Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Boris Yeltsin/Борис Николаевич Ельцин

I just had a conversation last week (actually, I think that it was during my excursion to the vodka factory) with my colleagues, that Boris would likely live forever, because his organs are so well preserved after so many years of heavy drinking. Apparently, our prediction was wrong.
Boris was, in my eyes, the epitome of a Russian politician. He was very charismatic and pretty populist. He was also a настоящий мужик (real man).
When he was 14 he blew-off two of his fingers, when the hand grenade that he was trying to throw at Germans detonated early. He was Мастер Спорт ("Master Sport", a very high Soviet award for great sportsmanship)... albeit in volleyball, but still very impressive.
He also showed such political prowess! Yeltsin during the 1970s (as a communist party boss) ordered the house that the Romanovs (the last royal family of Russia) were killed in be destroyed. He then paved the whole area over so that people couldn't come to pay tribute, or visit the spot of the murder.
Well, 30 years pass, Russia is no longer communist, the Romanovs are now Orthodox saints, and Boris sees that he needs to play this hand the right way... So he attends that funeral service held for the last royal family and says wonderful things about them.
In the course of those 30 years he also went from being a (atheistic) communist to being a (Orthodox) democrat.
Look at how he hopped right up on that tank during the putsch!!! Talk about taking whatever lenghts to win votes!
He took whatever stance was need to keep his popularity high.
Of course, there were the downsides of old Boris:
In high school I had a collection of photos titled "The Drunk Boris-Bear Dancing". It was a series of photos of Boris drunk and... well... dancing.
Aside from the epic drinking (and womanizing), Boris also probably should have reigned a little bit tighter of a control on the mafia. It is true (in my view) that we can thank Boris for the problems with the oligarchs. Had Boris been a little bit more stringent (and not let corruption reign) Putin wouldn't need to be scaring everyone in Russia worth over $1 billion to move abroad.
One of my favorite quotes is of Yeltsin, "If you want your children and grandchildren to be happy: Don't send them into politics."
Thanks for the advice Boris,

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


During my time here I have examined whether the stereotype of Russians being heavy drinkers is truth or, well, just a stereotype. I have concluded: One cannot begin to fathom how much Russians love their booze. I am consistently amazed at how they manage to drink so much!
It is not that the Russians are all drunkards. Just that their perception of what is "too much" or "inappropriate" is vastly different than what Americans view as being "too much".
As the stereotype hints, Russians drink their vodka neat (i.e. straight). Ontop of that, they drink incredible quantities of it. This could be because vodka is relatively cheap ($6 will buy you good vodka). Or because vodka helps kill time.
Americans tend to have wine with dinner, if they drink. Americans are also squemish about drinking. In our (horrid) "alcohol awareness" classes in high school, I remember being told that, "If you have more than two drinks a day, more than a couple of times a week, it means you have a drinking problem."
The only drinking problem in Russia is when you run out of alcohol.
It does not matter if you are a guest of young men in their 20s, or women in their 80s, for a Russian to not offer you vodka, if you are a guest for dinner, is truly unthinkable.
Though, on two occasions I have been offered wine while visiting Russians for dinner.
On the first occassion, my host told me about what great wine he had bought. I was expecting that we would sip through the bottel during lunch. I was wrong. Each time he would want a sip, he would propose a toast, and it was "bottoms up"! The glass would be emptied, and promptly refilled.
Recently, I was talking with a Russian/Polish friend about drinking. I asked him if Russian or Polish wives get angry if their husbands come home drunk. He responded, "Well, you have never been to a wedding in Russia, clearly."
"Well, the weddings last for three days. That is mandatory. If you survive the first night, you come back the next day, and then the day after. On the first night the groom is the recipient of countless toast. In short time he ends up on the floor under the banquet table, too drunk to stand up, passed out. The bride cries a lot... I don't know if she cries because she must spend her wedding night with someone who will likely be hung-over the toilet puking the whole time, or if it is because she realizes she has just bought a lifetime of commitment to him."
"Either way, the guests all have a great time. You can be sure that nobody is sober. Dedushka (grandfather) is going to get plastered. But everyone has a good time."
I continued my questioning, "Well, after the wedding, after being married for a bit, does the wife get upset if the husband comes home drunk?"
"It depends. She knows that he is going to drink... If he is a man he is going to drink. If he gets drunk and sings and dances, that is ok... No problems. But if he becomes overly flirtatious with other women, problems arise."
A while back I was staying at a Russian friend's house. His father had Ушёл на запой (had gone on a binge) and was nicely passed-out on the floor.
At around 10 pm there was a knock at the apartment door, my friend answered it to find a construction work, who 5-6 years before had done some tiling for the family. The construction worker asked to speak to the father, he wanted to borrow $2. Well, the noise from the construction worker awoke the father from his slumber.
The father simply said, "What, if I give you $2 you are going to drink it away... That is stupid! Why don't you just come into the kitchen and drink with me?"
The next morning when I got up, the two of them were still at it. Though it wasn't long before both were sleeping on the kitchen floor.
I had a history professor that relayed this story:
He had been invited as a dinner guest in Russia by two members of the (very) elite Academy of Sciences. My professor, another American, and 5-6 Russians came for the dinner. Well, in no time everyone was drunk. The Americans were taken home by taxi and all was well.
Two days later, the one American realized that he had lost his umbrella. He realized that he had left it at the apartment where the party had been held. When he arrived at the apartment to retrieve his umbrella, he could hear a lot of noise. He knocked at the door and was greeted by all of the people that had been at the party two days before... They had been drinking for two days straight! They didn't go to work, called in sick, and drank.
This past Friday our group took a tour of the local vodka factory (Владалко). This tour was the best excursion I have ever been on. The woman who lead us on the tour was small (maybe 5'4). She is also the chief manager of the factory.
The tour was really interesting... And then there was the taste testing... There were atleast 8 different alcohols that we tried. This little woman (the tour leader) knew how to handle her booze. She must have had 6 full shots... Considering her size, it seems like a lot... And then she returned to work!!!
On my construction site, a few Russians were brought on to work. They drink the entire day. It doesn't seem dangerous (if they are laying tiles, etc)... But I would be lying if I said that seeing the electrician drink on the job doesn't make me uneasy!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Going Along to Get Along

Recently I was filling out a scholarship application that asked, "What personal attributes do you think are the most important for someone to posses, who is going to study abroad?" I considered for a short while what I see in my colleagues who are having a great time here in Russia, and what I see in my colleagues who have become disenchanted with Russia.
First of all, being opened minded is probably one of the most vital attributes for someone wanting to study in Russia. It is easy to be close-minded (and difficult) and sit-around complaining that the Russians are all but savages. But you really don't make many friends that way.
Russia is an experience completely unlike day-to-day life on a college campus in America.
Hanging out on construction sites is probably not something that I would do in the States. But I found friends there, we only speak Russian, and I have a great time. In the same way, I try to go out with different groups of Russian friends, all of the time, to increase my exposure to Russian culture.
Going to the art museum is not fun for me. I don't really care for art. But I have been to the art museums at least once a month with friends because that's what they wanted to do. By going on these excursions, with friends, I have met their friends and have usually ended up had a terrific time.
I also noticed that the Americans who have fallen-out-of-love with Russia, also refused to try Russian food. (I bet I could prove a corollary). These Americans would go out of their way to avoid anything that was unfamiliar. That seems like not only a great way to offend a lot of the locals, but to also come-off as difficult.
Another attribute that is vital is a sense of humor. I cannot imagine living here and being serious all of the time. Whenever I open my mouth, I nearly expect to make mistakes... And it doesn't bother me when Russians laugh at me... Because I am usually laughing too! That is not to say that I am not self-conscious about my Russian (I am), but I am not going to cry when Russians stand around, staring at me, trying to figure out what I am saying. I sort of expect that as part of the price to pay for language acquisition!
So, my scholarship essay concluded that: Having a sense of humour, and going with the flow, are the two most important attributes to posses, if you wish to study abroad. We will see if I was right, if I win the scholarship!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good times with Zina

Since my last post on Zina, my hozaika (host lady) , I have been told that I described her in all negatives. Or as one reader said, I describd Zina as a "she-devil".
Well, Zina is not a she-devil (most of the time). There are good times with Zina.
Just this morning I returned from Moscow after meeting a group of American students. In the hotel rooms in Moscow, the students had abandoned several liters of juice, vodka, beer and a bottel of champaign. Well I packed it all up and hauled it back to Vladimir with me.
When Zina saw what I had brought, you would have thought that it was Christmas. "Jason, such a smart boy! Good boy! This is what you need to do whenever you see anything for free! You must take it with you and bring it to me! Molodets!" She promptly set-in to icing the juice and drinking the beer.
I remember last semester Zina had a get together with some of her girlfriends. There was plenty of singing, dancing and of the social lubricant: liquour. Zina invited me to join her friends as they were celebrating something-another (it might have been the Day of Drivers' (aka another excuse to drink)). On these occasions she is at her prime. She is a wonderful host when she is having folks over.
Zina has also proved to be a good source of information on all of the neighbors. Because Zina is a babushka, she sits around gossiping on the phone all day. This gives her insite into all of the neighbors' problems, etc. She has spent many hours peering threw the window's curtain to see what the neighbors are doing on the street. This also provides me with entertainment. It allows us to discuss things other than my failings. Instead Zina will talk about the neighbors' kids failings.
Zina has been a lot of fun. I would not want to be with anyone else!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

My Daily Routine

My days have really changed little since I first began my program in Russia, though they have changed.
Currently I am in the following rut during week days:
0745: Wake-up, shower, shave, eat, listen to Zina for a while (normal morning conversations are one of two topics: "Jason, it is cold, did you leave the window open last night as you slept? Don't come to me for sympathy when you get sick.", or "Jason, I didn't sleep at all last night, I slept horribly. Uzhasno!"
0840: Begin the 12 minute walk to school.
0900: My first class begins.
0950: There is a ten minute break between every 50 minute class.
1000: Second class begins.
1050: Second class ends.
1100: Third class begins.
1150: Third class ends. Lunch break begins.
1150-1220: Lunch in the students' cafeteria. There are special tables which are reserved for our (American) group. So we actually do not mix with the Russian students during lunch.
1220-1230: More than half of the group piles into the courtyard to smoke.
1230: Fourth class begins.
1320: Fourth class ends.
1330: Fifth class begins.
1420: Fifth (and last) class ends.
* On Mondays, the group meeting takes place immediately following the last class. These meetings are utilized by Tom, the Residential Director, to primarily discuss upcoming excursions, etc.
1445-1700: Either run errands, stop by the Uzbeks' construction site, go running, or drop by the internet cafe.
1700-1745: In this block of time I eat dinner most every night, at home, with Zina supervising how much I eat.
1800-1900: Read/sleep/not-much-of-anything.
1900-2330: Study or hang out with friends.
2330: Read/Go to bed.

So that is a brief synopsis of my normal Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.
Thursday the schedule is similar, only there is not likely to be much studying after class.
Fridays we go on excursions (generally for a couple of hours) during the mid-morning/afternoon. There are no classes held on Fridays.
Weekends vary significantly. I generally get up by 0800 and either study, or go for a run. This is followed by reading or more studying. Through out most afternoons/evenings I usually go hang-out with my Russian speaking friends.
Of course, my schedule is by no means concrete. In a couple of hours (today is Tuesday) I am going to some international festival that one of my (Russian) friends is anxious to go to. And tomorrow I am going to Moscow to meet with a friend arriving from the States.
Everyone finds their own routine here. I think the worst thing possible is to come home everyday from school and to just sit in ones' room. That is deadly! Don't do it! Its so bloody depressing... And you don't work on your language acquisition by sitting alone in your room!