me.
Tomorrow we go for a boat trip up the Volga River. A couple of weeks from now we go to a ballet.
On Saturday evening all eight of us went with Irene (the director of the international office) and Natasha and Andrei (two of her assistants) to the opening concert of the Volgograd Symphony Orchestra in the city's central concert hall alongside the Volga. The orchestra was performing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The soloists were from Moscow and the enormous chorus from four different places.
We didn't realize until we got to the hall and saw the five television cameras that it was the first time the Ninth Symphony had ever been played in Volgograd.
Apparently it was time to further heal some wounds from World War II. I found it moving beyond words--especially after our visit a few days earlier to the Battle of Stalingrad monument--to hear the "Hymn to Joy" sung in German by a Russian chorus on the banks of the Volga River.
Apparently too it was time to reach out to Western Europe, where the Beethoven "Hymn to Joy" has become the official anthem of the European Union.
The audience was quiet throughout and clapped politely at the end--but then continued clapping in the rhythmic pattern common at Russian concerts. And after the orchestra and chorus repeated the closing moments, the entire audience stood up and flooded the room with applause until the performers had left the stage.
These are tense times in Russia, hard times for this country, but life goes on--and here and there are niches of hope.
October 6, 1999
Specialists in culture shock say that after about a month in another culture and language things seem to fall apart all at the same time. I'm not sure we're there yet, but we are now between a fourth and a third of the way through our semester here and all of us are feeling irritated over something or another. I've been talking with our students the past few days and so I yield my voice today to their voices, speaking as "I" and "we."
We've all seen the herd of cows in the field at the front of the university (in the middle of this city of a million people). Lamar insists he's also seen a sheep and a goat, but we're not sure we believe him.
Katrina: I'm desperate for an all-beef hamburger!
Michael: living in this dorm is like camping out indoors!
Tiffany: I bought a Russian tea set and we did our first official "Tea" yesterday, with the best Celon tea we could buy. Strong stuff.
We're all convinced Russian toilet paper is roughened-up newsprint.
Katrina: My kingdom for some Charmin.
Jonathan managed to find a barber and get a haircut--a very good one, we all agree. It cost 60 cents.
Tiffany: Russia has the best mustard!
Our pooled lunch today was two grilled cheese sandwiches and a coke. Total for the five of us--$1.84.
We've been watching Lamar and some Russians working out by running up and down the stairs of the dorm. Yesterday they did that three times without stopping--all 14 floors.
Lamar: it's harder going down than up.
We don't know if we believe that either.
We agree that Katrina is the best at getting around in the crowded buses. She just elbows her way in and gives as good as she gets. The group taxis are more comfortable because they take only as many people as there are seats--about 15. But Katrina likes the buses and bought a monthly pass.
We also agree that Jonathan is the best at communicating with people.
We all know the center-city area well. We're there several days a week--to see the shops, the internet centers, the restaurants. Lamar's favorite is the embankment, the large area along the Volga where we can sit outside (it's in the 70s for the fifth day in a row; it has yet to rain for us in this city--nothing but blue skies) at a cafe and watch the big boats go up and down.
Jonathan and Tiffany: we had a good meal in a restaurant--a pork chop, a salad, some fries, and bread--for $1.36 plus a coke.
We all went to a pizza place with the five German students. It was funny how the Russians could tell the Americans from the Germans. We had cokes, they had beers.
We're very aware of how security has tightened since the fighting to the south and the bombings. It's tighter everywhere--at the university, at the dorm, and throughout the city.
In the dorm the Russian students gather at night (they post signs to tell what room they are in) to watch their favorite show-- the "X Files." (Jenny says the favorite show of the boys in her class is Beavis and Butthead.)
Michael and Katrina: we're surprised that being here has shown us just how much we really love about America.
Will we learn some more Russian and try to come back? Too early to tell, but at this point, three votes for "yes" and two for "maybe."
Me again. I hope things there are okay. Monique and I do get your individual messages at out Yahoo account, but we have only e-mail, not the internet here at the university's international office, so we are trying to get to an internet center to answer your messages. Please be patient with us.
October 8, 1999
We Americans and Germans visited the Panorama museum this week--a huge place describing the Battle of Stalingrad. In a few hours you get a clear and graphic picture of the horror the people of this city lived through in 1942 and 1943 and the terrible loss of life for both the Russians and the Germans.
I've come to know the German students a little so I asked them if the museum was bad for them. It was not, they said. Apparently German schools have helped this generation come to grips with the Nazi era. The students spoke (in good English) with intelligence and understanding about World War II and about young people's attitudes in Germany today. They're an impressive group.
My Russian students are impressive too. I suggested that one group try to learn a Robert Frost poem and was stunned the next class to learn that several students had done just that. One had memorized four poems and recited them without a hitch--no small task in a foreign language.
Jenny said it best at dinner today. She was surprised, she said, that her classmates really wanted to learn English. They flood her with questions, ask her to read for them, hang around her so they can talk. It's not like Mansfield, she said.
In some ways, the university is not like Mansfield either. There's such a different attitude. Except for a few showplace areas, the classrooms, hallways, offices, dining room, and library, are not especially attractive (new buildings here often look like they're thirty years old). There's nothing like North Hall.
But the lack of public charm is more than made up for by the superb grooming and clothing of the students. The men dress casually but well, and many wear suits and ties to classes. The women are almost without exception dressed like they're going to a New York cocktail party--and because they are almost all tall and slender, the effect is impossible to ignore. My classroom feels like a fashion show.
But there's nothing cosmetic about the talent and the dedication of the men and women. These are very fine students. They are used to working hard and to being told the truth about their performance. They are eager to be corrected and to be coached on how to get better. When I asked if they would like to come to my apartment to watch some American films I brought with me, they jumped at the chance.
I had wonderful classes on Tuesday. I had invited Lamar (the only English major among the American students) to stop by my poetry classes if he had time and he came to both groups. When the students in the first group asked if he had a favorite poem, he picked up the book I'm using and read a Langston Hughes poem he said his mother used to read to him--about a black mother telling her son to keep climbing, to keep working, to not give up. He was excellent. He explained some unfamiliar words in the poem, described what the piece meant to him, read the poem again and again because the students loved listening to it. Several of them came back to the next class so they could hear him some more. I was so proud of him for what he was doing and of the students for their response. It was the sort of moment a teacher dreams about, something that comes along only every five years.
I've concluded that Monique is right--these Europeans know how to raise their kids and run their schools.
October 14, 1999
Several of you have asked about the availability, quality, and cost of food, so this is a composite of what all of us, some Russian friends, and especially Monique (the resident expert) would say as the fall harvest season comes to a close.
In short, most of what is available where you are (in the States, France, La Reunion, England) can be found here, much of it of high quality and low cost (assuming you have some Western currency to work with), but knowing where some of that food is, getting there, buying it, bringing it back home, storing it, preparing it, and serving it are all hard for outsiders like us.
Fruits and vegetables are the highest in quality of Russian foods--overall better tasting, I think, than what I've grown used to in Mansfield. Carrots, potatoes, apples, oranges, bananas, watermelons, grapes, cabbages, peppers, onions, tomatoes, lemons, and herbs are all very fine--maybe because most Russian farmers cannot afford Western fertilizers and pesticides. We bought carrots and potatoes and peppers for 12 cents a pound, oranges for 45 cents a pound, bananas for 36 cents a pound, apples for a dollar a bucket.
Eggs are 50 cents for 10, basic bread is 12 cents a loaf--excellent bread, I think, a mix of wheat and rye. Other breads are a little higher. I like best the dark ones, though there are lots of whites too. There's cakes and sweets at all sorts of prices, but almost all inexpensive. All of us agree that ice cream is first class--and a small cone costs 16 cents.
Milk is ultra pasteurized (so it doesn't need to be refrigerated until it is opened). We buy .5 percent (not quite skim), but there is 1.5, 3.2, 3.5 and higher percentage of fat levels. There's yogurt, kefir, a baked milk with sour cream called riazhenka, a white cheese called tvorog, and a half-dozen other cheeses, including suluguni, which reminds me of the salty goat cheese I used to buy years ago from street vendors in Cracow, Poland.
We've seen just a few breakfast cereals, but Jenny seems content with sweet corn flakes. The hot oatmeal is just like Quaker Oats.
We haven't seen any fresh leeks, celery, broccoli, green beans, or out-of-season berries (though Monique saw some strawberries today).
Meats are the big problem for us--largely because of the lack of packaging. You can buy beef, veal, pork, chicken, turkey, a host of sausages, and dozens of fish (fresh, smoked, or dried). But except for a few exclusive shops in the center of town, meats and fish are presented as I remember them in the big Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, market when I was a kid--sitting out in the open, unrefrigerated, unwrapped, and cut with an axe. Even Monique, who's done all this before, took a month to work up her courage to buy some veal and pork (which turned out to be just fine). The pigs' and cows' heads hanging in some of the stalls are a little threatening.
We've had meat at restaurants and friends' houses. Monique, Jenny, and I have lunch a couple of times a week at the university cafeteria--which is cheap and simple, but okay. I've come across the students there just once. They are still cooking lunch together.
You can find imported foods at Western prices--French chicken, California wine, Coke, Pepsi, Mars bars, Nescafe coffee, Lipton tea, Marlboro cigarettes (absolutely everywhere!) and lots of other things.
The problem with food here is not availability, quality, or cost. It's logistics.
More on that next time.
October 21, 1999
We're finally getting some rain, and the temperature is feeling more like October than July. There's been no frost yet, but it seems like it's getting close. We all have heat and hot water now, so we're pretty comfortable, but it's coat and hat time.
In recent days:
We had a party for Lamar's 21st birthday. Lots of Americans, Germans and Russians, and an amazing cake made by the aunt of one of the Russian students--with five three-dimensional bears climbing up the sides.
A group of sixteen students (including ours) went dancing at a club in the center of the city.
We all went to a concert by "our" Cossacks and other Cossack singers, including lots of men. Jonathan played the role of the bridegroom (the role John Halstead played in Mansfield), and most of the students--even Jenny--were dancing on stage. Since this event also was televised, maybe we all will make it to Hollywood.
Sunday we saw a dance performance that was part of a two-week international festival of dance in the city. Our April translator, Svetlana, was the official translator for the festival, so we had good seats at a good performance (though we spent a couple of hours later trying to agree on what the dancers were suggesting).
Tiffany and Lamar are learning swing dancing from Jenny on Monday nights. Interesting evenings.
Michael had some problems trying to arrange his up-coming semester in France, so we worked this week trying to straighten that out.
Yesterday we all attended a student event at the university as part of the "Philology Day" celebration. It's the day when all the first-year language students (English, French, German, and Russian majors--there are hundreds of them among the ten thousand students at the university) are officially welcomed into the program. We were impressed with the extent to which the students drew on American popular culture in their jokes and skits.
Everyone here--students and teachers--are on edge because evaluators from Moscow are on campus this week. As part of the accreditation process they check not only the things American evaluators would (faculty, facilities, programs, etc.), but also the progress of the students themselves. My fourth-year classes had exams given by the evaluators to see if they had learned what they were supposed to have. The students are under great pressure to do well, and the faculty is nervous. It's a very serious business, they tell me.
I'll finish the food message next time.
October 23, 1999
We've got a couple of inches of wet snow--the kind that breaks tree branches still holding fall leaves. People say it's strange, going from summer to winter in a week and a half. The city is pretty in white, although drivers--the biggest threat to human life in this country--seem marginally more crazed than usual.
To pick up where I left off last week, the problem for us with food is not availability, quality, or cost. It's logistics.
None of us has a car, so we need to carry everything we buy. That's okay for bread or other light things that we can find near our apartment or dorm. But the best variety, quality, and sometimes cost are at the big market in the center of town and at the big shops near the market. It can take us 20 to 40 minutes to get to the center, and then we need to carry things around with us. One day Monique spent an hour bringing home some things we had bought and then rejoining Jenny and me downtown to continue shopping.
Even with a car, purchases would be difficult. There are countless small shops everywhere (and small stalls in the big markets) but nothing like a big American or European supermarket. Sometimes that's nice. In an area the size of Wegmans (a big supermarket near Mansfield) there's not one stall selling bananas but maybe 20. It's exotic wandering from stall to stall looking for the best fruit at the best price. But it's also exhausting. And you can never tell just which stall where will have the thing you need on the day you need it. Bread is everywhere always, but many things (even low-fat milk) appear and disappear from day to day--part of what happens in a country half-way between a communist past and a still undefined future.
Buying things at a small shop is simple. You tell the clerk what you want and pay for it. But many of the big shops still use the complex traditional system. You tell the clerk (in Russian, of course) the things you want on the shelf behind her. She (it's almost always a woman) tells you what that costs. You go to a cashier and tell her what you owe. She checks the cost and prints out a sales slip. You take the slip to the clerk and she gives you your order. In a big shop (like the one near our apartment) there may be four cashiers for four different areas of the store--one for diary products, one for bread, one for cleaning supplies, etc., so to buy a half-dozen things, you may need to talk with a half-dozen clerks and cashiers. If you keep in mind the primitive state of our Russian language skills (and some numbers in Russian can be tricky), you will understand why shopping can be difficult. Even for Monique, it's not a pleasure. I must admit, though, I get a kick every time I see one of the cashiers total something on her cash register, print out a sales slip, and then check the result on her abacus.
It's getting harder for us to stay on line, so I'll have to finish next time.
October 30, 1999
To finish the food explanation from last time: you can cook well here for very little, but it's not easy. Some of us lost weight when we first arrived (I lose about ten pounds each summer in France). Apparently it's hard sometimes to adjust to food in a new culture.
But our Russian is getting better (a big help), the students are often fed by Russian students whose parents send them care packages (our students get lots of dinner and party invitations--sometimes several a day), and we've found some good restaurants. For $4 you can have a fine-tasting, nicely-balanced, well-presented meal in what would be a very pleasant setting if you could just turn off the wretched music. I expect we'll come back to Mansfield in good shape.
We continue our fierce event schedule. Among a host of other things, the students saw an opera (La Traviata) last week. It was a first opera for almost all of them. Lamar was ecstatic. The lead woman, everyone agreed, was excellent.
All of us have tickets for a classic play at the New Experimental Theatre tomorrow night and for an organ concert next weekend. Tonight is the big Halloween party.
Mostly, though, we've been visiting schools lately:
(1) A private secondary school that prepares students to enter the gas and oil industry in the area and to continue studies at the university.
(2) A public elementary and secondary school that specializes in architecture.
(3) A similar school specializing in art, music, and dance.
(4) A new orthodox Christian elementary and secondary school.
In all the schools we talked with students, looked at their projects, watched their performances, spoke with their teachers and principal. We were the first foreign visitors at the Christian school, which opened four years ago in a converted building (we've seen two brand-new churches in the city and a couple of others--including a big orthodox cathedral--under construction).
The most impressive of the four was the art and music school where we heard a student jazz band, folk ensemble, and dance group that had won competitions in Moscow. The jazz group was playing music sent to them by Mansfield professors Jean-Ann Teal and Mike Galloway. The dance group was first-class with its difficult Russian jumps and twists, and the folk singers--like the other folk groups we've heard here--were spectacular.
At all four schools we met lots of talented, imaginative, hard-working students and teachers full of curiosity about the Americans and the French woman. It was a pleasure to visit with them.
But I left each school with the brooding sadness that gets stronger for me as the semester moves along.
We live and work among the professionals and the intellectuals of the city, people who treasure learning--language, art, music, history, mathematics, the sciences, literature--and who love passing on what they know to the next generation of Russians.
But you can't survive here as an intellectual or a teacher, earning a tiny fraction of what a Western teacher would make.
A few of the economists at the university prosper by consulting for the banks and the industries in the area (there's lots of wealth around, judging by the BMWs on the streets and the sparking new homes going up). But most of the people we know manage to pay their bills by working at three or four jobs, running constantly from one school or private lesson to the next. One friend, a senior professor and researcher who's published several books, teaches four (hour and twenty minute) classes a day, six days a week--a load five or six times that at an American research university.
And retired people are even worse off, almost all of them working at as many odd jobs as they can find. It's heartbreaking to see them by our neighborhood stores, sweeping leaves off the sidewalk--people who lived through the Battle of Stalingrad and a half-century of communism, now in their seventies, again miserable and desperate.
How, I keep asking myself, did so many bright, energetic people get themselves into this economic and political mess? And how will they ever get themselves out of it?
Message 14: Party, etc.
November 3, 1999
It's in the 50s and sunny today. After that few days of cold and snow, we're back to warmer weather--some rain (and therefore mud, because so much of Volgograd is unfinished--sidewalks, parks, roads, etc.) but also some fine fall afternoons.
Our students introduced Volgograd to an American Halloween party on Saturday at a hall we rented in the center of town. Tiffany was the Statue of Liberty, Lamar Santa Claus, Katrina Little Red Riding Hood, Michael a (rather busty) woman, Jonathan a vampire, and Jenny a cat. Other creatures (Russian and German): a corpse, Mother Russia, a Beatle, Siamese twins, a Gypsy, a "New" Russian, a hanged ghost. . . .
Jenny's school friends Lisa and Katia borrowed elegant period costumes from a museum. They were Athnea and Pushkin's wife. The two had never been to a party before and were surprised by the dressing up (Jenny gave them enormous wild fingernails to wear) and the American candy corn my daughter Milissa sent us from California. Everyone seemed to agree the best part of the party was the getting made up--a two-hour process.
It's interesting to watch Jenny with her friends. Unlike the MU students, who work on their Russian all day, Jenny and I are not learning very much because we are both tied up in classes most of the time. So Jenny speaks some English with Lisa, some French with Katia, and a little Russian with both.
For the record, three things Monique and I do not miss:
(1) A car: this is not a city you want to drive in.
(2) Television: we have a fine Sony multisystem TV and VCR, so we can watch American, Russian, and French tapes. We can also see Russian TV, which is okay in some ways. The news programs deal in some depth some important things and make efforts to present opposition points of view. Most of the rest reminds me of pre-cable American television--soaps, talk shows, films, sports, and 1950s-era talent shows, except that Russia runs commercials during programs (at the bottom of the screen) as well as between them. There is nothing like C-SPAN or PBS here.
(3) The internet: I wish we had better access to e-mail, but I'm surprised with how little essential came to me during those countless hours I spent online.
Three things we do miss:
(1) Family and friends.
(2) A washer and drier.
(3) A good photocopier.
One thing we can share:
Monique, Jenny, and I saw the latest film by Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov, called in English something like "The Barber of Siberia" or "The Siberian Barber." Our friends say it's more popular here than "Titanic." Monique thinks of it as a fascinating and complex picture of the late 19th-century period some Russians idealize, with its more humane czar who cares about the lives of his soldiers and its accurate presentation of folkways that embody what many people here believe is the Russian spirit.
Most of the film is in English and I'm pretty sure I saw a copy in the Facets (of Chicago) film catalog or on the Facets website. I assume it's available too in England and France.
Jenny's on break this week. The university is off on Monday, so the students are going to visit their roommates' parents in small towns near the city.
We're approaching the two-thirds point and getting information about our trip to Moscow and then New York. Without exception, I think, the students do not want to think about that yet. They seem pretty pleased at the moment with how things are going.
November 6, 1999
The university is closed Monday in honor of the 1917 Russian revolution, so our students are visiting families in the region. Monique, Jenny, and I have dinner invitations for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, so we're staying here.
It's a big place, this Volgograd, in population and area. It extends over 50 miles along the west bank of the Volga river, a couple of hundred miles upstream from where the river passes Astrakham and empties into the Caspian Sea. The Volga is the longest river in Europe (2,300 miles long) and there have been people living on this part of it--according to the billboards in center city--for 410 years.
Because a dependable water supply becomes problematical as you get away from the Volga, farms and factories--and the villages that support them--developed close to the river, and in the 1930s were consolidated into a single entity named Stalingrad, later Volgograd.
The city is as narrow as it is long--less than two miles on average. The center section is nice and looks more or less "normal" (Monique's word). Our apartment itself is fine, though the area where we live, like most parts of the city (most parts of the country, some of our friends would say) looks unfinished. The streetlights, grass, sidewalks, etc. are not in. There are construction supplies and equipment sitting around. The area around the university, not far from our apartment, looks the same.
The city is one long road (again, our friends' words) and it would take a couple of hours to go by bus from the south end to the north. But the people we know don't do that. Like us, they live near where they work or study and go to the center to shop and relax and feel part of something completed.
It takes us maybe half an hour, 45 minutes, to walk from our apartment, get in a bus or taxi, and reach downtown--about as long (Jenny was the first to point out) as it takes to get in our car in Mansfield and drive to Corning or the Arnot Mall in New York state. We come to center city a lot--sometimes every day.
Mostly, transportation works well for us and is always cheap. After 8 PM (this is a morning city) it can be hard to find a bus or taxi, and at rush hour the buses can be terribly crowded, but usually there's no problem moving around.
We try to catch a "city taxi," a private van that holds about 15 people and follows a fixed route, picking up people who signal and dropping them where they choose. The taxis are mostly new and clean--and cost 20 cents. There are also public and private buses--big and small, proper and shabby. We'll use those if they're not too crowded. And there are trams that run on tracks and trolley-buses that are powered by overhead electricity, but none of those goes to our neighborhood.
Volgograd is certainly not London or Paris, or even Santa Cruz, Williamsburg, Pau, or La Reunion--not even, in some ways, State College or Mansfield. But it's a pleasant enough city to live in for a while and, we all agree, a great place to meet people you'll like.
November 10, 1999
Our students were on television Monday night, though they probably don't know that, because they were visiting families. A Volgograd station telecast the concert in which the students danced on stage and Jonathan got married. The hour-long program looked good. We'll try to bring a tape.
We saw also the half-hour autumn tape our Cossacks made, devoted to songs about marriage problems. It will run on television later. Monique, Jenny, and I are in the tape, the third of four Cossack seasonal tapes featuring the folk music of this region. The last in the series--the spring tape--will be produced next May.
For Monique, Jenny, and me, it's been a weekend of artists. On Friday we saw the La Traviata opera our students saw a few weeks ago. It had an interesting set--a gigantic bed that dominated the stage throughout the production. I thought it caught the spirit of the story.
On Saturday Irene Dudina took us to visit the studio of a Volgograd artist named Tatiana (Joe Moore, his daughter Hannah, Larry Uffelman, and a few others know who I mean), and we had dinner together afterwards. We had a long discussion at dinner about the life of an artist in Russia over the past decades.
Artists of all kinds survived here by getting commissions from a government agency or a factory or a club--but to get a commission, you had to be a member of the artists' union and to get into the union you had to exhibit your work, and to do that you had to be accepted by the union (art critics too were union members). Everything depended upon pleasing the union authorities and little, apparently, on reaching an audience. Mikhail Bulgakov describes it all in a great novel called The Master and Margarita.
Today, it's all different, Tatiana says. Now you just need to find people to buy your work. But only New Russians have money for art these days, and they prefer Ford Explorers and satellite phones. So Tatiana survives by working in a ceramics factory where she can at times fire her work, by selling her things at street fairs, and, sometimes, by a commission from someone at the university.
Our five Cossack women (the St. Thomas Day folk ensemble) get by in a similar way. They all have jobs besides their music, jobs they depend on to support the ethnographic research through which they collect their songs. On Saturday we had dinner with them and with Svetlana, their translator in America. Although we've seen the group twice in recent weeks--and will see them on Friday when they will teach a folk song to our students--this was the first time since April that we've heard their wonderful music up close, at its best, around a dinner table.
I don't know why that music is so powerful. I remember being swept up by it two years ago when Larry Uffelman and I visited this town, and it gets stronger, if anything, as I hear it more and more. There's something magic in those simple harmonies and rhythms, something haunting in those old lyrics about lost loves and separations and impossible relationships. The songs are too comic and sentimental to take seriously, and yet. . . .
Maybe it's the five women themselves--young, graceful, lovely, and (all but one) alone, three of them raising children, coping with a tough life.
Maybe it's the warmth of their connections to audiences, drawing adults and children into the intimate circle of their music and dances.
And maybe it's the Russian and Cossack culture they embody, the laughter and beauty and sadness, the ancient Slavic faith in promises never quite fulfilled.
I would just love for all of you to know this group as we do.
November 14, 1999
It's less than a month before we leave for Moscow and then New York, and time is flying. When I mentioned that we had passed the two-thirds point, our students moaned, "Oh, don't say that! Don't remind us!"
The students tell me they are still a group, but they do more and more as individuals these days. They've given up on their daily lunches, but still have a Saturday night dinner together--though Russian friends join them. Katrina says she's worked up the courage to buy meat, and she cooked a steak, a stir fry, and a crab with pineapple sauce dish. Michael was here to watch "You've Got Mail" with some of my English philology students yesterday. Tiffany, Jonathan, Lamar, and Katrina worked with the Cossacks today on three Cossack songs they're preparing for a December party.
Each of the students has a circle of close friends, although the five circles overlap a bit. People spend evenings together now not because they want to meet Russians or Americans or to practice their Russian or English but because they like one another, have some common interests, feel drawn together. When I've asked earlier Mansfield exchange students what they liked best about Volgograd, their response has been consistent. "The people," they've said. I expect our group will say the same.
We've had three days of relentless wind, with today's gusts being especially violent. We've been prepared for this, but it's breathtaking nevertheless. My Canadian fur hat would not stay on my head today, even with the ear flaps down and my head pointed into the wind. I passed Monique this morning as she walked to the bus stop but didn't see her.
Coming events: the Moscow Bolshoi ballet, Mahler's Fifth Symphony, "The Consolation of Widows." Our students seem fed up with museums after a couple of hours yesterday at one dedicated to a Soviet poet.
I've been hoping to say something about the Chechnya conflict, but I think I can tell you little that you don't already know if you're getting good print or broadcast reports. All the Russians any of us have talked with support the Russian military action in Chechnya, though few bring up the subject without being asked and most avoid talking about politics in general.
There are about 15,000 Chechnians in Volgograd--most of the fruit and vegetable stands in the city are run by them--so the conflict in their homeland is a touchy subject here. Russians and Chechnians have had problems with each other for two hundred years, and there are lots of festering wounds all around. Because of the oil and gas lines and because of access to the Caspian Sea, the stakes are high. Neither Russia nor Chechnya seems to have much room for compromise. It's a bad situation and not getting any better.
We're going to hear the St. Thomas Day folk ensemble rehearse on Sunday. They're recording their first CD on Monday and Tuesday and then are off to St. Petersburg for a three-day conference. I give my last grammar lecture on Monday, a diplomat from the American Embassy in Moscow arrives next week to give a lecture, then we have Thanksgiving (Monique is planning a turkey dinner for our students), then I'm speaking at a conference here on Vladimir Nabokov, then the students have their exams, then. . . .
I feel the wind blowing right through our (double) windows. We're being swept along so fast.
November 18, 1999
Out five students were at our apartment this week to eat borsch, trade their countless photographs, and sort out what to do in these last three weeks. We leave Volgograd December 10 for Moscow and its Golden Ring. We'll be in New York on December 15.
Our wind is back. For a couple of days things were quiet, but now the wind is again howling, bringing first rain and warm weather, then snow and ice. What a difference between this month and last, when we sat at cafes by the river bank and drank tea in the sun.
This city is full of such contrasts. There are so many huge public buildings. The agricultural Institute near our apartment has pillars like a Greek temple. I still get lost in the vast hallways of the university. Housing projects are enormous. The apartment building we live in has nine stories (we're on the first). The dorm has thirteen.
But people have very little private space--at work or at home. Only senior administrators and a few special faculty members have private offices at the university. Almost everybody lives in apartments rather than houses.
There are individual homes in Volgograd--some just next to the university--but we don't know anyone who lives in them. The largest apartment we've visited has three rooms, a kitchen, and a bath. Most of our friends--like us--live in two rooms (which serve as bedrooms, living rooms, dining rooms, offices, etc.), a kitchen and bath. Some of the apartments we've seen are very nice, even by Western standards, but all of them are small.
There's such a difference too in people's standard of living. Everyone we know would be considered poor in the West. Monique and I are very well paid by Russian standards. As visiting professors we earn more than almost anyone on the faculty--but our salary translates into fifty-two dollars a month.
That, of course, is not a real number, for either of us--I am paid by Mansfield as well--or for our Russian colleagues--they have second or third jobs, private students, subsidized transportation, and some perks. And prices of many Russian (not Western) products and services are cheap. But taken all together, it's a pretty low standard of life, measured in economic terms.
Yet there is great wealth around. One woman I met had toured Paris and the Greek islands last summer. Outside our apartment this morning was a shiny black Mercedes that looked the length of a tennis court. Many people wear fur coats and leather coats that would be terribly expensive in the West. If you're a smart "businessman" (the word is both male and female in Russian) you can get rich, become a "New" Russian.
I think the biggest contrast here is in public and private behavior. All of us have been talking about it since the day we arrived.
In part, maybe, because life is so hard, public behavior in this city is just brutal at times. People shove and push one another getting in and out of buses, shout at one another over sales counters, spit on the sidewalks, smoke in places (bathrooms, hallways) they're not supposed to, and drive recklessly, endangering other people's lives. Yesterday, two guys (very few women drive here) sped past each other in front of Jenny's school as lots of six-year-olds were out on the street--a street coated with ice. On Monday, a driver actually stopped for me as I crossed at an intersection on a green "Walk" light. I was so stunned (drivers usually just shoot in front of me) I wanted to tip him.
Yet the people we've met here treat us with great sensitivity and warmth. They are kind, generous, patient, sweet, loving. Even the woman Monique and I buy our bread from smiles broadly when she see us coming and carefully picks out from the rack the nicest-looking loaf she can find.
I was so touched last week when a woman we know well toasted us at dinner by saying that we had come to live among Russians at their moment of crisis, their moment of need, that by our very presence we were lifting the spirits of everyone, that we were true friends, and that the Russian people would never forget our being here at such a time.
I think Monique has it right. This is an ideal place for an American university study-abroad semester. It's tough--because of the language, the living conditions, and now the cold. It's nothing like a semester in France, England, or Spain. But it's not like one in China, India, or Kenya, either.
This is the ultimate Second World country--different enough to change your eyes, to help you see everything (including America and your own life) in a new way, yet familiar enough to make you feel at home, with people who accept you as part of the family, who still, somehow, after decades of communism, love what is best about America and extend that affection to American visitors.
We'll be glad to get back. But we'll hate to leave this place.
November 22, 1999
Just a simple wish this time.
From all of us in Russia to all of you in the USA--a very happy Thanksgiving.
We'll miss you on Thursday.
But to close out this century, given everything we know about its history, with Russians eating pelmeni in Mansfield and Americans eating turkey in Volgograd--that's something to be pretty thankful for.
See you soon.
November 24, 1999
Except for giving exams, I'm done with my teaching now, though Monique continues for another two weeks, as do our students and Jenny. I've got a conference paper and a bunch of official documents to work on.
At a Bach and Mahler concert the other night Jonathan and Tiffany introduced us to an American they had met at the internet center (we've seen only a couple of American missionaries and one tourist in this city so far). Paula is one of two Peace Corps volunteers just arrived in Volgograd for a two-year assignment at the economics institute downtown. She and her colleague Erika are recent MBAs helping people here rethink their economy. Erika is also a fine violinist, now playing with the Volgograd Symphony Orchestra. It was delightful to see an American up on that stage. The two will join our group for Thanksgiving dinner.
John Brown, the new cultural attachÈ at the American Embassy in Moscow, was here yesterday to talk to the philology and regional studies faculty and students. Dr. Brown was at the university the day we arrived in Volgograd, and it was good to see him again. Our students joined the class he lectured to, and Katrina and Michael gave especially clear, articulate answers to his questions about American culture and politics. He--and the Russian faculty and students--were impressed.
The highlight of our week was the Moscow dance ensemble we saw Friday night. For most of us--certainly for Monique and me--it was the best performance we've attended in this country--honestly spectacular. The fifteen or so dancers were uniformly excellent in whatever they did--classical dance, modern dance, traditional Russian dance. They were elegant, beautiful, flawless, able to hold their own against the best dancers I've seen in New York.
Monique, Jenny and I finally had a Saturday night free, so we joined our students for their usual Saturday-night dinner at Katrina's apartment. They had a larger-than-usual group, they told us, including maybe ten Russian students. One of the Russians helped the group prepare their first borsch (not at all bad), and the evening was lots of fun.
Monique and I have said it to each other again and again--our MU students have surrounded themselves with intelligent, pleasant, just nice people. A couple speak English well, others know a little English, and a few speak only Russian, but they and our students manage to get along.
Jonathan and Michael are the great communicators in our group, hour after hour patiently speaking Russian with friends and strangers alike. Katrina is the master observer, analyzing the culture, recording everything on her twenty-five rolls of film. Lamar is Mr. Congeniality, the most popular person in the group, one Russian told me (in the city, another insisted). And Tiffany is the glue that holds it all together--the thoughtful organizer, the conscience of the group (and Jenny's buddy). Each is special, and each has found a separate way to feel at home here, to take from the semester what is has to offer. I'm proud of them all.
We couldn't have found a better group of students to be abroad with.
December 2, 1999
It's clear how climate helped defeat Germany in World War II. A couple of weeks ago The Cold arrived--just as it had in the city during November of 1942, contributing mightily to the destruction of the German army at the battle of Stalingrad.
I'm not the best person to talk about cold. Except for my three years in southern Arizona, I've felt chilled from August through June my entire life. But this is new for me. The temperature has hung around zero Fahrenheit (-15 to -20 C), the wind has kept howling day and night, and we've been outside a lot more than in Mansfield.
The 30 or 40 minutes it takes me each morning to walk Jenny to school and catch a bus to the university is enough to convince me my nose will fall off. I'm wearing lined slacks over heavy jeans and two sweaters and a Polartec under my down-lined coat. You can forget your principles about animal fur in this climate. Without fur hats and coats only a few Russians with the means to buy high-tech imported clothing would make it through the winter. Yesterday the temperature shot up to about 30 degrees Fahrenheit. People say it should be okay now until January.
In the middle of the cold snap, a big pipe somewhere broke, so we had no water for 24 hours and no heat for 36 (the students had heat but no water). Some friends were to join us for dinner, and I was all for canceling. "How are we going to handle 12 people without a toilet?" I wanted to know.
"We'll manage, "Monique said. She and Jenny found three gallons of bottled water to cook with, I melted some snow in a couple of buckets, and our Mexican feast worked beautifully. I've seen Monique pull off some remarkable Mansfield parties and dinners after her three days at Penn State, but this was the high point of her career as hostess.
Our Russian friends saw no problem with the water or heat. "It's all normal," they said.
Thanksgiving was special. Monique did a turkey and a goose and a pumpkin pie, and she even found some cranberry sauce. Our MU students and our friends seemed pleased (fortunately, we had water and heat). It was my birthday, so a Russian student brought me an astonishing yellow cake in the shape of the fur hat of Vladimir Monomakh, an ancient Russian ruler greatly admired by people here. I think we'll all remember this holiday.
The Russians we know have an enormous affection for Alexander Pushkin. Those of you in England have a parallel in Shakespeare, but there is no artist in the States with the stature Pushkin has here. My students speak of him constantly. Jenny's friend Lisa dressed up as his wife on Halloween. The university built a lovely room in his honor. And the other day a fine soprano (Jean Anne Teal knows her) sang for us several Pushkin poems set to music by Russian composers, including Anton Rubinstein. Monique had requested the songs, but I think Michael and Lamar, especially, liked them as much as she did.
My conference presentation about Vladimir Nabokov (on the centennial of his birth) went well, I thought, thanks to some new critical studies my daughter Milissa sent me from California.
And my last classes were wonderful. My second-year students were superbly prepared for their exams. They must have wiped themselves out getting ready--and they know I'm not really giving them any grades.
When they finished, they said goodbye with a play, "Little Red Riding Hood" (set to American pop music), a pantomime built on a passage from Shakespeare, and a song they wrote about a poem we had worked with--Emily Dickinson's "My life closed twice before its close," with its final lines, "Parting is all we know of heaven / And all we need of hell."
I'll miss these students more than I can say. I do not expect to see their like again.
It's been one more representative week in this country. Life is often so difficult here. Sensible people (including some of our Russian friends) are eager to go somewhere else. But there's something seductive about these people and the passion with which they live their lives.
Most of us feel like Monique says she felt at the end of her three years among Russian-speaking people in Latvia. We're leaving because we have to leave. We would stay if we could, though we know it would be a mistake for us to stay.
Our last day in the city is a week from tomorrow.
December 6, 1999
For five days the temperature has been warm enough to melt most of our ice and snow, so Volgograd again feels more like Pennsylvania than like Siberia.
Our last special trip was to the city's planetarium, built by Germany as one emblem of sorrow over the loss of life in Stalingrad. On Wednesday we are guests at a big farewell party at the university--and Paul Barker arrives from England (some of you in Mansfield remember him from the Year of Russia presentations). These next few days will be mostly exams and packing.
Here's our flight schedule:
We leave Moscow at 7 AM, Wednesday, December 15, on Lufthansa 3213L for Frankfort, Germany. We leave Frankfort at 10:50 AM on Lufthansa 400L for JFK in New York and arrive there at 1:25 PM. Dick Walker will meet us at JFK and take us by university van to Mansfield. If everything goes smoothly, we should be in town between 9 PM and midnight. We'll go to 266 North Main, where we left from, and each student will call home to say we've arrived.
We'll be on the road between December 10th and the 15th. If you have an emergency during those days, you can call the International Office at Volgograd State University between 10 AM and 4 PM Moscow time (eight hours later than the time in Pennsylvania). Someone there will speak English and can get a message to us. If you're calling from the States, dial 011-7-8442-43-37-86. From France or England, I'm not sure what to dial, but the 8442 is the Volgograd city code and the last six digits the office number.
I'll try to send one more note before we leave the city, but after that I'll be out of touch (unless we find a cybercafe on the road) until we get back. I'll send a final postscript message from Mansfield.
I'm glad many of you have found these notes useful. Thank you for your kind comments. I'm sorry I've not responded to some of them. It's been difficult at times to stay on line.
A special thanks to Dick Walker in Mansfield who has been sending you these messages all semester. Without him this system would not have worked.
And my deepest gratitude to Monique, whose fluency in Russian and rich knowledge of the culture have helped all of us with practical things throughout our time here--and whose love of this country and clarity of vision have informed many of the insights you've read in these messages.
December 9, 1999
Our five students did superbly on their exams, both the students themselves and their teachers tell us. They've been an especially strong group, everyone says--interested and involved and responsible from the first day to the last.
Yesterday the rector (president) of the university hosted a party for them, the German students (who will stay until December 27th), and the faculty teaching in international programs. The rector handed each student a certificate of achievement and spoke a little with each. Then we all sang, danced, feasted. . . .
We leave at noon tomorrow by train and, as is usual in Russia, everyone says they will see us off at the station. The platform we depart from will never be the same again! The eight of us know an awful lot of people.
We stop at Moscow to drop off our luggage and go by bus to the "Golden Ring," ancient historic towns northeast of the city--Vladimir, Suzdal, Pereslavl-Zalesskiy, maybe one more.
Then we come home.
A closing word to the family and friends of our MU students:
After five days on trains and buses, we'll be getting up at 3 AM on the 15th to make our 7 AM flight, followed by nine or ten hours in the air and then a five- or six-hour trip by van to Mansfield. We'll be tired when we get back.
And psychologists say that it's sometimes difficult to readjust to a culture you've been away from for as long as we've been. So our students may feel a little disoriented at first, may behave a little differently from what you're expecting. You might want to offer them some extra patience and understanding and personal space at the beginning.
Jonathan, Lamar, Tiffany, Katrina, and Michael have matured in ways since you've seen them. They've had some old questions answered and some new one raised. Their vision is clearer than when they left the States (living abroad changes your eyes), and it will probably stay clearer for the rest of their lives.
They'll get back to being themselves--and you're going to be proud of them. They're tough. They're impressive people. It's been a pleasure for Monique, Jenny, and me to share the semester with them.
December 22, 1999
Last week at this time we were on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic.
Now it's over. After six months of preparation and fourteen weeks in Russia, we're home and getting back to normal.
Things moved smoothly after we left Volgograd. Our twenty-hour train to Moscow was warm and comfortable and we had a nice evening meal in the dining car before retiring to our sleeping berths. Our visit to four ancient cities on the Golden Ring--Yaroslavl, Kostromar, Suzdal, and Vladimir--went well, thanks to a wonderful driver (one of the few we met in Russia), a fine new Ford van to travel in, four witty guides, and Irene Dudina, Volgograd's director of international studies (and a frequent visitor to Mansfield), who came with us.
Not many Westerners (at least English-speaking ones, according to our guides) visit the Golden Ring in winter. That's a pity, because the towns are lovely. The Volga flows through some of them, and it was surprising for us to see our river--flowing freely when we left Volgograd on December 10th--so deeply frozen north of Moscow that people sat from one bank to the other fishing through holes in the ice.
We visited some beautiful cathedrals and twice attended Orthodox Christian services--exotic with their icons and incense and chanted medieval music and absence of seats or kneelers.
In Vladimir--founded in the eleventh century by Prince Vladimir Monomakh (whose hat, you may recall, was the model for my spectacular birthday cake) and before Moscow the capital of what constituted the beginnings of Russia--we arrived after dark at a newly-restored convent but had to wait outside while the nuns discussed whether to let us enter. The convent--during the Soviet era a warehouse and, like so many other religious sites we visited, just in the past few years returned to the Church (some buildings had remained under Church control all along)--houses a priceless icon hanging openly without security. The nuns agreed to admit us, and again we attended part of a service and saw the ancient icon, lit only by candles, and heard the nuns praying quietly off in the darkness.
Our closing hours in Moscow left us struck by the beauty of the Kremlin at night. After prowling the Arbat looking for souvenirs, we had our final view of the downtown area at 10 PM from Red Square, then took the metro (an impressive metro, as anyone who has visited Moscow will tell you) to our hotel. Our last days showed us again just how lovely Russia at its best can be.
The trip back to the States seemed easier than the one over, though Lufthansa didn't get Katrina's and Lamar's luggage on the flight from Frankfort (the luggage should have reached their homes in a day or so).
I'm left with contradictory memories of the country.
There is the strong conviction that life in Russia is improving, despite what some Russians told us. Monique knows better than me, but the two of us (we've both lived under communist governments) were impressed with several things:
The availability of almost anything you would want to buy--food, clothing, state-of-the-art electronics, cars, houses. Lots of things are expensive, it's true, and lots of people don't have many rubles or dollars to work with, but availability is an important beginning.
Access to information--CNN, BBC, VOA, the internet. It's not cheap and it's not fast, but with a computer and a modem and some patience, you can get whatever information we can get in the West.
Honest elections. You can argue over whether Sunday's voting produced good or bad results, but outsiders apparently agree that people voted as they wished.
Fearless speech. People everywhere openly say what they want about the government and anything else.
Free movement. There are police checkpoints on many roads, but apparently you can go almost anywhere you want. Even foreigners can.
Open religious practice--booming and accepted everywhere, from what we could tell. Whether or not the ferocious, expensive rebuilding of thousands of Russian churches is the best use at the moment of terribly scarce resources is a matter for discussion, but the alternative vision of life that religion provides can be helpful in building a civic life.
The ease of passing customs. No one much cared what we were taking in or out of the country.
Yet I cannot stop brooding over just how horribly communism damaged Russia--the people, the culture, the infrastructure, the economy, the possibilities for the future.
It's not only the unparalleled loss of tens of millions of human lives (if you want to learn about that, read The Black Book of Communism, just translated into English and available from the Harvard University Press) or the half-century neglect of washers, refrigerators, hot water heaters--almost any sort of consumer goods--or the dreadful poverty that so many Russians, especially old people, have inherited.
It's not only all that. It's the difficulty and the cost of bringing so many things up to Western standards. Most Russian roads, cars, buildings (public and private), heating and water systems are simply a mess. Most people have poor health care and little if any dental care. Most people's work habits are inefficient, even counter-productive. The tax system is hopeless (a CEO told us the profits of his printing company are taxed at 90%), as is the retirement system. Corruption and dishonesty pervade government, business, education, health care--so much of public life.
It's hard to imagine how long it would take, what sort of resources, what sort of changes in people's attitudes and habits it would take, to make Russia a normal first-world (or emerging first-world) country, like the States, Canada, Japan, France, Great Britain, Spain--even Poland or Hungary.
Yet Russian history teaches us to not underestimate this country. Monique has said it again and again: when the people of other countries would conclude that it's too late, that the odds of success are nearly impossible, that it's time to give up--that's when the Russian people dig in and pull off a miracle.
It's what happened in Stalingrad--Volgograd--the city we've come to know so well in these past fourteen weeks. And it's what is happening today in aspects of Russian life that are clearly getting better.
I think I speak for all of us in wishing the Russians well. These wonderful people were magnificent with us while we were among them. They deserve better.
I hope when we visit them again--and when they visit us--we'll toast the good new days.
A final deeply-felt thank you to everyone in America and Russia who made our stay possible and fulfilling.
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