Monday, December 18, 2006


Today was (finally) the last day of class! We were doing grammar exercises until the bitter end.
I am leaving on an overnight train to St Petersburg on Friday. I will be there for December 23-28. I am staying with a Fransciscan community that is headed by an American. There are people from six different countries that live there, and the lingua fraca is Russian.
I plan on also seeing a lot of sites during that time and just unwinding from the semester.
On the 28th of December I will be taking the overnight train to Moscow. After a 11 hour layover, I will be taking another overnight to Dnopropetrovsk, Ukraine. I will then meet a friend there and head to Marganets, Ukraine. Marganets is the neat mining town that I spent New Years last year.
Around January 6 I will be heading to Kyiv to meet my mother and sister who (hopefully) will be arriving.
After a week hiking around the country with them: I don't have any idea what I will be doing.
I will have internet connection very, very rarely. So apologize in advance for the hiatus. I will post as often as I get the chance. I assume that I will be back in Vladimir by January 17. Classes will resume on January 26.
I will try to post one last time before I go!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Cases in Grammar

Last night I went to the farewell party of a Russian friend who is returning to Turkmenistan. He is an ethnic Russian studying law in Vladimir.
The night was nice. I was having a great time, until I managed to make three errors, in the course of an hour, in my usage of the genitive plural case endings.
It managed to really beat my confidence back. After three years of college Russian, and four months in Russia, I still cannot put together a bloody sentence without a case mistake! Cases are something that should have been mastered before completing the 200 level of college Russian.
To say that cases are my only problem in the Russian language would be laughable. Though cases are just so key to Russian, that without their appropriate application sentences make no sense. Additionally, latter topics in Russian are impossible to attack without having already learned the case endings.
Genitive plural is known to be one of the more challenging topics in introductory Russian. Though, I am not in introductory Russian. That being the case (pun), I was embarrassed by my missteps in the language.
It doesn't help that three of the people sitting at the table with me speak English at the translator level. Their English is so good... Imagine the Queen of England, they sound like her. I think she probably makes more grammatical mistakes than they do.
And then there is me. Speaking some variant of Russian to these people who are being very patient, though you know they are thinking, "Wow, Americans really don't learn foreign languages! Maybe this one is particularly inept. When Jason speaks Russian, it is how Bush speaks English." It was also delightful that they would race to beat each other at correcting my mistakes. It was nearly a game for them.
Of course, they were really trying to be helpful, but it was rather more terrifying than strengthening. It also felt sort of silly, continuing speaking Russian to people who speak English better than an Oxford prof.
I came home feeling anxious that a semester had passed and I was still making elementary mistakes. I resolved that the next morning (today) I would do a complete evaluation of my knowledge of the cases.
I woke up and began reviewing. Starting with the nominative, then accusative, then genitive. I was amazed at how weak my knowledge of endings were for some of the cases (namely genitive. More specifically -ья (un/stressed) as an ending).
When I went into the kitchen to eat breakfast, I was feeling really lousy that I had managed to learn so little of the appropriate case endings. I sarcastically remarked to my hozaika, "You know, I think that my Russian is worse now, than when I got here!" Her immediate response was, "Your right, it is. Now eat before it gets cold!"
I wasn't really in the mood to eat anymore. I was really in the mood to drink heavily. But, using my better judgement, I decided studying would be more productive.
I discounted her evaluation of my Russian by the fact that she has never, in the four months I've known her, ever said anything positive. I think it might damn near kill her to say something, anything, positive, or at least not negative. But that is all another story.
As I have said before in my blog: If you are a student of Russian, nothing will be more of a hindrance to your advancing in the Russian language, as not knowing the cases thoroughly. It is like building a house, you need a solid foundation.
Cases are like concrete. Your house is gonna suck if you don't use concrete. I am now reviewing not only the appropriate case endings for nouns, but also for adjectives.
So, now I will return to my apartment to study the cases, as listed in my copy of Schaum's Guide to Russian Grammar.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

CNN Russia

I have nothing to report... But CNN does! There is a special on Russia:

And, you can also watch the CNN video special on Russian xenophobia if you click on the video on the left hand column, of the above link!


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Post Office

On Friday I decided to send a couple of Christmas postcards. Going with the theory that if you've written me, I'll write you. So I headed to the local post office. I stood in line for fifteen minutes waiting to buy stamps. When I finally got to the front of the line, I asked the (at most 25 year old) girl for stamps, for a certain number of post cards to America. Her exact reply was, "What?"
So I repeated my request, carefully pronouncing my words and mentally checking my grammar. Her response was, "You aren't speaking Russian! I don't speak your foreign language! You can't come to the Post Office and..." She was interrupted by her senior colleague, who said, "I understand him very well. He needs stamps for postcards to America."
It was slightly humiliating to have this Russian gal yell at me (and point) so that everyone in line could know that, yes, there was a foreigner in their midst who is a poor student of phonetics.
So I waited as the senior postal worker counted out the right number of stamps. I handed the younger postal worker a 500 rouble note ($20). Unsurprisingly, she asked, "Don't you have smaller bills or change?" I said, "No, this is all I have." She seemed to not believe me, as she refused to complete the transaction until I had looked in my pockets.
Having proved that I had no other money, she grumbled and gave me my change.
I then went across the street to the cathedral to buy the Christmas cards. After a couple of minutes, I finished buying my postcards and was headed for the door. I was stopped in my tracks by the babushka who had sold me the postcards. She said, "You shorted me 60 roubles!" Too say that I was embarrassed, wouldn't well enough explain my emotion. I, of course, gave her 60 roubles and apologized. It was really her mistake, but it was awkward none-the-less.
I headed home feeling sort of dejected.
When I got home I showed my hozaika (host lady) the post cards that I had bought. All she said was, "You need to buy envelopes."
I replied, "But they are postcards..."
"Of course! But not in Russia they aren't!" she said.
Now, feeling as though nothing could go right, I decided it would be best to seek my Russian girlfriends help in sending the cards (and in buying envelopes).
We agreed to meet at 1800 in the city center. Having finished writing all of the letters, I met her at the agreed time.
We headed to the post office. Sure as could be, the young, rude postal worker girl, from earlier that morning, was the only person on duty. So we waited in line for a time before the girl "helped" us.
My girlfriend asked for ten envelopes for America. The girl said, "There are only eight envelopes. Come back next week if you need ten." My girlfriend told the clerk that eight would suffice.
The clerk said that each envelope would be 8 roubles (32 cents). I said, "That can't be! They are normally 1 rouble!"
So my girlfriend asked the clerk if perhaps these were not the right envelopes. The clerk responded that my girlfriend knew less about the post office than her foreigner boyfriend. And that yes, these were the right envelopes.
The young clerk then sold us more postage, as I was now sending "cards", not "postcards".
So I began addressing the envelopes. When I completed addressing the envelopes, my girlfriend took them back to the postal clerk. Now an older woman was at the desk. She said, "These aren't the right envelopes."
I said, "That woman sold them to us" pointing at the young postal worker sitting at the end of the counter.
The young worker's reply was simply, "Oh! I forgot!" as she smiled.
It was at this point that I asked my girlfriend the Russian for "witch" (its "ведьма") . Having learned this new vocab word, I expressed my view that the witch at the end of the counter should have to pay for the new envelopes. My refering to the witch, as a witch, seemed to upset my girlfriend. I think that the demonic employee enjoyed it.
The elder clerk said that, because we had bought the wrong envelopes, we could simply cut-out, and paste-on, "Par Avion" stickers.
So the next ten minutes were spent cutting-and-pasting.
Having completed all of this, my girlfriend, again, took the letters to the elder. It was then that we learned that the younger clerk had also sold us the wrong stamps. I owed the post office another 7 roubles.
By the time the escapade was over, more than an hour and a quarter had passed in the post office.
What did we learn? Witches do exist. They work at the Vladimirskaya Pochta.
Russian customer service...

Friday, December 08, 2006


Besides the VERY EXCITING new pictures posted with the help of my father, I have had a really interesting week. On Wednesday I took my midterm Oral Proficiency Exam. This exam is what gives someone their language rating.
As I posted in my first blog, I had tested at the 1- level. To work for the government or in business, one must at least obtain a 2/2+. I will not find my test scores for another couple of months, but I am certainly nervous about them.
The test for me worked like this: I was told to be prepared to take the exam at 1510 on Wednesday. At 1510 I went into a room, alone, with the examiner. The examiner was Dr Ben Rifken (former Chair of the Slavic Dept at Univ of Wisconsin). Dr Rifken began by just freely chatting (in Russian) about how I was doing, etc. He then asked me to give a brief autobio. From what I told him about myself, he then drew his next set of questions (i.e. "You work? Where?" or "You have a sister? What does she do?"etc) it was really very relaxed.
This portion lasted for probably eight minutes. It is the more conversational portion of the test. The next part was the dialogue. Dr Rifken randomly selected an index card with a prompt on it. The prompt was, "You are renting out a room in you house. A candidate calls to rent out the room. Interview him to find if he would make a good house mate." That portion went alright. Though, for me, it was hard to come up with questions to ask. I feel that I probably did ok on that portion too.
Dr Rifken concluded the test with just chatting about the social life in Vladimir. All-and-all it was a fun experience.
What mistakes did I make that I would suggest others taking an OPI look out for? 1. Use the formal singular (Wy) not the informal singular (Ty) (this won't effect your score, but it is courteous). 2. Use up all the time you have talking. The examiner should need to cut you off because you are talking too much. 3. Try to come up with some original responses (i.e. you know that he is going to ask "Как Дела? " ("How are you?"), try to say something different than "Хорошо" ("Well"). When the examiner asked me how I was, my answer was something along the lines of, "Знаешь, все хорошо. Но, сегодня меня болит голова! Вчера была вчерника и сегодя это похмелье..." ("You know, alls ok. But, today I have such a headache! Yesterday was a party and today this hangover...") The examiner can't use the contents of what you say against you. Actually, my statements about having a hangover lead our discussion in the direction of the very social side of life in Russia... Which is easier to talk about than the political side. I had also prepared the hangover response in advance, along with some other uncommon things to say to the examiner.
I hope all is well! Enjoy the pics! They will be labeled soon!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


*** NEW PHOTOS WILL BE UP ON THURSDAY!!! I'll try to label them before Monday!***

Apparently I have given my readers the wrong impression. Some have (wrongly) assumed that life in Russia (or at least Vladimir) is always exciting... I assure you its not. I do not post blogs frequently, because of the lack of material to post blogs about!
Most days are incredibly hum-drum. On top of that, we have not had sunlight in more than a month. The sun rises at around 0830 and sets around 1545 (3:45 pm). Everyday is as equally bleak and grey as the day before. Though the weather has been hanging around 35 degrees (F). The monotony typically runs like this:
Around 0745 I wake up and shower. I then get to hear my hozaika (host) complain about something (usually: 1 That she didn't sleep well, 2 That she is poor). As soon as I have finished eating breakfast, my hozaika typically feels compelled to yell at me... Usually that I need to go, lest I be late to class.
I then set-off for class around 0840, and arrive at about 0855.
Classes run in 50 minute blocks (with 10 minute breaks) until 1150, when when have lunch. We at lunch in a cafeteria in the basement of the school. After our 40 minute lunch we have two more classes.
Classes release at 1420. After classes, I might make the 10 minute hike to the internet cafe. If not, I go home.
As there is almost nothing to do at home, I try to go out as often as possible. One of the services provided with the program, is that we all have free tutors. If I go out with my tutor (she is 21, and a student) we might go sit in a cafe and talk for a couple of hours. We, of course, only speak Russian.
Barring the exception that I go out, I typically sit in my room. I can read either read grammar or practice phonetic transcriptions. As I said, we have 3 TV channels, so that is not a great option. My hozaika is usually busy watching her soap operas, or gossiping on the phone.
I have dinner when she feels like cooking. In the last week this time has varied from 1545-2000.
Taking a nap can be a real hi-light of my afternoon.
I usually get to bed at about 2300, and the day ends.
Now, to be honest, I go out probably about 4-5 days of the week. I do not have time enough for all of the social obligations that I have made! So I cannot say that the above is too typical for me.
Not all of my twelve colleagues have been so fortunate. Many of them spend day-after-day in their rooms. Some listen to music, watch TV, or sleep. Russia can really become tremendously depressing if you don't find hobbies. If you enjoy soccer, art or basketweaving in the States, find people with like interests here in Russia!
It is simply impossible to spend all of your free time studying. A lot of my colleagues are really, really homesick. Some have become rather disenchanted with Russia. Some have discovered why Russians drink so much. A couple have began smoking in order to have something to do, to kill time (seriously). It is remarkable what Russia does to people.
What advice would I give to other students coming to Russia? "Make hay while the sunshines!" When I first got here I went out as often as I got the chance. I wanted to meet as many people as possible before the winter and darkness set-in. This has greatly improved my experience in Russia.
I have to say that the Catholics in Vladimir have been really nice. They invite me to things all the time. I spend every Friday night with the youth group. I can be sure that for four hours, I will speak/read nothing but Russian. The three (practicing) Protestants in my group also spend a ton of time with their church groups. They have also had a really good experience.
What else has been good to break-up the monotony? Having a girlfriend! That is probably the single best advice I can give to an American student coming to Russia: Find a girlfriend/boyfriend! Your Russian will improve more speaking to your girlfriend/boyfriend for one hour, than it would improve in four hours of studying!
More later! Remember: PICTURES on THURSDAY!!!!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Expat Thankgiving

*Note: It looks as if it is nearly impossible to upload more photos from my camera to the internet. Though I sent a CD back to the States so that I could have someone else upload the photos for me. The woman at the Post Office indicated that it will take 20-40 days for my CD to reach American shores. So, as soon as the photos get get to America (and then online), I will make a posting.

This is the first Thanksgiving that I have not been at home. So it was nice to atleast enjoy it with other Americans. Our Residential Director, Tom, invited everyone over to his place. It was a pot-luck like effort. Do to my tremendous lack of cooking ability, I was assigned to bring plastic forks and plates.
We all congregate at Tom's apartment at about 1pm. The turkey was served about an hour later. There were a lot of variations on typical American foods. One interesting point that I had never considered was that turkey is not indigenous to Russia. It took Tom a lot of energy to find a place where he could buy the bird.
In all, the gathering lasted into the evening where we sat around Tom's laptop computer and watched that horrid show South Park.
I hope that you all had a great Thankgiving too!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Russian Cuisine

First, I would like to say that I hope to get more pics up within a couple of weeks... So stay tuned!
A few nights ago I sat down for dinner at around 5:30pm, as usual. For some reason my hozaika (host mother) seemed unusually jubilant. As usual, there was a fresh tomato cut-up and salted (with mayonaise) sitting on one plate. On another plate was the main course. It was "cutlette" and vegetables.
I began eating my dinner. My hozaika kept asking whether it was good. Really, it had the same Russian (unprocessed/natural) taste that most local foods have. I responded (in Russian) that, "Yeah, its great!" Every couple of minutes she would pipe-up with, "So, do you like it?" I became curious to why she had developed such an interest in whether I enjoyed her cooking.
My dear hozaika said, "Here, eat another cutlette! It is 'tistes"!
I smiled and thought, "Thats funny! It sounds like she said 'testes'"
My thoughts were quickly interupted by her clarifying that it was "'yaitsi' (or testicles)" that I was eating for dinner.
My initial thought was, "My God... I must have misunderstood." But there was no misunderstanding.
My second thought was, "I am going to puke all over the kitchen table." That was averted, but not by much.
Hozaika had a tremendous look of satisfaction on her face. I am rather confident that there was no smile to be found on my face.
My dismay was further compounded when I learned that 'tistes' was the 'meat', in the 'meatball soup', that I have been eating for the past two months.
So, what did I learn from this experience? Testicles are best served salted. What else did I learn? Really, they don't taste that bad... As I said, I've been eating it for months. It only tasted bad once I knew what I was eating.
My perception of what is "acceptable" or "unacceptable" to eat has greatly changed since I got here. Just the week before I heard a cat meowing in the kitchen. I thought, "How odd, we don't own a cat..." When I went into the kitchen I found my hozaika holding a hammer over the cat. My first and immediate thought was, simply, "It looks as if we shall have cat for dinner."
Fortunantly (as far as I know), we didn't have cat. The cat was a neighbors'. And the hammer was for some other purpose. Though I cannot say that I would be too suprised if I found out that my hozaika does have a special recipe for kitten.
Hope all is well! Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 17, 2006


These are only a fraction of the photos that I have... Hopefully I will be able to upload more in the future!


After spending several hours in the internet cafe... and arguing with the silly babushki that work in it: I have been able to upload pictures!!! These photos can be found here:
Click "Life in Russia"

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

St Petersburg and the Handicapped

All is well in my quaint town of Vladimir. Though it seems as if the ACTR students in St Petersburg are having a bit more of an adventure. Last week four students (two guys and two gals) were in a bar having a good time. A drunk Russian man approached them and bought them drinks (to celebrate the birth of his son). After a while the Russian kept hitting on one of the American girls. This lead to a fight. One American boy broke his nose and the other one hurt his wrist. The bartender then ejected the Russian from the bar. A short while later the Russian returned and shot the bartender. This lead to the Americans fleeing. Nobody seems to know if the bartender died.
This sort of thing happens in the US too, so it is not really a Russian cultural note. Maybe this is just American culture rubbing-off on the Russians...
Speaking of American culture rubbing-off: My host lady told me that she was going to a party on Saturday afternoon. When she returned, she was able to proudly show me the free piece of Tupperware that she was given. It was accompanied by a catalogue. She was nearly shocked when I told her that I was already familiar with the concept of a Tupperware party.
Aside from that, life is coming along. I am continuously surprised by how the Russian adapt to the cold weather. I haven't seen a baby stroller in a couple of weeks. Instead, you see babies bundled in sleds sliding around town, being dragged by their mothers.
This past weekend I was invited to go cross-country skiing with some friends. They said that it is about 40 roubles ($1.85) to rent skis and boots and to go skiing in the forest for a couple of hours. I will probably go next weekend.
A down side of all of the snow is how tremendously slick the roads, sidewalks and steps are. I have taken a spill more than a few times. I cannot imagine how many injuries most occur as a result of the ice every year.
On Sunday, after church, a friend asked if I would be willing to help an elderly lady back to her apartment. She has very little mobility with her feet. So I rode with him as we drove her to her apartment. We then led her inside the entrance of the apartment building. As is typical in Russia, there are no elevators. My friend (who is about my age) went and got a wood chair from her apartment. When he brought it back we sat her on the chair as we carried her the seven flights of stairs to her apartment. This is how she gets too and from church on Sundays.
After all of the laws for the handicapped that we have enacted in the US (ie Americans with Disabilities Act, etc) it is amazing that Russia lacks any accommodations. Additionally, the sidewalks and steps don't seem to be shoveled very often (though the statue of Lenin is cleared of snow after every snowfall).
I am also excitedly working on a theory. I have also noticed that whenever it is cold I see a lot more of two things: Drunk people and black eyes. I am willing to assert that there is a direct corollary between the weather getting cold and so people drink more. The effect of people drinking more is that there are more fights. I haven't begun the literature review for this study, but I will keep you posted.
Hope all is well! Poka!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Russian Medicine II

In my last blog post, I mentioned that all of my colleagues and I got to take a trip to the local Russian infectious disease testing area, for our HIV/AIDs test. Well, it turns out that one of our students (the same one that got picked up by the police last month for resembling a Chechen) got an infection from the test.
I saw him within an hour of my blog post, and he showed me that his finger was very swollen and was an odd reddish/purple color. He brought this to the attention of our Residential Director. It resulted in a trip to the hospital where they took care of his finger.
Last night I had the quintessential Russian night-on-the-town. I went with three Russians and another American to a Russian folk concert/show. It was worth the 60 Roubles ($2.25)! It was a very good show with a ton of people.
We began the evening by having the group over to my apartment. My host lady stated that if there were going to be other men over, this meant that we had to drink. So she cut up some bread, an orange and pickles to go with the vodka. She seems sincerely concerned that my health will decline if I do not drink like a Russian.
After this little drinking session, the concert was really quite enjoyable! After the concert we (as is typical) went walking around the city for more than an hour. The night ended before 2300, but was really a good time.
On a completely different subject, I have gotten a question on how diverse Russia is. Well, there are maybe six-eight blacks in Vladimir (population 366,000). The blacks are primarily from Chad or from the northwest (French speaking) portions of Africa. At least three of them are Catholics, as I see them every Sunday at church.
There are some people that are clearly of Asian decent, though I think that they are primarily from Mongolia.
There are no Arabs or Persians that I have seen. As I said earlier, the one American in our group with even a slight middle eastern appearance, was arrested as a suspected Chechen (though he is Jewish).
How racist are the Russians? Very. They are a very homogeneous society and they don't seem to excited about change. I don't think that a day passes that I don't see swastikas spray-painted/drawn on the sides of buildings. Though other neo-nazi logos and slogans are also frequently seen around town.
To be fair, I think that most of the Russians don't per se hate minorities, they simply don't particularly like them. Their hostility towards a minority is more likely to be passive than active.
There doesn't seem to be too much religious intolerance. There are many Orthodox churches in our town, and at least two protestant meeting places (one fundamentalist and one mainline). I have been given literature by the Jehovah's Witnesses before. And I think that there may be a Mormon presence. As the ACTR said at our orientation in DC, Russians (as a people) don't usually come-out-against Jews, because such a large segment of the population is at least part Jewish.
As an illustration of the ecumenical Russian Orthodox Church, we took a tour of one in Yaroslavl. It was beautifully painted (as they always are). And on the wall was a scene of the Judgement Day. And there was Jesus in the center. And to his right were all of the good Russians ascending to heaven. And to his left, were all of the Arabs, Catholics and Germans making a rapid descent into the flames of hell.
Either way, I have not encountered any overt racism in Vladimir (other than the graffiti).
I will write more later! Poka!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Russian Medicine

Life in Vladimir is keeping its regular hum-drum pace. There is already a solid layer of compressed snow/ice on the streets that, I have been told, will not melt until spring. This morning I awoke to another two-three inches of snow. The temperatures are maintaining a relatively warm 28-34 degrees F.
Last week my classmates and I got to have another "cultural experience" with the Russian federal government. In order to renew our visas for next semester, we all got to take a trip to the local contagious disease clinic. At this location, we all got HIV/AIDs tests. To enter the Russian Federation, I had the same test three months ago. But these tests are not considered valid for more than several months. This is because they are from an American institution.
The testing facility looked as if it was atleast forty years old... As did the needles and the sanitary devices. The nurse who took my blood sample did not bother to change her latex gloves between patients. Fortunantly, I was number two in the line to get my blood drawn.
Even better, was that the place where we got to wait to have our blood taken, was full of posters describing the symptoms of hepatitis, AIDs, TB, etc. And conveniently, there were hordes of very sick looking people coughing and sitting-around all over the room. The fact that they have folks waiting for TB tests sitting (and coughing) with everyone else, seemed just so Russian.
In the two weeks my school has been without power and water only two times. One day there was no power, so all of the regulars students got to go home early. Yesterday there was no water, which just meant that there was no bathrooms. Power is not that vital. We have a lot of windows in our rooms. Though no-power also means no lunch in the cafeteria. This translates into the Residential Director ordering pizza for lunch.
That is another interesting topic. I don't think that I had ever had pizza where the tomato sauce is substituted by ketchup. And the cheese is applied sparingly so that the mayonaise can be the primary topping.
All-and-all I am having a great time. This past weekend I traveled to Moscow. It is a significantly different pace than Vladimir. My host mother said that she had a student before who transfered mid-year from the Vladimir program to Moscow. The girl ended up regretting it.
I will write more later. Poka!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

I am Back!

These last couple of weeks have been tremendously busy.
First, our group took a week long trip to St Petersburg. St Pete, is probably the most beautiful city that I have seen in Europe. The buildings are all magnificent, the people are cultured and the sites are great! I would have trouble blaming any student for chosing St Petersburg over Vladimir.
My group took the overnight train to Vladimir. We arrived at the train station at about 1000. A tour guide met us at the station and we toured the city. St Petersburg is so pretty with all of the trees in bloom.
We also went to see the famous Hermitage gallery/museum. It is the home of many Rembrandts, Da Vinchis, etc. It was almost surreal to finally see the museum that I have been reading about for the last five years.
The next day the group all went to see a ballet. As far as ballet goes, it was great! All of the student to dressed up and had a great time.
On Tuesday I met with a friend of Dr Levine. She is 82, and is a survivor of the blockade of Leningrad and was a tremendously gracious and kind hostess. We spent the first hour looking at pictures of Dr Levine from over the past third of a century. Then we discussed how Russia has changed in her lifetime. She has remarkable stories to tell. Meeting her was actually probably the highlight of my trip to St Pete.
I was also able to tour the Political History Museum of Russia! It was the best museum that I have seen yet in Russia! It had artifacts from Stalin, Kosygin, Lenin, the tsars, Putin, etc. it was really a neat place. I am sure that I will be back to visit it again.
I also had the opportunity to walk the grounds of the Summer Garden. It is a beautiful garden, with dozens of sculptures. It is situated along the Neva river.
Best of all, it was warmer in St Petersburg than in Vladimir.
Here in Vladimir we have already had snow twice. Only the second time was it heavy.
Yesterday I had my "konsultat" (consultation) with my teachers here. Already, the semester is half over. They discussed where they felt I needed to better concentrate my efforts, and equally, where I had shown the most improvement. They then gave me two hand written pages of suggestions.
This weekend I may be going to Moscow with a friend. But I will post another blog when I am infront of a computer again!
Tomorrow is my test on prefixed verbs of motion... So off I am to study!

Friday, October 13, 2006

This week has been a fairly busy week. Last Saturday/Sunday, while in Yaroslav, a fellow student and I went out for drinks with our Resident Director. Tom (the RD), is a great guy. He is a tremendous resource on how to get things done and how to live a decent life in Russia. Ontop of that, he is incredibly personable.
Tom suggested (as I had heard before) that we spend as much time speaking to Russians as is possible. Additionally, he pointed out that everytime that we speak English (while in Russia) we are wasting our time and money. This was a good reminder.
To further this point, during our weekly group meeting, Tom announced that our teachers would begin to strictly enforce the Russian-only rule on school premises from 0900-1420. Ontop of that, Tom has quit sending us notices/text messages, etc in English. They are now only in Russian.
All of this, hopefully, will help me reach my goal of more than a 1 point gain in language proficency during my year in Russia.
On Wednesday I met with my Russian language tutor. This tutor is a free, optional part of the ACTR program. The tutors are usually students working on the college degrees in the area of teaching Russian to foreigners. My tutor is a really helpful and nice Rusisan girl finishing her degrees in Foreign Languages (namely German and English).
On Thursday evening I went out with a Russian friend for a few hours. We (as is the normal activity here) walked for a couple of hours, before going to a cafe. The temptaion to speak English is tremendous. A lot of the Russian you meet, such as my friend, have been studying English for twelve or more years. Though if you resist the desire to speak English, and speak only Russian, the pay-off is tremendous.
I woke up at the unnatural time of 0430 this moring. And, seeing that the sun had not yet risen, I studied grammar. I didn't feel in the mood to do the prefixed verbs of motion from class. So I considered where my continuing weak points lie in Russian. I realized that I still fail to appropriately use the cases (which are crtitical). This lead me to take out my copy of Schaum's Guide to Russian Grammar and to begin reading. I went to Chapter 2: Nouns, and dug-in. I got through most of the cases before I finally took a break to come to the internet cafe (at 0930).
My greatest regret in my previous two years of studying Russian, is that I had never paid close attention to the declentions, or to the appropriate case endings. I had always skipped over the third declention nouns (as they are more rare than first or second declention nouns).
The best advice that I could give to current students of Russians is to learn the cases as you cover them in class. It is hard to really have them solid. It takes a good deal of work (or it takes me a good deal of work atleast). But it will save you so much time and aggrevation later.
Other than that, I feel that I probably have another couple of hours of studying before I rest.
Hope all is well,

Monday, October 09, 2006

Life in Russia is coming along well. I have been keeping busy with all of my usual activities. I just got back last night from three days in the beautiful city of Yaroslavl. It is probably my favorite city yet in Russia.
One of the interesting things that I have noticed is that many costs here are listed in US dollar. For instance, car billboards are listed only in $ amounts, not in roubles. Equally, my cell phone minutes are deducted using dollars and cents, not roubles and kopecks.
I would assume that the large corporations (ie car companies) don't have much faith in the rouble. As it is, if you are a Russian buying a new car, you probably don't deal very often in roubles. It is much more likely that you do business in USD.
Well, everything else here is well!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

First Test

Today I took my first test in the Russian Federation! I had prepared for it to be incredibly difficult, while it proved to be just very challenging. The theme was verbs of motion in my Russian grammar class. We only had to prepare for the fourteen most common (un-prefixed) verbs of motion. Next are the prefixed verbs of motion.
Life is coming along in Vladimir. Not too much is new or exciting.
Last week Tim Oconnor, the ACTR representive, came for his field visit of Vladimir. He stated that while life is going on as usual in Vladimir, St Petersburg is having problems.
There has been a steady increase in the number of hate crimes against foreigners. What makes these crimes so suprising is that: 1. They occur in broad daylight, and 2. They occur in well traveled, tourist areas.
It should be noted that, all of the hate crimes have been against non-whites (predominantly Orientals). This does knock-down the threat level for me, but I remain a foreigner.
The police in Vladimir picked-up one of our students last week. During a random document check, they concluded that his papers were not in order. Well, his papers were in order.
It just happens that the student bears a striking resemblance to a Chechen (though he is actually Jewish). He even jokes about how much he looks like a Chechen! So after a trip to the police station, and some brief interogation, he was released.
The fact that he carries an American passport probably contributed to his rather rapid release.
Well, keep emailing me the questions! Thanks!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Entertainment in Russia

Russians are less varied than Americans in entertainment. They don't go to the movies often, or go to try new bars/restaurants. Rather, they do the same few activities over-and-over again.
A couple of weeks ago, I was curious as to what young Russians did for fun. So I sent a text message from my mobile phone to a Russian. I asked my friend "What do young people do for fun around here?" The response that I recieved was, "ha-ha. I'll tell u what they do. They drink!"
Now, beer is replacing vodka as the drink of choice among young people.
Of course, TV is also very popular. Unlike in the US, Russians don't readily invite people over to their houses. It seems rather uncommon (as the ACTR explained during orientaion), to go to a friends house and rent a movie/watch a program. It is unimaginable that a mixed group, of guys and gals, would ever congregate in a home.
Instead, roaming the streets is popular. Hours-and-hours of walking. It is cheap, and allows you to socialize. I would easily say that I have walked more than 6 miles in one evening, "for fun". There is no fixed destination, just walking.
I only get 2-4 TV channels, but they have relatively varied programs. There is the news, (lots of) soap operas, (many) (lousy) American films (dubbed into Russian), and they have the equivalent of Candid-Camera that is very popular.
Soap operas are my favorite. They are easy to follow. The themes aren't very deep. And they don't use very complex vocabulary. A student of Russian can readily understand what is going on in a soap opera. Alternatively, the news is nearly impossible. I have never seen a newscaster speak so fast in the US. There lips look like a humming birds' wings. It is really remarkable how quickly they speak. If I don't understand a word that the newscaster uses, they are already on the next story before I figure it out.
Russians also seem to appreciate reading. It seems that the most popular genre is detective novels. Everyone reads detective novels. They are also probably one of the easier genres for students of Russian.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Day-to-day life

The weather has been really nice recently. Mostly in the 60s-70s and sunny. I have a feeling that when November rolls around, things will change.
Tomorrow we are going on an excursion to another medievel Russian city. It should be exciting. The city, Bogolyubovo, is a really historic and pretty area.
The culture of Russia is becoming more and more familiar. No longer does it seem ironic that the man driving the ambulance has a Marlboro (or more likely a Soyuz-Apollo) dangling from his lips. Equally, the constant threat of jay-walking tickets (a 50 rouble/$2 fine) is not as worrisome.
The ACTR proram continues to impress me by how effective the teaching is, and in how structured the program is. All of the different subjects work in unison, to drive home points. For instance: The grammar class we are learning "verbs of motion". So in the reading class, we read poems heavy in motion verbs. At the same time, in the conversation class, we spoke at length about travel. Everything is connected.
Day-after-day I am delighted that I chose the ACTR program. And day-after-day I realize that Vladimir was the best city offered.
I would strongly encourage all students of Russian to apply for the same scholarship that I did. Additionally, I would highly recommend the ACTR-RLASP Vladimir program. Studying in Russia has increased my active vocabulary by more than 500 words already.
I have heard (while here in Vladimir) that the linguistic gains of students in Moscow or St Peteresburg is less than that of students in Vladimir. So that is reassuring.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Several people have emailed and asked how the classes are coming along. Well, since the people that asked are studying Russian, I will get into the specifics: They have really picked-up in pace recently. In grammar we will have covered numbers and non-prefixed verbs of motion in just two weeks.
This sounds easy, but as an example, the word "one" has 13 different ways of being written. For each case (i.e. nominative, genitvie, prepositional, dative, instrumental, accusitive (animate or inanimate)) the word "one" is written differently. The "one" (or any other number) must agree is gender and number of what it is quantifying. So the object can be masculine, neuter, feminine or plural. So really, there are 22 options of how the word "one" can be written. Of course, it sounds funny that there is a plural of "one". But some objects (i.e. jeanS) are only found in the plural, not in the singular.
Motion verbs are an equally tricky subject... Just take my word for it.
I am spending more and more hours every night in the battle to keep ahead of the classs. Aside from the grammar which I have described above, I am taking several other classes. I have honestly found that Schaum's Guide to Russian Grammar has been tremendously helpful. It conscisely and clearly details everything that we have covered thus far, and will likely do so for the entire year that I am in Russia. I have used it as my auxillary source of information to my class-textbook and as my primary source for my independent study of other areas (i.e. verbal adverbs or formation of the compound comparitives).
Phontetics have also proved to be tremendously difficult. I would rather learn phonetics by listening/talking to Russians. But this, in the end, will prove to be helpful in my pronunciation of the Russian language. We essentially take words (usually poems, etc) and put the words into photetic form. Phontetic form is how the dictionary writes words, to show exactly how they should be pronounced.
I met with one of my Russian friends last night and went over phonetics and grammar for a couple of hours. Conveniently, she has recently completed her degree in teaching Russian to foreigners. So the time was very well spent!
This Friday we are taking an excursion to the neighboring village for a couple of hours. Next week we are off to Suzdal. And in a couple of more weeks, we go to St Petersburg for a week!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Saturday in Vladimir

Not much has been happening. Last night I went out to the local discos/clubs. They were nice... But not worth the 150 rouble cover to enter. I figured I had to try it once to see if it was worthwhile.
Today there is some kind of a demonstration in the city center. It is being organized by Nashi33.
Nashi 33 is a nationalist, yet anti-fascist, youth movement. They seem extremely tame and only interested in encouraging nationalism.
In regards to my previous post on Russia. The average teacher in Vladimir gets paid about $100 a month. A government employee earns about $200. So it really depends on the occupation.
Increasingly I am coming to appreciate the Russian life more and more. The Russians are tremendously generous and warm, once you get past their austere outward appearance and behavior.
Last night I went out to the clubs with one of my American friends. He tried to bum a cigarette off of a Russian youth. When the youth heard my friend's heavy American accent, he asked where he was from. When the youth heard, "America", he was shocked. He gave my friend two cigarettes, then preceeded to ask a long series of questions. We spent the next hour talking to these Russian students about the US. We then exchanged phone numbers and they gave us a good deal of advice on the night life in Vladimir. It was pretty neat.
Well, I will post more next time.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Politics in Russia

Politically, Russia is unique. It is a former socialist state, transforming itself into a democratic nation. It is a former command economy, becoming a market economy. What does that translate into for the average American?
Well, the average Russian seems to like Americans. They seem to enjoy the thought of the "American Dream". Really, they don't have too much in common with the average American though.
The average person in Vladimir makes about $180 a month. They may (or may not) have a dishwasher, clothes washer, clothes dryer, blender or car... My host family has non of those.
Equally, the average Russian woman will have between 5-7 abortions in her lifetime. As abortion remains the common means of birth control, 5-7 is considered quite normal. The average Russian family does not have enough children for poluation replacement (i.e. the birth rate is far too low.)
The average Russian doesn't really give a damn about what the US is doing in Iraq. They have too many other problems.
Nobody (legally) owns firearms. The NRA perspective is really something new to them. I think that it sort of frightens them to find out that there are more guns than people in the US.
As you stroll the streets you see a good deal of nationalist as neo-nazi graffiti. 60 years ago the Russians lost nearly 25 million people because of the Nazis. Equally, it is quite clear that Hitler believed the Slavs to be sub-human. So how neo-nazism appeals to people in Russia is a mystery.
Free markets are a popular idea still. Though many have become disenfranchised by the "unsuccess" of the marketization of the Russian economy. I will say that it did not work because of a failure of free market values, but rather because of the extreme corruption in privatizing the major industries.
You can still bribe a cop in Moscow for less than $20. I met two Canadians as I was waiting to enter Lenin's tomb. They had left their passports at their hotel to be registered (as required by Russian law). A cop arbitrarly asked to see their passports, when they couldn't produce them, he accepted a $ 25 "fine". (Note: Real "fines" are paid at the national bank... Not to the cop in cash, without a receipt.)
The communist party still has a good deal of support. In my town there are several statues of Lenin (and a Lenin Stadium, a Lenin Street, etc). I saw a guy who was about 25 today,on the trolley, who was sporting his communist party pins.
Also, the Russian political system is much, much fractionalised than our two party system.
All-and-all, Russia is a rapidly changing place.
One of my favorite books is Genevra Gerhart's A Russian's World. It was published in 2001. It proved to be right-on when I was in the Ukraine. I have found that the sections covering entertainment, the youth, music, the telephone, etc are not up-to-date for Russia. The country has changed too much in 5 years.
Well, that is a brief capsule of life in Russia today.
At the behest of my babushka, I went to the Russian used clothes store today. She seems rather certain that I will die this winter because of the cold. But since I spent $35 and bought a heavy jacket and a sweater, I will apparently now be able to survive the winter!
Tomorrow, the group is taking an excursion to another small city, so it should be fun. Poka!

Monday, September 18, 2006


The ACTR organized a trip to Moscow. We left on Friday at 0720 by chartered bus. We arrived about four hours later. The only plans for the day were to visit the fanous Tretyakov Gallery. It houses some of the most beautiful paintings in Russia.
That evening I met with my friend, Artem's, father. He picked me up from the student dormitories and took me for an evening drive in Moscow. It was as we were conversing in his car that I saw the Kremlin for the first time. It was magnificently lit up and was dream-like.
On the other side I saw the Bolshoi Theater (under renovation) and St Basil's Cathedral.
The next day the group set off for the Kremlin. We visited Lenin's mausoleum as well as took a guided tour of the major sites around the Kremlin (cathedrals, GUM). The tour, of course, was in Russian.
That evening we went to the Moscow Circus. It was significantly more impressive than I remember the American circus being. And the cost (less than $ 8) was a lot more attractive than the American circus.
Sunday morning we took a trip to the WWII Memorial/Museum. This also encloded a tour conducted in Russian.
Overall, Moscow was an incredible city with many interesting sites. Even the metro stations are beautifully ornate. Though it is a huge, sprawling and fairly dirty city.
When we got back to Vladimir, we passed a nationalistic anti-immigrant rally in the city center. It seemed fairly well attended (30 people). Oddly, several of my fellow students on the bus identified one of the protesters as a guy that they had met in a bar a few days before.
This is an exception to life in Vladimir. It is the first time that I had seen, any political activity. The more time that I spend in Vladimir, the happier I am that I came here. A number of the people in my ACTR group had listed Moscow or St Pete as their first choice, but were instead given Vladimir. I think that nearly all of them have now conceded that Vladimir was probably the better destination.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Another Day in Russia

Nothing too new or exciting in Vladimir. Friday we leave for a three day excursion in Moscow. Where we will stay at the Moscow State University (MGU) dorms. It should be a very exciting trip.
In response to the questions regarding what my home life is like: I live in a second story apartment (without any pets) located about five minutes (by foot) from the Golden Gates (the landmark in the dead center of town). All the cafes, etc are not more than 5-10 mins from my apartment. The internet cafe and Cathderal are a little less than a mile from my house.
There is one main drag (Uleetsa Bolshaya Moscovskaya) where everything is located. In any side road there are few stores, mostly apartments. The town is rather sprawling, so there are different attractions in every direction of where I live.
The trolley busy costs 5 r and the bus costs 6. A taxi to any point in town is about 100r. The exchange rate is about $1=26r.
I am starting to gain a better appreciation for the Russian' remarkable respect for human life. I was walking to meet my classmates at the Golden Gates last week when I came across a man sprawled on the sidewalk bleeding from the head. He was paper white and not moving. I saw a cop up the street conversing with a a motorist about (presumably) whether to give him a ticket. I went up to the cop and told him of the situation. His response was, "Sure, I'll look into it." As I walked another hundred yards up the street, I noticed that the cop had not moved and was still laughing with the motorist about something (presumably my Russian).
Well, the man (or body) was gone when I got home, so I assume that it worked out alright. When I got home, I began to tell the babushka that I live with the story. She cut me off to say that he was probably a drunkard and deserved it.
So, apparently "empathy" is not a real big thing in Russia.
Young people here go for lots of walks. It is cheap and something to do. Yesterday I went for a walk with two Russian girls that I have befriended. Tonight it looks like I will be going to the local soccer team's game. The staduim is about a 15 minute walk from my apartment.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Friday in the Russia

I have come to conclude that the quote, "Russia is a third world country with first world weapons" is probably true. I went to the market (rinok) this afternoon. Everything imaginable is for sale: Boots, beer, kittens, underwear, jeans, meat, fish, vegetables, etc. It is a pretty neat place, and the prices are reasonable. A t-shirt costs about 50 roubles ($2) and cigarettes vary from 3.5 roubles to 35 roubles a pack (12 cents - $1.30). A bottle of vodka that costs about $25 in the States can be bought for about $5 here. Though cheap vodka is a little over a dollar or two.
Aside from that, classes have been good. A few people have asked what the classes/day-to-day routine is, so I briefly composed it below:
I have Russian/local history, phonetics, grammar, reading, and conversation. They are all taught by seperate teachers. Each class will consist of probably four tests per semester (one a month). The homework varies, but every night (including the necessary prepatory work for the next day's classes) I probably spend about 2-3 hours studying. It is not a bad lifestyle.
I have class at 0900. So I get up around 0730 to have time to boil water for a "shower". After this, I eat breakfast (cooked by my host mother) (hozaika)), and finish getting ready. Because my host mother likes to talk so much, I get up extra early as to allow time for this. I then walk about 15 minutes (down a paved/gravel/dirt road) to school.
The list of which subjects I will have that week come out on Thursdays. After the first period of class, there is a five minute break. Then a second period followed by a ten minute break. Then a third period followed by lunch. Lunch is forty minutes and there are two more periods until school ends at about 1430. There are usually two period back-to-back of the same thing (say grammer). So really there are only three seperate classes per day.
I then have the rest of the day free. Since everything closes early (or just doesn't open), I run errands until the evening, when I go home for dinner.
Following dinner are hours of homework. Concluded by an evening walk before bed. It is before going to bed that I like to once again review the new words that I learned (that day), then watch Russian television, or more commonly, read from a book of Russian stories for foreigners.
The Russians really do seem to like Americans. They go well out of their way to introduce themselves and to wish me luck.
All-and-all I am amazed by how much I have already learned. If nothing else, the ease that I feel when speaking Russian is tremendous. Sure, I am still butchering the language, but I don't fear an encounter with a Russian. I look for more encounters.
Well, off I go to study some more! Poka!

Monday, September 04, 2006

First post from Russia!

Today is the first day that the internet cafe has been working! Russia has been really wonderful thus far. Granted, there is no hot water in the apartment until December, but other than that, its great. I have been delighted by how much the locals seem to really love Americans. Everything about the US seems to interest them.
I went to my first day of classes today, and really enjoyed it. There is about 4-5 hours of classes a day, plus 2-3 hrs of homework. The students that I study with are very dedicated. My Russian seems to be on par with theirs. Today we had a preliminary Russian language test that included over 150 questions (multiple choice, short answer and phonetics). There was also an oral that was conducted by three professors.
My host mother is a delight. She has hosted a number of Americans, so she is really very good. She really is very nice and is a great cook. I will keep you posted!

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Last few hours in DC

Orientation just finished this morning and I am leaving in less than thirty minutes for the airport. The orientation was well put together and very informative. It covered everything from host families, to drinking, to linguistic gain, to cultural perspectives. Through the Orientation I learned that I tested to an Intermediate-Low on a linguistic scale. I have decided to aim for a 2/2+ during the course of my stay. By comparrison, a low class city person in a large city may only tests to about 1+/2 in their native language. A 3 is what the government wants for work purposes. So it is good to have set various goals.
It appears that I will live close to the center of town. I will live in a 1930s apartment with no washing machine. Which I assume is more rustic/Russian.
The trip to Germany today is roughly 8 hours. The trip to Moscow is about 2.5 hours and the car ride to Vladimir can vary from 2.5-6 hours. So I have a long haul ahead of me.
I will write more on the orientation later. Poka!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

My Last Night in V.A.

Today was a tremendously hectic day. I began the day with a trip to GMU. I first visited two of my mentors. I stopped by and saw GMU Russian language professor Dr Levine. He gave me a neat Russian language book (the fourteenth edition of Говорите по Русский). I have already packed it. While in Russia, I will strive for diligence in my personal readings in Russian. Dr Levine also gave me the contact information for one of his friends in St Petersburg.
Next, I visited Fr Peter Nassetta, the Roman Catholic Chaplain for GMU. After chatting with him, and going to Mass, I headed to Maryland.
In Maryland I ran some more errands before heading back to Reston, then to Great Falls. I have just finished (re)packing my bags. I have a strong suspicion that I will exceed the weight limit. If this is the case, I will need to pay a tarriff to Lufthansa. I may also be hit by another surrage charge in Russia.
Either way, I am looking forward to tomorrow where I will meet my classmates for the next year. They all seem like really nice and dedicated students.
It may be until Russia until I see a computer again, if so, check-back in a couple of days! Poka!

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Day After the Night Before

Last night the GMU Russian Club sponsored a Farewell Party at my parent's house. It was a delightful evening with many special guests. Not only were two of the GMU Russian language professors able to attend, but also a number of other non-Russian speaking family and friends. The party was also a terrific way to kick-off the new academic school year for the GMU students.
With less than 48 hours until I am due in DC, I hope that I have been able to say good-bye to as many people as possible. It will be a short 9 1/2 months until I am back in the States. Though, everyone is more than welcome to pay me a visit in Vladimir!
The last minute errands are what eat up all your time! I have been to DC twice in the last week for various tasks. I worry that I will not have enough gifts (i.e. Washington DC pens/trinkets, etc) to give to the various Russians that I meet along the way. This morning my friend Moriah and I went to DC to hunt for more gifts to give to the Russians.
Aside from gifts, I am also having trouble finding a tour guide book of Russia, that is not exclusive to Moscow and St Petersburg.
The other challenge is getting consistent advice on what to bring to Russia! It is actually rather funny to see the extreme differences in opinion. Some people tell me to bring a warm coat, others say buy one in Russia. Some have told me to not bring anything but a Russian-English dictionary, while others have encouraged me to carry along every Russian textbook that I own. Either way, it will be more difficult to find Western goods in Vladimir than in Moscow. This has lead me to pack more than I probably should. Though in all, my luggage for one year will not exceed two standard sized suitecases.
Tomorrow will probably be more last minute errands, and Tuesday will just be crazy!

Friday, August 25, 2006


I still have until Tuesday, August 29 until I go to DC for predeparture orientation. After two days of orientation, our Frankfurt bound Lufthansa flight will depart from Dulles at 16:45. We will arrive in Germany with roughly an hour before we catch the connecting flight to Moscow. From Moscow, I will board a train (or bus) and continue my journey two-three hours to the east, to Vladimir. My first night in Russia will be spent in the city where I will spend the next year.
I will be studying abroad through the American Councils of Teachers of Russian ( The ACTR does remarkable things to encourage the study of Russian language and culture. Their programs are considered to be the most intense and educational available. I have been a member of the ACTR since I was in high school and interned for them during my junior year of college.
It is really suprising that I am not nervous, nor ambivalent about leaving. Rather, I am excited and ready. My greatest fear is forgetting something that is vital for a year in Russia (i.e. Schaum's Guide to Russian Grammar). Barring such a tragedy, I am pretty thrilled to have the opportunity to study abroad.
I will continue to post on this blog in the weeks and months ahead. Please check back! Poka!