Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Foreign Travel

I have often heard that a lot of students come to Russia for a full academic year, without having ever been outside of the US. I have also heard that this could lead to some rather intense culture shock/disappointment with Russia.
I had, before coming to Russia, spent a good amount of time outside of the States. When I discovered that in Vladimir I would have no running hot water for the first bit, I thought it was a really neat cultural experience. The people who had never been outside of America tended to view such obstacles as horrible. They also tended to quickly criticize the Russians for being nearly barbarian. I really can see that it was evident who enjoyed the challenges of living outside of the first-world, and who didn't.
Within the group of 13 students here in Vladimir, there is a wide range of how much exposure they had to foreign cultures, before arriving.
Below are some rough statistics that I gathered of my colleagues:

Excluding travel within the US and Canada (the 51st State)

- 2 students have been to more than thirty countries.
- Though only 2 students had previously been to Russia. One of which had been here on multiple other study abroad programs.
- Of the half that had been outside of the US, Mexico was the most common destination of their previous travels.
- That was quickly followed by France and the UK.
- About three had been to a former Soviet country before.

In all, I would tend to (strongly) side with the advice that if you haven't spent much time out of the US before, it might be best to go to Russia first on a summer program, or on a semester program at most (the ACTR offers both). I feel that Russia can really be overwhelming for a lot of people.
Though more than whether someone has spent time out of the US, I feel that their attitude is what matters most.
I spent my last two New Year's going to an economically depressed eastern Ukranian mining village, and I hang out in Vladimir on Uzbek construction sites... My idea of a good time is a little bit skewed from the norm. I didn't expect to leave the US and to arrive in a competing first world nation. A semester/year in Russia is not a semester/year in London or Paris. You will never have the experiences in London or Paris like you will in Russia.
I just throw that all out to be considered by prospective students.
If you have any questions about life in Vladimir/Russia/on the construction sites with the настояшии мужики...как я, please feel free to e-mail me!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Places to Go

This past week has been pretty busy... Which is a really nice break from the monotony of Vladimir.
Last Thursday I went to Moscow to meet a group of students who had come over on a Spring Break trip. It was great to spend some time with other Mason folks and with my GMU Russian professors.
GMU had organized a tremendously exciting trip for the students. It seemed like they really got to see a lot of Russia during their week in the country.
With the GMU group I traveled to Zagursk (now Sergiyev Posad), the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church. The "Vatican" there, is a really small enclosed area with a couple of churches a seminary and a monastery.
I also went with Dr Levine (GMU Russian professor) on a tour of the Museum of Vodka. The museum is conveniently located next to Hotel Izmailovsko.
On Sunday, with a different GMU professor, I saw the church where Pushkin was married in Moscow.
I traveled back to Vladimir on Sunday night. We made it in a record time of 2 hours and 40 mins, on the bus!
This past Friday, with my ACTR group, we took a tour of neighboring Bogolubogo. It is an old town with a monastery and churches. Now that I think about it: You can describe probably all Russian towns as being: Old and possessing lots of churches and monasteries.
I like Bogolubogo because it has my favorite church in Russia (the one on the river: http://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images;_ylt=A0oGklbLsgdGmiEAkYBXNyoA?p=bogolubovo&ei=UTF-8&fr=yfp-t-452&x=wrt&fr2=tab-web ). It is an old church built right on the side of the river. It is tremendously beautiful.
I also attended another Uzbek party... Its always a good time!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

My Hozaika

My hozaika (host lady) is a mixed bag. Some days are great, and some borderline on nightmarish with Zina Sergeevna.
She can be rather childish (we have kids' stickers (of mostly Disney characters) all over the apartment). She also cuts out pictures of puppies/kitties from magazines and glues them on the walls. Which I can't really argue with; the stickers cover the dirty 75 year old walls of our apartment nicely.
And she can be rather irritating. For a week after I got mugged, she never missed an opportunity to ask me, "И тебе не стидно?" ("And you are not ashamed of yourself?")... I am still trying to understand why I should be ashamed... But that was Zina Serveena's way of showing sympathy.
Last semester she would complain for days that I didn't go out enough... That I just sat at home. So I went out. This lead to her complaining that my coming home after 1800 interfered with her TV watching schedule.
She also is a rather envious person. She has already specifically told me what she wants me to leave her (of my possessions) when I return to the US...
I am not really surprised, as I know full-well that the woman searches my room like a hound. If I had anything that I wished to hide from her, it would be impossible.
I used to keep a liter of beer on the window sill (it's cold there) in my room. Zina would complain that she was poor and couldn't ever afford beer (and act as if she didn't even notice that I had beer). If I would offer some to her, she would act shocked and appreciatively thank me as she drank my bottle. If I didn't offer it to her, she would say that I was a lousy drunkard not willing to share with her, a poor and down-trodden grandmother.
She does the same routine if I buy a newspaper and don't share it with her the same day that I buy it.
Zina also has her passive aggressive days... After we have words, I she will typically, "accidentally" give me scolding hot tea, or an omelette with lots of shells, or she loves to give me for breakfast whatever had been for dinner the night before (imagine liver at 0745).
Zina though has had a rather hard life. She was born in 1941. Her father was killed at the front against the Germans and so she never met him. Her mother remarried and had a son. The son (Zina's brother) died when he was 10 from a blood disease. Her mother then died shortly afterwards. Her stepfather died somewhere between them. So Zina was raised by her grandmother and grandfather. First grandmother died, then grandfather. But Zina got married when she was in her early 20s, and has a daughter. Though Zina has been a widow for more than two decades.
Zina also has her good days. Her favorite subject is telling me how to better lead my life. It is something that I have grown rather used to. Zina's suggestions of how to find a Russian girlfriend are rather interesting.
Whenever one of my (guy)friends comes over to our apartment, Zina assumes that drinking will take place. She doesn't ask if we are going to drink vodka. She assumes.
And usually she assumes wrongly. Though when I tell her, "Zina, I don't wish to drink vodka."
She usually retorts with, "What?! What?! I thought that you were a man! You little boy, why don't I go get some milk for you to drink! Then you can have nap time! If you were a real man, you wouldn't say 'I don't want to drink vodka', you would say, 'I only have one bottle, I better buy some more before my friend comes over!'"
Don't think that I am being over-the-top, this is how Zina communicates.
I found that laughing as she is berating me for not being enough of a man is not usually the right response. This could be because I giggle more than laugh... but for whatever the reason, the only right response is to agree... And then to invite her to drink with us.
Overall I enjoy my time with Zina Sergeevna. She is all of 5'3", and I am terrified of her. But she has made some terrific food. Including her special "passively aggressive" cutletts...

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Gays in the Former USSR

Russia is a funny place, with funny people. This blog is rather hard for me to write, because I don't seek out "alternative" venues, and I would know as little about them in Russia as I would in the States.
But, I could relay some anecdotal evidence to support my introductory sentence.
During one of my first couple of weeks in Russia, I was sitting in a cafe with my Russian friend, trying to explain contemporary political issues in Russia, and how they varied with contemporary American political issues.
When I mentioned gay marriage as being one of the larger social issues in American politics, she was suprised, and asked, "Are there gays in America?"
I laughed (I thought she was joking), "Yes, there are. Are there none here in Russia?"
She looked seriously perplexed, "No, I don't think so,"
I was astonished, "Your kidding me, right? You don't know a single gay? Not one?"
Her answer was an emphatic, "No, I don't think that there are any gay people in Russia."
Well, despite her knowledge on this issue, I am rather certain that there are gays in Russia. Though they are a good deal more closeted than in the States. I haven't seen any Dupont Circles (a gay section of DC) in any Russian city.
I have heard that there are a few gay establishments in Moscow, but that is all that I nkow about them.
Though, when I held a political discussion with my hozaika (host lady), she didn't seem opposed to the idea of gay marriage.
I think that my host is in the minority of Russians. There was a gay rally in Moscow this past summer that was broken up by the police and rioters. They tried to beat the participants of the rally.
At orientation, students were advised that if they were of such a persuasion, it might not be the best thing to meet your host family and start off about telling them your status. Russia can be rahter hard on "others"/"outsiders".

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Race Relations

I was going to simply write, "Russian Race Relations: They suck", and that would be all... But I decided that might not give enough reason as to why some people think that they suck.
Russians are not racists, they just aren't familiar with folks who aren't Russian. If you read my last post on Russians' view of religion, you might better understand what I am saying.
Russia is actually a rather diverse nation. According to a Washington Post article, nearly a quarter of Moscow is Muslim. And in less than 10 years, more than 50% of the Russian military will also be Muslim. Most of the Muslims are from the Caucus region.
The fact that Russia is diverse should not mislead the reader to think that Russians often interact with this minority. They might deal with them at the market, or on the street, but I don't think that they often seek out friendships with them.
The folks from the Caucus typically resemble Iranians... More so than Russians.
They are pretty white. Hence the term Caucasian (i.e. the 'politically correct term' for "white", in America).
Aside from them there are also some Mongolians running around... Though they are less common (at least in Vladimir).
The blacks here probably have the roughest time. The locals really don't seem to love them too much. Actually, I would say that questions about blacks in America are one of the more common questions that I get about life in America.
I know one black fellow in Vladimir who has gotten beat-up a few times (though he has been here for more than 8 years). He now carries mace, and seems rather afraid of being out past dark.
I know that my Uzbek friends managed to get into a pretty good fight the week before last with a couple of skinheads.
Speaking of which, when I first came to Vladimir, I used to spend my Saturday mornings exploring the city. I would always bring my camera to take pictures. I would also photograph all of the neo-nazi graffiti. (You can see some of the pics in my photo album at the bottom of this page. Click the link).
I have discontinued that habit because there is more graffiti than what I can keep up with.
In the Russians defense, they might simply be a little misunderstood.
The word "black" in Russian is Чёрный (pronounced, "chjornie"). Though it only refers to folks from the Caucuses (who are not "black" in our, American, use of the word). So one could, without offending anyone, say, "Он чёрный." ("He is black")
Whereas the Africans are Негры (pronounced "nigry").
If Americans weren't so ethnocentric, and realized that the use of the word "негр" in Russian started before there were settlers in America, there would probably be less problems.
One could (correctly, as EVERY local Africans would say), "Я негр" (I'm black).
Russians aren't close-minded, but people who accuse them of all being "racist" might be close-minded. Russians simply don't have much interaction with folks who are radically different from themselves. They are usually honestly curious to meet an outsider. To meet an American black would be something that they would certainly tell their friends and family about.
Though it probably doesn't help much that American rap music is increasingly popular in Russia... This leads a lot of Russians to believe that US black culture resembels what they see in the behavior of rappers.... Which seems not to always be the best behavior to imitate.
It is funny that you do see a lot of grafitti with American rappers' names.
It is true, that minorities in Russia need to take extra precautions, and they should expect harassment from the locals and the police, but I really don't think that it is significantly more dangerous for them... Just be cautious.