Monday, February 28, 2011

Journey to the Heartland

On day 2 of our tour of Russia, we experienced first-hand the other extreme of Russian life. Several hours out of St. Petersburg and we had clearly entered the provinces. Expanses of endless untamed forests and remote wooden houses went on for the entire 11-hour drive to Vytegra, and this same format is sure to continue as we explore the surrounding regions of the Vologda oblast.

From the moment we boarded our Vytegra bus, we knew that conditions in the small town were different than in lavish St. Petersburg. As we drove along the long road we encountered many modern tour buses full of Russian visitors to the region, yet ours was the middle bus pictured on the right, due to a lack of funding to fix their more modern bus that had recently broken down. Unfortunately, this theme is prevalent throughout Vytegra, as I will likely explain tomorrow, but in the meantime we made do with what we had and set off on our journey.

Unfortunately, as with most long trips, I spent most of the day sleeping, but the gem of our journey was found at the Alexander-Svirsky monastery. This was the holiest site in Russia, as the only place outside of Jerusalem where the Holy Trinity has appeared to a human, and its special place in Orthodox hearts was obvious from its meticulous upkeep. As we entered the buildings, carefully preserved icons and iconostases adorned the walls, inspiring awe amongst our group members. After receiving a brief introduction to the centuries-old history of the monastery, we were unexpectedly met by a choir of clergymen who sang booming hymns in the resonant center of the cathedral. As we toured the complex of buildings and viewed Alexander Svirsky himself (his body was found to be miraculously intact when exhumed 100 years after his death, and is still preserved today), it was obvious that the monastery was well funded, even if only funded by visitors to the region.

It initially seemed quite strange to me that amidst a region of economic hardship a religious center could be so prosperous, but then after some reflection I realized that this seemed like just the place to experience such a contrast. I have often experienced the tendency of those in rural areas and impoverished regions to have stronger religious affiliations and convictions, likely due to a greater desire (and perhaps need) for help from a higher power. As we discussed during our group reflections of the day, it was very possible that organizations and individuals donate generously in the hopes that their prayers will be answered.

As we get to know Vytegra better, I cannot wait to explore the connection between the church and the people, and see how economic circumstances affect this relationship. As we pull in to Vytegra late at night and finish reflecting, I cannot wait to see what is in store tomorrow from this already fascinating provincial town.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

St. Petersburg: A Cold/Warm Welcome to Russia

As soon as I left the Paris airport for St. Petersburg on a small Россия Airline flight, my immersion experience into Russian culture began. Sitting in worn chairs and eating a surprisingly lavish meal covered in Syran wrap, I did my best to communicate wit h the Russian-speaking flight attendants and absorb the dichotomies of the vast expanse of the Russian way of life. Welcome to Ruslan Alternative Spring Break 2011!

Our whirlwind day in St. Petersburg began at the pinnacle of bygone Russian extravagance and opulence: The Hermitage.

This collection of three million pieces of European artwork collected over the ages was a perfect introduction of the overwhelmingly polarized elements of Russian society. In this museum, many works of the world’s most famous artists are displayed, mostly collected by Catherine the Great at the expense of her citizens. It was simply amazing imagining the functions that

would have been hosted in this Winter Palace, while at the same
time thinking of the masses of
impoverished Russian citizens in the rest of the country that would never see such splendor in their lives.

From the Gold Room, to the Throne Room, to the main staircase, it was hard to ignore the vast amounts of wealth denied the citizens of this country while the upper elite enjoyed every luxury imaginable. Yet in a very selfish way, after touring the small portion of the entire complex that we could cover in a few hours, I’m very glad that Catherine did so!

After finishing our tour, we had a delicious many-course lunch at a local restaurant, Shtolle, experiencing the wide variety of delicious Russian cuisine that I’m sure we will miss dearly when we return to Ann Arbor. I’m sure that I will be able to give a better summary of the ins and outs of Russian food after our stay in Вытегра, and so I will leave that for another time.

The next part of our day involved sight-seeing many of the 1500 palaces in the city and stopping at cathedrals such as the Church on the Spilled Blood, the site of Alexander II’s assassination pictured on the left.

We then moved to Hare Island to explore the Peter and Paul Fortress, the historic focus of the city. It was amazing to see generations of Russian history represented in such a small area.

The Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral is on the island. This ornate cathedral houses the bodies of all of the Russian czars, including Nicholas II and his entire family, who were murdered after the Bolshevik revolution. This revisiting of my many history classes reminded me of the incredible uniqueness of Russian history, and the fact that you can always learn more. For instance, I learned that Catherine the Great was handpicked from a small German village to become the Tsarina, but unexpectedly had an unquenchable thirst for power that led to her arrangement of her husband’s murder and her unprecedented ascension to the throne.

In the theme of cultural dichotomies, we visited the adjacent prison that just happened to house prominent political prisoners like Gorky and Trotsky, who were housed in the cell pictured to the left. It was barren and cold, yet was located right next to arguably one of the most sacred places in the Tsarist era. Surely as our trip goes on – and especially when we experience rural life in Vytegra - these dichotomies will become more evident and more numerous.

Exhausted and jetlagged, we headed home for some food and to prepare for an evening exploring the city, but as we navigated the Russian metro system in broken Russian (and Spanish, French and Polish among others of us), I couldn’t help but consider that the St. Petersburg of today is the equivalent of the aristocracy of past centuries, and that we would soon experience the other side of the socioeconomic dichotomy when we travel to Vytegra tomorrow.