Wednesday, March 16, 2011

ASB Video Part 2

Well, I've finally completed the second part of my RUSLAN ASB video series. This part includes our trip to the monastery, the first day in the Vytegra museum and our trip to the music school. Thank you to Sally, Isabella and Vasya for letting me use your cameras while mine was out of commission. <3

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Day 7: Village and Lake Onega

Today we not only got to experience true, Russian provincial life, but also true, Russian weather. Today was dedicated to exploring a nearby village where the poet Klyuev spent a good part of his life. Actually, for the first half of the day we had the bluest and clearest skies of the trip. But after leaving the village, we went to Lake Onega where МЧС, or the emergency rescue center is located. It was snowing when we got to the lake and the skyline was just a gradient of grays, darkened a bit at the horizon. All of us got the real feel for a Russian winter when we walked across the complex to the museum in the middle of a white out. After a tour of the emergency rescue center, we returned to Vytegra to a huge and wonderful meal filled with many happy toasts but also sadness because it was our last night in Vytegra.
In the morning, we all got on a Vytegra bus and headed out into the country. About forty-five minutes later, we stopped seemingly in the middle of nowhere where a woman and a six-year-old girl were standing in the middle of the road. From this point in the road, the only man made thing we could see was a small, wooden shrine with the orthodox cross on top where Klyuev parents are burried. The woman who met us in the road was our guide for our day in the village. She told us she meets all tourists at this point in the road to show them the small shrine before heading down to the tiny center of the village. She showed us the tiny town library before introducing us to a few of the local babushkas. About ten tiny women with colorful headscarves asked us question after question about our lives, but not the usual questions of the school children. They wanted to know things like how big our families are, how we got to their town and how much it cost, how we paid for our trip, how we pay for our education, and how much the government helps out with families. It was interesting to not only hear their questions but also hear their stories of their lives, children and grand children. Most of these women had lived there their whole lives and would never dream of living anywhere else, simply because this village is there home and nowhere else will be. They are all so proud of their tiny village, with no cell service and no plumbing. One of the women has a daughter in Vytegra, the “big town” nearby, and will occasionally go to visit her on holidays, but can’t stay away more than about three days because she misses her village too much. During our stay in the village, we were treated to a ride in a horse and sleigh, whichis the most efficient way to transport people and things around town because the roads are so poorly kept. This horse and sleigh were like none other I have seen before. It was almost the exact same kind of horse and sleigh as depicted in the Heartland art of Georgii Popov. A flat platform only about two feet off the ground, strewn with hay and without sides is attached with long wooden poles to the harness which is arched above the horse’s withers. The rider plus four to six others rode behind a strong, grey horse as it trotted us down a narrow road to a house only about five minutes from the center of town. While on our little excursion, it became clear why this form of transportation is superior to vehicles in the villages – the roads are way too narrow for two cars to pass each other and the roads are only cleared, not plowed. A car could easily get stuck in the deep snow, but our sleigh had no difficulties at all gliding across the top. Another focal point of Popov’s painting Joyful Day is the men chopping wood and the clothes hanging outside to dry. In this village, neighboring every house is a huge stack of wood, covered with snow, which is used to heat the house for the whole winter. During our tea with a few of the babushkas, they told us about how they have a giant central oven in the middle of the house that is attached to all of the four rooms of the house. This central oven isused for heating water for bathing, washing clothes and dishes, heating the house, and cooking. The painting also features a woman hanging her clothes up to dry on a line outside. I remember being surprised at this at first, because I would assume the wet clothes would freeze outside. Even though I didn’t see this in the village, I often saw clothes hung out on the balconies of apartment buildings in Vytegra, and I was still surprised. The poverty is evident in both of the town of Vytegra and especially in the village but nobody seems to be disappointed with their towns, they are all so happy to have visitors.

Lake Onega

Monday, March 7, 2011

Leaving the Motherland to visit the Fatherland to return to the Homeland

We left Vytegra around 9 am for Petersburg. It was a long bus ride, but I was able to get most of my school work done, and then some. Unfortunately, when we reached Petersburg our drivers got lost for a good 2 hours-never trust small-town drivers who have never been to the big city to not get lost. After situating ourselves in the sports complex on Vasilievsky island, we decided to split up to spend our last few hours in Russia. Some went to a well-known Georgian restaurant, others went to the Moscow train station to see its architecture, and Monica and I went to Nevsky Prospekt to do all the book shopping for our group.

Navigating the bookstore was a ton of fun. There was so much great literature and interesting books! I wanted to buy the entire Iconography section of the store. Tolstoy and Pushkin both had entire shelves reserved for their books. So, after buying 4 copies of Ann Karenina, a book by Pushkin, another by Kropotkin, and Peter the First by Alexei Tolstoy, all in Russian. We didn't want to walk all the way back to the hotel from Nevsky Prospekt, so we decided to take the metro trains. Using the metro was an exercise in impromptu Russian, but we were successful and got back to the hotel safely.

After leaving for the airport at 3:30 am to catch a 6am flight to Frankfurt, we had a layover of six hours before our flight to Detroit-which we used to explore scenic downtown Frankfurt-am-Main. Having lived in Germany, I was extremely excited to return. Strolling down the Main riverbank, early Sunday morning in Frankfurt is an extremely peaceful and relaxing experience, just what we needed after 8 action-packed days in Russia. Finally, it was time to return to the airport and to leave for Detroit. The flight returning home was very pleasant, especially as the Lufthansa stewardesses were very interested in Americans that were learning Russian and (in my case) knew some German.

While in Vytegra, the Music School invited us to a private show and the youth folk ensemble taught us a favorite children's game. The game is fanty, known to the English-speaking world as Forfeits. The children go around in circles, holding hands, singing a song about a beatiful young deer who sits in the center. As they go around, one by one they place a piece of jewely or any kind of found object in the deer's box. Next, the deer picks out each object at random, asking, "Chto delat' etomu fantu?" / "what to do for this forfeit?"

Russian Fant comes from the German Pfand 'pledge, security,' which, unsurprisingly, is the word Germans use for this game. In terms of Russian, though, fant is still a nonce word; it isn't used outside of this game. (Obviously you can use it outside of this game, but then it is kind of like saying Go fish! in English when, for example, you don't know the answer to a given question.)

Andrew and Will were lucky enough to have had their turns.
Go play with your friends! Happy Fanting!

(the music school building)

(part of the concert that preceded the children's folk song & dance; note the huge bass balalaika!)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Highlights from the Trip

(Allow me to preface this post by stating that 20-something-hours of wakeful traveling may have gotten the best of me. While it is great to be back in [still snowy] Ann Arbor, I insist it is still better to reflect on the trip and internalize the feelings that will last in us even as every tiny detail seeks recluse from our recollections.)

Last Thursday morning, our well-clad group headed out of Vytegra and deeper into the heartland. The reason for our journey was a certain poet by the name of Nikolai Klyuev; his birthplace is none other than the unannounced village of Makachevo. Klyuev's home, large by the standards of its time and place, now acts as the cultural center for the villagers. (I think we determined that the baby blue exterior was not the original color of the home.)

The village library boasts over 220 registered users (an impressive percentage of the total population of 380). Although it is small and cozy, the library indeed offers a wide variety of works. Much to my surprise, Sergei found a publication featuring an essay by one of the University of Michigan's own professors: Omry Ronen in the 2011/1 edition of Petersburg's literary monthly, "Zvezda." It was great to see something familiar and recent in a place that was as of yet unknown to me.

But we soon grew to know Makachevo in its details. The earliest date of the village's mention comes from 1654 merchant records; in the early 20th century, it held 6000 average inhabitants. In the following decades, though, over four hundred villages perished indefinitely due to war. Today, a cluster of only nine remain home to a total of 380 persons. Tan clay, birch-lumber, and roof-tiles provide for the village's main industry. Among the farm homes and wooden fences, there are two stores, one post office, a school, a childrens' playground, and an out-of-place apartment complex. Since the nearest church is 10km away, people often view religious services on television broadcast--virtually every household has a TV, and some a computer as well. Consider this against the lack of running water or plumbing systems! The town is not modernly sustainable--and as we are told, "young people almost never stay." The statistics speak for themselves: there are only nine children in school, and only across grades 1-3; there will be only three children starting grade 1 in the coming school year. Young adults most often move to Vytegra or Vologda, of course.

Yet this is not to determine a sketch of a surrendering village. Makachevo is visibly lasting. The women to whom we spoke--the local babushkas and future babushkas (and those future babushkas of even farther-off babushkas…)--expressed an enduring devotion to their Makachevo. A voice from our curious group asked what a favorite part of life in this village was: "Bce!" answered an aged woman in a fast breath. Many of the older residents visit their relocated children/grandchildren and, while doing so, swear to grow homesick for Makachevo by their first or second night away!

Based on our afternoon stay alone, I easily and eagerly trust this sentiment. It is an incredible place to be; it offers a coveted quietude. The frost covering the hay and the snow along the wood deposit nature across the congruous cabins. During our visit to Babushka Tania's, the warmth of her hospitality and of her stove (equally tangible), emitted a naturally contagious feeling of at-home-ness. It didn't hurt that the tea and food--like the atmosphere--were absolutely worth holding onto forever.

This trip has again and again been occasioning realizations about Russia and about ourselves. Andrew and I were discussing it over a lunch a few days ago--mainly, a sort of existential bafflement that underscores each moment of the trip. First, we zoom out of bodies and briefly imagine ourselves as points on a map; next, we invite in the hows, the whats, the whys for questioning (rather, they all come without explicit invitation and startle us); finally, we find no answers. Spring break in provincial Russia challenges the popular search for recognizable meaning in all that we do. Case and point: there is no rhyme or reason to how we all found ourselves on a spontaneous horse-and-sleigh ride through the village. But we sure did and we enjoyed it!

On the drive home from the airport earlier today, popular consensus suggested the visit to Makachevo as one of the best moments of the trip :)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Vytegra Day 5: Makachyevo, and МЧС

Yesterday we left Vytegra for Makachyevo, the village in which Klyuev's parents are buried and a shrine is dedicated to them, and by extension Klyuev himself. After the shrine, we met the villagers of Makachyevo, who recited for us some of Klyuev's poetry, and then engaged us in a Q & A session. Leaving Makachyevo, we visited the Department of Emergencies (МЧС) station on Lake Onega, where we experienced the full of fury of the Russian North with the lake effect and snowstorms streaming off of the second largest freshwater lake in Europe.

When we arrived at the shrine outside of Makachyevo, Tamara Pavlovna and Alina Vladimirovna gave us a rendition of the history of the site, how it was an old cemetery containing Nikolai Klyuev's parents, how the chapel that was residing next to it was blown up by the Young Pioneers in the 1960s ,and the stones of the Church's rubble were used to create an large sign on a nearby hilltop saying “Lenin”. Having spent much of my time interviewing Russians about the Orthodox Church in Russia, I was more saddened than surprised to witness this desecration with mine own eyes. The villagers in Makachyevo gave a similarly soviet-influenced story of the state of religion in their village, how there was no church for the 380 villagers, that the nearest house of worship was Vytegra, km away. They mentioned how a church-television channel was very popular in he village-those that are unable to participate in the services because of distance or illness can watch on television the divine liturgy. Going to Miki we finally experienced the famous stereotype of Russia: that it is a barren winter landscape of bitter cold and strong winds. Trying to walk from the school to the station museum was an exercise in stoicism as Onegan winds tried to cut us to pieces. To end our tour of the facility, the МЧС showed us their impressive display of emergency rescue vehicle hardware. They had everything from snowmobiles to airfoils to enormous trucks and even small military-grade patrol craft. I couldn't help but think that this tour of government property would not have been possible for Americans under the Soviet Union or the Russian early years.

Makachyevo had some astonishing contrasts. The village was extremely poor, there was no running water, out houses were the norm, and 100 rubles bought almost a kilo of candy. At the same time, the villagers told us how all of them have televisions, satellite dishes, and most had computers with modem internet connections. The village was proud of the collective farm that remains the largest employer in the village with 18 employees, While the village looks to have walked strait out the 19th and even 18th Century, the television present for teat time was giving the latest details about Libya's ongoing civil strife and how NASA had lost the surface-to-space missile, Glory. It is very interesting the Russians concentrate their resources into, allowing sophisticated technology like satellite dishes to exist along side a one-horse open sleigh (which we did have a ride on, and we did in fact sing Jingle Bells). These contrasts show how the poor infrastructure that was developed under the Soviet Union and 1990s and 2000s Russia has not kept people from striving for the the latest modern advancements in technology.

Day 6: Vocational school, Submarine Museum, Craft Museum, Klyuev Museum, Ice Skating

We started off our day attending a meeting with a few students from the vocational school, which specializes in forestry work. We heard a very different story from them because many will not go to university and are practically forced to stay in Vytegra. The student who led the discussion, Danilla, had huge aspirations to move to New York after graduation. I think every other question he asked about the climate, size, and people of New York. Otherwise, the student’s questions were the same as those of the other schools – how school works in the United States, popular movies, and popular music. Next we stopped by the Submarine Museum. Vytegra is on the Baltic waterway canal and a submarine from the 1970s, which was never used in battle, was moved to Vytegra because it used to be part of the Lake Onega Fleet. After another hearty lunch, we walked to the top of the bell tower and got a great overview of the town before heading over to the Craft Museum where traditional Vologda lace is made. Lastly before dinner, we stopped by the museum of the famous poet Klyuev. We learned a lot about this poet in class, so what the lecturer told us was a bit of a review, but nonetheless, it was nice to see his original photos, books, and documents. We rested and ate dinner before four girls from the local school came to the hotel to ask us to go ice-skating with them. Unfortunately our night with them was cut a little short because we had to part at eleven, because there is a curfew for those under sixteen and they had to rush to get home.

During the tour of the submarine museum, the tour guide, a former worker on an atomic submarine, showed us two deep-sea diving suits from the 1970s. He told us that deep-sea divers actually use many of the exact same suits from the 1970s and at least use the same design. I was shocked that they hadn’t updated the design in such a long time, especially because deep-sea diving is such a dangerous thing to do. It’s so important to have a stable supply of oxygen and it’s so surprising to me that they wouldn’t update something so life threatening. Like we learned in class, those who live in the Russian Heartland often get stuck in their old ways and don’t see any reason or have any motivation to change things from the past. This reflects the aspect of timelessness that came up in many, if not almost every, short story that we read in class.

Our second to last night in Vytegra was probably one of my favorites. Right after dinner, four high school girls came to the hotel and begged us to go ice-skating with them. Of course, we obliged and they took us to the frozen over basketball rink across the river. They all ushered us inside this small hut where we could rent skates for fifty rubles. We all gave the woman in charge a fifty-ruble note, but because we were “the Americans” she refused to take our money and let us skate for free. It was clear that this rink was the place to be, if you’re going to be out on a Thursday night in Vytegra. Half the people on the ice didn’t even have skates on. There was the classic group of six teenaged boys in the middle, smoking and trying to look cool as they talked to each other about the girls who skated around them. More girls joined us on the ice later and we ended up just standing in a circle in the corning taking pictures of each other and talking about movies and music in a broken mixture of Russian and English. Actually, most of the conversation consisted of just someone in the circle saying the name of a movie, singer, or actor who they liked and everyone else commenting either “Да, мне нравится...” or “Yes, I love …” The ultimate goal of the evening was just finding similarities between us. All of us liked Lady Gaga, Johnny Depp, and Top Model. We were “kicked” off the ice at ten o’clock and we asked the girls to show us a store where we could go to buy some last minute souvenirs and candies. A group of us practically slid all the way to the other side of town to the “good store” and along the way, I am happy to say that no Americans fell, but three Russian girls fell. That’s a first. We laughed all the way back to the hotel trying to use our broken English and Russian to communicate, and failed utterly, but had a good time nonetheless. I know I was ambivalent about this before leaving, but after this evening, it is clear to me that a language barrier is not something that can keep you from having a good time with interesting people.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Vytegra Day 4: Sretinsky Cathedral, Submarine B-440, and Ice skating

Yesterday was an action-packed day. I started the day off by going to Sretinsky (Candlemas or The Presentation of Christ in the Temple) Cathedral originally to speak with Fr. Matthew, but because he was sick I spoke with Reader Michael. After the interview we visited the Soviet/Russian submarine B-440, which was turned into a museum in Vytegra after its retirement in 2005, the lace store, which produces by hand the most beautiful lace I have ever seen, and then the Klyuev museum. To round off the day, we saw off the Vologdans and went ice skating with the Integrands.

It was interesting to discover the differences between the situation of the Church in Vytegra (according to Reader Michael) and the situation of the Church at Svirsky Monastery (according to the monks). While almost everyone in Vytegra calls themselves Orthodox, very few actually attended the services. On any given Sunday, 10-15 people show up and on holidays such as Christmas or Easter, only 40-50. Being an Orthodox Christian in America, where Christmas and Easter services are usually attended by the majority of people who call themselves Orthodox, I was shocked that so few people actually attended church. The submarine was of special interest to me, as I had spent most of my volunteering time at the museum translating its diving protocols and components. Having seen a captured WWII German submarine in Chicago, B-440 was very large and comfortable. Having spent a large amount of time trying to find the English equivalent of “гидро-акустика» «SONAR” at the museum, I took over translation from Sergei on what exactly it is and how it works. Our excursion to the lace shop impressed me immensely on the care and precision that is put into each piece of Vologda-style lace. Hand-made, it is extremely time consuming (our guide said it took 4-500 man hours to create a table cloth). I noticed that the only boys even in the same building as the lace shop were those on the Ruslan ASB trip. I guess that lace making is seen as women's work here.

The stereotype of everyone in the provinces identifying themselves as Orthodox, but never practicing their faith was confirmed for me. The financial lists from the Church back in the 1990s only served for me as additional proof that the vast majority of people see the Church as a positive institution and consider themselves to be members, but are not actively involved. The emphasis of tradition that is true to any heartland was shown to me through the continuance of hand-made lace through venerable techniques. While the Vologdans broke down many stereotypes about the provinces that I had confirmed were true, yesterday only strengthened the provincial stereotypes of honoring tradition and passive support for religion.

Vytegra surprised me in many ways, but it was the little differences between my life in America and life in Vytegra that struck me the most. While the Vytegrans have satellite dishes, modern cars, and all the women dress extremely well in fashions any Parisian, Berliner, or New Yorker would be proud of, the Vytegran skyline of grey brick apartment buildings, off-white stores, private houses in disrepair and the Sretinsky Cathedral with its peeling paint seemed to have dropped out of the late Soviet Union. The separation between public and private space is impressive, the same person who had a cold professional demeanor while speaking with us on the museum tour was an open book of information once we started our volunteer work. The police also made their presence known, with regular car patrols and a public presence on the main roads, something both assuring and disconcerting for a Detroiter used to rarely seeing police at all. Perhaps the greatest difference was the lack of active support for the Church in Vytegra. In America, if you say you belong to a certain denomination or faith, it is understood that you support it financially and probably go to services at least on holy days. Here in Vytegra, everyone I met calls themselves Orthodox, but from my interviews and what I have seen only a handful participate. Vytegra has changed my understanding of the Russian heartland, highlighting the minor differences that flavor life, and confirming the expectations that my pre-trip research had given me on the religious activity in post-communist Russia.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

ASB Video, Part 1

Well, it's been a long time coming, but I've finally finished editing and putting together the footage I captured on the way to Russia and in St. Petersburg. My goal is to make an informal, personal documentary of the ASB trip. Here's the introduction, flight and first day:
NOTE: Most names used here are (per request) pseudonyms and Russian nicknames, not real names.

Vytegra Day 3: Research and Vologda

On Wednesday we split off into small groups immediately after breakfast to our various work sites. For my research project, I went off to the museum to take a look at the archives, lists, and photographs that the museum staff had prepared for me. Later in the day we met with 5 students from the University of Vologda, who drove 7 hours to Vytegra to meet us (the time of journeys here in Russia are extremely long not just because of the distances involved, but because the average speed of most vehicles on the iced-over roads here in Russia is only 40-55 mph).

When I reached the museum, I was impressed with the large amount of documents that the staff had in store for me. I spent most of an hour translating for myself a soviet essay on vytegran iconography from the 1970s. It was tough going as I don't know that much Russian theological or artistic vocabulary. They had the old Vytegra Sredinsky Cathedral donation lists, which gave me a wealth of information on the financial status of people in the provinces, and how finanicially supportive they are of the Church. For most people, it seems that most people gave between 15 and 50 rubles a year, or in terms of the contemporary exchange rate, the equivalent of between 3 ½ and 12 cents. Interestingly though, there were several donations of 5,000 rubles and one for 6,400 rubles. Some people apparently had serious amounts of cash available to spend on a church whose average donation was 19.4 rubles in the 1990s, a time of national financial trouble. Meeting the university students from Vologda was an eye opening experience in itself. Here were students exactly our age, studying english. It was like meeting our Russian doppelgangers. I had enough Russian and they had enough English that communication was trying, but fun exchange. The biggest surprise that I had from that encounter was that we were expected to know all about poetry and write poetry ourselves. The Russians seemed similarly surprised that there actually are Americans (like myself) who willingly enter the military. The Russian military's reputation must be even worse than I thought it was.

The Vologdans completely changed my perceptions of Russians. In our conversations, they were very open with us, and willingly talked about anything and everything, even what russian slang we needed to know, some of it vulgar. Their politics were very progressive as well, stating that they opposed the Russian government's refusal to permit gay pride parades in Moscow. They tore down the stereotypes that I had previously seen in Vytegra, of the provinces being staunchly conservative and reserved with foreigners. They also ended my perceptions of Russians as being very quiet and introverted people. In sizable numbers, Russians are actually far noisier and rowdier than I could see an American be.

Our conversations with the university students from Vologda reflected their own interests, which were more literary and international than those of the primary and secondary education students in Vytegra. The subject of the best Russian prose and poetry writer came up (common consensus was Tolstoy and Pushkin respectively, but Chekhov had a strong following) as well as American and Russian security concerns (we said that Iran and North Kora were dangerous for their interest in nuclear weapons, the Russians said they weren't worried about Iran but were always concerned with Chechnya, very odd for a region that was supposed to have been won by the Russian Army in 2000 and pacified by 2009). The Vologdans were very interested in America's image of Russia, and what individual Americans knew of Russia. Their questions about violence in Americans schools, how higher education and scholarships work in America and what jobs Americans are interested in doing seems to me that international (or maybe just Russian) media portrays America as a nation in a negative, violent and economically-hurting light. Still, the Vologdans curiosity told me that they questioned what they had heard about America and genuinly wanted to learn the truth.

Day 5: School Number 1

Our day at Vytegra School Number One was vastly different from that of the previous day. First of all, only four of us went to the school, Clark, Katie, Kaitlin, and myself. We arrived and were brought into a small classroom where elementary school children presented with a cultural song and dance performance by similar to the one the night before. Next, one of the older elementary school children, in full traditional clothing, came up to the table in the back where we were sitting and presented us with a large loaf of bread and a basket of salt for us to munch on during the presentations. After the administration told us about the school, we were broken up into two groups, so Clark and I went into a neighboring classroom of third and fourth graders where we were presented with a performance, in English, of the play “The Turnip.” Next we had a little question answer session before they all ran up to Clark and me presenting us with candy and papers for us to sign our autographs. Next we had a “round table” meeting with the high school students in which we were able to ask each other questions about high school and college life in our respective countries. In the evening, we met a few of the same people at the town’s learning and community service center. After a few interesting icebreakers, we talked about how people serve their respective communities. For dinner, we met us with six college students from the nearby city of Vologda and had open discussions in groups of four about anything we wanted. Even at the college level, many of the students were struggling with English, although not as much as the high school students.

After having observed two Vytegra schools, I can conclude that they are very similar to those in the United States. School Number Two, built as an all girls school before the Soviet regime, has gorgeous high ceilings and full length mirrors everywhere, but still feels like a school because the student’s posters cover many of the walls. School Number One was a bit more disappointing. Not only did it have ugly Soviet architecture, but it also smelled horrible and was very cold. The students are just like American students, especially the younger ones. They easily get distracted and are often scolded for whispering to each other while the teachers are talking. During our question and answer session with the younger children, they asked us what are favorite foods are. I replied chocolate and I expected the children to say something along the same lines when I asked them. But to my surprise, many of the elementary aged children replied that cabbage was their favorite food. Others said meat or eggs but not one said candy, chocolate, or any other kind of junk or dessert food like American children often say. I wonder if these children are often allowed to have sweets, and if so, if it is considered some kind of expensive luxury for them. The tastes of children is very different in the United States and Russia and it is clear that food that is filling is valued more to children in Russia than it is in the United States. Nonetheless, Russian school children eat very well. As guests, we were served a three-course meal, but the students also receive soup, a main course, pirozhki, and tea all on real dishes.

During the round table discussion, we talked about the student’s future plans after graduation. Most want to go to university, but that is not saying most students their age want to go to university. From my understanding, when they are in either eighth or ninth grade, all students are required to take a test determining what school they will attend for high school. If they do well, they can continue their studies at either School Number One or Two, whichever they have been attending their whole lives. However, if they do poorly, they must attend the vocational school for four years. Many of those who plan on attending university, plan on going to school in Vologda, although I met a few who want to go to either Moscow or Saint Petersburg, but that is uncommon. Their aspirations range anywhere from being a doctor to a translator. I was surprised to hear that many wanted to be English-Russian translators because that is not a job that many people aspire to in the United States, but I’m sure in Russia, where not many people speak English, it is a very well paying job. We also asked a few of the students if they plan on coming back to Vytegra after graduating from university. I was surprised at how many said they plan on getting a job and having a family in Vytegra and that they wouldn’t think of going anywhere else. However, I was happy to hear from some with huge goals in life and said they would love to go to Saint Petersburg, Moscow, or even England or New York. I would like to find out how the parents of these students feel about their children wanting to go so far away. I know in many small towns in the United States, families want the children to stay close by to help with a farm, store, or just to keep an eye on them. I can only hope that we inspired these students to strive to do well in their university of choice and follow their dreams to travel to wherever they choose.

Video: The Drive from Petersburg to Vytegra

The contradictory elements of St. Petersburg were forgotten on the drive to Vytegra. As compared to America, the drive revealed a more swift and abrupt shift from the urban sprawl to rural setting. The scenery was homogenous--there were fields of snow and forests of white with occasional, modest houses in between. After leaving the urban sprawl, we drove on one long, straight road--it looked as if there were nothing around for miles. In a sense, it reminded me of America’s West. Driving endlessly through Arizona’s desert highway draws parallel to yesterday’s snow-bordered linear route. We drove past a most pleasant park, where scattered persons were seen enjoying their stroll through the nature. I remember being so surprised at seeing a bus stop much further down the road with a handful of people at/ nearby it! The landscape was so dominant that the sight of people came as an sudden reminder of the Heartland's human element.

Aleksandro-Svirsky Monastery Choir

During the 12 hour drive to Vytegra, our group stopped for a visit to the Aleksander-Svirsky Monastery. We had the great honor and pleasure of being the private guests of their male choir. It may have been the coldest I've felt all trip, but the experience was warm and welcoming! The harmonious voices of the choir sang softly against the loud silence of the surrounding landscape. A very special visit it was indeed!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Day Four: School Number 2 (Школе № 2)

Like always, we woke up to a warm and wonderful breakfast at the hotel before we headed out to Vytegra School Number Two. Almost immediately upon arrival, we were designated guides to show us to various classrooms across the rather large school where we gave presentations about American culture or were broken up into small conversation groups. We were also presented with a three-course meal at the school during which we were surrounded with elementary school aged children wanting to get our autographs. I can’t even begin to imagine how many times I signed my name during that half hour. A few people invited some of the Russian students, including the four guides, to come to the hotel after classes. We all met in the hotel café for a wonderful hour or so of English and Russian conversation over tea and cookies. In the evening, the town’s music school presented us with an amazing musical presentation from both the adult group and the children’s choir. The five-person adult group consisted of an accordion, a singer, and three different sizes of Balalaikas, the biggest reaching to the floor and propped up with an in-pen like a cello. The music reminded me of Doctor Zhivago and I know when I return to the US that is the first movie I’m going to watch. The children’s group, of about eight girls in traditional Russian dress, sang Russian folksongs and taught us Russian children’s games. A few of these children also attended the school we visited earlier that day, and were happy to see us again.

At School Number Two, I went to two classes, a fifth grade and a fourth grade class, both taught by the same teacher. I’m so glad that Sergei, our assistant and translator accompanied us because the three of us, myself, Ian, and Isabelle, had huge difficulties conveying our presentations to the children. The first class we went to was the fifth grade class. We were all unaware of their English proficiency level, but all assumed they were at much higher than they were. We all did our presentations mostly in English and Isabelle and I tried to insert a few Russian words as well to help convey our message. I have no idea how much they understood, but I’m pretty sure it was less than fifteen percent, maybe even less than ten. We talked to the teacher a bit in English and she even had a few grammar mistakes, not to mention her heavy Russian accent. In between the two classes we went to, Sergei informed us that we were speaking way too fast and using way too many big words, so for our next class, fourth grade, we made a point to speak in as much Russian as possible, saying each sentence twice, once in English and once in Russian.

During the hour or so of small group conversation, Isabelle and I talked to three girls in the tenth grade (out of eleven) who want to pursue English classes at the university level. Isabelle and I started our conversations in English but it was clear after only a few sentences that their English was not even close to being proficient enough to understand, and answer, such simple phrases as “How old are you?” Luckily Isabelle and I both have a bit of Russian under our belt and were able to converse with them mostly in Russian, which was a bit disappointing, considering the purpose of our visit was to improve their English. But Isabelle and I were able to improve our Russian, so at least a couple of us were able to improve our language-speaking skills. The conversation would have been nearly nonexistent if it weren't for the English-Russian dictionary I brought with me. Regardless of their English proficiency, they were all very eager to learn about us and learn new words. I hope that if anything, I at least was able to inspire them to continue studying English in the future.

Towards the end of the day, the school’s headmaster gave us a presentation about the school in which she talked about the awards it had won and the achievements of the students. Like many of the characters of the short stories we discussed in class, the headmaster and the teachers of this school are extremely proud of their work. During the presentation I was surprised to learn that students attended English classes anywhere from once to three times a week, depending on their grade. The school starts teaching English in the second grade, and to be able to teach all 600 students with only four teachers, they can only offer the students a limited number of classes a week. To me, it seems like it would be more efficient to start teaching students English later in their lives, more towards their teenaged years, and teach them more times a week. I started taking French in ninth grade, but five days a week, and by twelfth grade, my French was much more proficient than their Russian, after ten years of classes.

Day Three: Museum Work

This morning we started our day with a wonderful breakfast at the hotel before heading off to the town administration offices to meet with the town mayor and a city representative. We quickly discussed the town’s history, economy, and schools before walking across the river, towards the town museum, only a ten-minute walk away. Upon arriving, we were warmly greeted by the hotel staff before getting a very thorough guided tour of the museum – five or six rooms about the local environment, culture, and history. Then we were given a hardy snack of belinis, biscuits, tea, and candy before setting to work.

My job for the afternoon was to photograph old Russian coins. I worked with Tatiana and a huge drawer of coins dating back from 1710 and covering about a century and a half. I started off photographing Denga, a coin no longer in use but worth about half a ruble. The museum has a specimen of Dengas from almost every year between 1707 and the mid 1850s. I photographed both sides of over one hundred Dengas, next to their labels, while Tatiana catalogued them by hand on a sheet of printer paper. I got the impression that the museum is trying to be more technologically inclined, hence why we were there to help digitize their archives, so I was very surprised to see Tatiana cataloguing by hand rather than typing it on a computer.

After a short break for lunch, I returned to the small desk where I joined Tatiana and continued to photograph the coins. As the years progressed, I noticed how not only did the design of the coins change depending on the Tsar, but also the quality of the coin and the amount of detail increased considerably throughout the years due to the improved technology. The first coin, from 1707, was established under Tsar Peter I and it was very hard to make out the design. The next coin in their collection is from 1730 and had the Russian symbol, the two-headed eagle on the back, but it is hardly recognizable due to years of use and rubbing down. By 1749, the eagle is not only recognizable, but also displays detail in individual feathers on its wings. 1767 is the first coin they have with the emblem of Catherine the Great represented by a large, script E with a crown above it. This year, the Denga changed the front of the coin from the usual “ДЕНГА” to a horse and rider. In 1797 the coin changed for the last time to have a cursive П with a royal crown for Emperor Paul on it on one side and “1 ДЕНГA” written on the other. Next I worked with one, two, and five Kopeck coins from as early as 1710 that grew in size as they grew in value. The last coin I worked with, which must be rare since the museum only had four of them, was the Polushka, worth about a quarter of a ruble, were introduced in 1700 by Peter the Great and were used until 1917.

The museum, although rather small, has a plethora of information about all aspects of life in and around Vytegra. First we learned about Russian holiday of Maclentsya through a cultural presentation by one of the people who works at the museum. Then we toured the two rooms with displays of many animals that live in and around Vytegra – swans, owls, a boar, a moose, and a Russian wolverine, just to name a few. We also learned about the rocks and kinds of stone found around the area, including limestone, which is prevelent in my hometown of Austin. Many houses, including my own, is made out of limestone and it was interesting to see that Vytegra and Austin, although having very differing landscapes, have soemthing in common. The three rooms about the history of Vytegra were my personal favorites. Like we learned in class, the citizens of provincial Russia are very proud of their culture and history, and it showed in the history displays. The exhibit was in chronological order, so we stared with learning about the role of the church and religion in the area, the fashion, the money, the culture, and the economy of the time. Next was the soviet era where we reviewed from what we learned in class about how the Nazis never were able to reach Vytegra, but did reach a nearby town in the same province.

From the extremely detailed displays in the museum and the welcoming women who work there, it is obvious that the people from Vytegra are very proud of their history and culture. For such a small town, Vytegra has four museums, which is more that most American cities of that size have. It is reassuring to see that the people of Vytegra put so much effort into preserving their culture and history and I can only hope that Americans can strive for the same.

Day Two: Saint Petersburg to Vytegra

Today, Sunday, we traveled from St. Petersburg to Vytegra with a stop at the Alexander Svirsky Monastery. Most of the day was spent on a Soviet-era bus, or in below zero temperatures. The whole journey started at about 9:30 am, and ended about twelve hours later, but the trip included lunch at a café near the monastery and a tour of the churches. My favorite part of the day was the quartet of four monks who sang traditional Russian choir tunes with the most perfect pitch I have ever heard.

On the trip from St. Petersburg to Vytegra, the thing that stood out to me the most was the bus itself. Our ride was a Soviet-Era bus, probably from the seventies, painted pale blue and adorned with hot pink curtains that covered half of the window. Two men took turns driving the bus and one of the men’s seven-year-old son joined us on the trip as well. Upon boarding the bus, I chose a seat a little less than half way back. Less than an hour into the ride, I had to move, along with Katie, sitting in front of me, because our feet felt like they had been placed into an oven, but in reality, there was just a heater under my seat. No one else felt that way; in fact, the rest of the bus was still wrapped up in their winter coats. Katie and I moved all of our stuff into the two rows at the back of the bus, and of course we had to sit on the right side because extra luggage was piled up on the left side of the last row and the seat in front of that was broken, completely fallen through. Needless to say, the back of the bus was much colder, a pile of snow stayed at Katie’s feet the entire ride, from where the last group of people had entered the bus from the door in the back. Katie also had to struggle with a large pipe that stuck out into the last row. At about noon, we stopped at a small rest station along the road where two other tourist busses were stopped at the same time. One was a modern, sleek, white bus, not more than six years old. The other was white as well, and not more than fifteen years old. Our bus clearly stood out from the rest as it gave off, what I would call, the impression of a “hippy van.” Amazingly enough, this bus was able to make it to Vytegra without a hitch, unlike last year, when the group supposedly had a “real bus”, but that one broke down. The bus, which came from Vytegra, clearly shows the lack of money of the locals of Vytegra. This is probably the best van this driver could afford, and driving this bus is probably his living. Where as the other buses in the rest stop parking lot were clearly from other, wealthier places, perhaps St. Petersburg or Moscow, where money for a new bus is easily at a driver’s disposal.

The Alexander Svirsky Monastery has played a huge role in the history of the Russian Orthodox religion. As the holiest place in Russia and the only place the trinity has appeared outside of the Holy Land, the monastery first served as a monastery and transfiguration center for a couple hundred years until Catherine the Great secularized it, even though it remained as a transformation center and local seminary. After the Russian Revolution, all of the brethren were either killed or exiled and many relics were destroyed. In 1953, the monastery served as an asylum until restoration began in the 1970s and it was reverted back to its original purpose, a monastery. The monastery is funded completely from personal donations and is not at all in poor condition. This shows the rediscovery of religion from the Russian people post Soviet rule and their desire to return to their former traditions.

Vytegra Day 2: School No. 2

Yesterday we went to School No. 2 where we met the Russian schoolchildren and give our presentations on America. After a long day at school we met with some of the Russian students in the cafe at our hotel. To finish the day we watched a concert put on for us by the musical school.

The trip to School No. 2 has to be my favorite activity for the day. Having lived in Germany, I have experienced both American and German classrooms, which helped me see the differences that the schools in Russia have with those of America and Germany. School No. 2 was built in the late 1800s, and reflects the architecture of the time. Even the principal looks as if she just walked out of 19th Century Russia. The students were very friendly, and we had good Q & A sessions with them. Everyone wanted to meet us, and we spent a lot of time just signing autographs and giving out our email dresses whenever we entered the hallways. The female students seemed especially keen on getting Clark, Andrew, Ian, and my contact information. While I met a lot of people, I didn't get to know in much depth anyone except for the 4 students that I was paired off with for the small group sessions. When I spoke with the Russian students later on at the cafe, I became better acquainted with several more.

Some of the students said that Vytegra was boring and that they wanted to move to Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Vologda to escape, many students said that they would be willing to return to Vytegra after graduation but could not, because there were no job opportunities. This migration to the cities and exit from hometowns is very familiar to me, as I do not expect to return to Detroit or even stay in Michigan after graduation, because there are too few jobs available in my concentration. Even though Detroit is still a major city, it seems to share many characteristics of the Russian provinces, of being in economic decline and experiencing a “brain drain” of university graduates.

After two days in Vytegra, I've noticed quite a few differences between Vytegra and St. Petersburg. While both Petersburg and Vytegra are known for shipbuilding, Petersburg has a more diversified economy and tourism to boot. Vytegra is suffering from an economic slump, which can be seen in the condition of the local buildings and the financial condition of the Vytegra museum. On an individual level, Petersburgers are much more loud and outgoing in public than Vytegrans, and are much more willing to speak with strangers on the street. So far, the stereotypes of provincial Russia that we learned in class are holding up, but we have a few more days to test them.

Day One: Saint Petersburg

Our first day in Russia was spent in the northern capital of St. Petersburg. We first visited the Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace, had lunch at Shtolle, a restaurant with a specialty of traditional Russian pies, visited Peter and Paul Fortress, then were given a few hours of free time to explore the center of the city along Nevski Prospect.

One only needs to walk along the river in St. Petersburg to notice a few of the 1,500 palaces that make up what natives refer to as the “city of museums,” according to our tour guide, Yulia. The Winter Palace is the grandest of them all and houses only a part of Catherine the Great’s massive art collection. The Baroque style of architecture reveals the Czar’s massive amount of wealth that was used to hire foreign architects and collect enough art to cover fourteen miles of corridors. Catherine expressed her power with her money and her art collection. She accumulated about 300 pieces a day for thirty-four years and had to expand the Winter Palace to include an additional four more buildings to use as “storage” for all of her art. However these storage buildings are unlike any other. They are decorated just as extravagantly as the Winter Palace and show off the royalty’s Imperial power over the country.

The town of St. Petersburg was started on Peter-and-Paul Island with a church and a fortress. The architecture on this island is very contradictory to that of the island that houses the Winter Palace. As opposed to the extravagant rooms, emphasis on detail, and bright colors, the buildings on Peter-and-Paul Island are much more conservative, with an exception of the church, the central focus. The church was instructed to be the tallest point in the city by Peter the Great and remains so to this day. It is unlike any other Russian Orthodox Church with its lack of domed spires, gold leafed ornaments, huge windows, and pastel colors. The fortress on the other hand was painted only in grey scale and the small windows offer little light. Unlike the Winter Palace, no ornaments adorn the rooms, which are very unimpressive with their low, arched ceilings. These differences can be attributed to the time it took from when Peter the Great first decided to build a city in this location to when Catherine the Great decided to make it into an Imperial city and spend all of her money on its extravagance.

Unlike I expected, Saint Petersburg is very different from other Western European cities I have visited. It has the rich history like that of the rest of Europe, but what surprised me the most was the lack of emphasis on the service industry. Russians do not tip, so wait staff has little reason to make their customers happy. After having ordered, we would have to wait sometimes up to ten minutes for the first drink order. The next person’s drink would not arrive at the table until five minutes after that, and the next person would receive their order another five minutes after that and this continued so that in the end, by the time the last person received their order, the first person would have already finished.

The same lack of service goes for the cleanliness of restrooms. Often restrooms had no toilet paper or paper towels and often toilets did not have toilet seats. Also nearly every restroom had a sign to not throw anything, including toilet paper, into the toilet, so if a restroom does offer toilet paper and paper towels, it would have two buckets, one for toilet paper and one for paper towels.

Also the streets, especially the sidewalks, of Saint Petersburg are in horrible conditions in the winter. The sidewalks all have an indefinite number of inches of ice on them, which makes walking extremely difficult. I would have thought that after so many years of treacherous winters, they would have come up with a practical system to keep the sidewalks clear of hazards, but that is not the case. Even so, nearly every Russian woman wears high heel boots around all parts of the city, but often has her arm tightly wrapped around a man’s, presumably their only form of support. I think at least half of us slipped on the ice walking around Saint Petersburg, and I slipped and fell twice. Amazingly, I never saw a Russian even come close to falling.

While in St. Petersburg, I would have done a few things differently. First of all, I would have liked to walk around and explore the center of the city in more depth. This includes further exploring destinations such as Church of our Savior on the Spilled Blood, a gorgeous church of typical Russian architecture, which we walked around many times but never went in to. Also, next time I visit a foreign city, I won’t be as hesitant to ask for directions. My group wondered around the center of the city for almost an hour looking for the metro station, but all of us were too scared to ask for directions, in Russian. Finally we asked a young couple who not only spoke English, but also walked us to the Metro station while talking to us about Russia.

I believe Russians who have grown up with these customs do not even bother to question the lack of services and do not expect the same kinds of services we consider standard in the United States. While roaming the streets of St. Petersburg, I noticed as early as eight in the evening, drunkenness already seemed to abound. In class, we reviewed drunkenness as an aspect of Provincial life, but this is the case in the cities as well, although perhaps to a lesser degree. After eight in the evening, it was hard to walk more than a few steps without seeing an empty bottle of alcohol dropped in the snow.

Church of Spilled Blood, near the center of St. Petersburg.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Vytegra: Day 1

On Monday, having spent the night in Vytegra we went to the local museum. Despite the day being a work holiday, the museum workers were present to give us a tour of the exhibits. After the tour, we had a snack and then got to work assisting the museum with various tasks, mine being translation of a portion of their history of Vytegra booklet. After a long day of museum work, we finally had time to catch up on our reflection essays.

I was impressed by the comprehensive exhibits that the Vytegra museum had, and by the tour through the museum. They had many taxidermy animals including a wolverine, which was of great interest to us for obvious reasons. They also had several exhibits that were of great personal interest and will be valuable to my research project; the medieval Vytegra exhibit with its many icons and religious artifacts, the 1800s Vytegra room with its pictures of the churches in Vytegra and its religious cartoon, and the Soviet exhibit and its many propaganda pieces. The translation work that I did for the museum was of personal interest to me, as it was on the World War II soviet submarine B-440 that is on display in Vytegra. But, this work was also extremely difficult. It took me the whole day to finish translating all the naval terms describing the components of the submarine and its diving protocols. We still are unsure what exactly the English equivalent is to “hydro acoustics”, though we think it might be SONAR.

The Vytegra museum gave us a great rendition of the local history, and how the local Vytegrans view their own history. They are very proud of how the German offensive was stopped in the region, of how Vytegra gave Russia 5 admirals, how the graduating class of 1941 was sent to the front, and none returned, and of the mine-clearing battalions that sustained 3 local losses when they removed everything that the Germans had left behind when they retreated. In a small provincial town like Vytegra the major events of the past have an ongoing role in the lives of contemporary Vytegrans.

The museum devoted as large a portion of its space to the World War II exhibit as it did for the medieval exhibit, I guess this just shows how central the Great Patriotic War (as WWII is called in Russia) is to Vytegra. They had photos of those who died in the minefields laid around Oshta, the southernmost part of the Vytegra district, along with actual unexploded German ordinance, soviet uniforms, and photographs of the soldiers . In this focus on WWII, Vytegra is in no way different from the rest of the former Soviet Union. The USSR suffered 30 million casualties from the war, and I found it amazing that the Germans were able to advance this far into Russia. Oshta is about 400 km east of St. Petersburg, the fact that a Lake Onega flotilla was needed just shows how dire the situation of the USSR was in during Operation Barbarossa in 1941-1942. Learning the Vytegran WWII story helped me find a personal connection with the area, as my family had similar experiences in WWII, with a great uncle of mine being the only survivor out of his Marine artillery battalion on Iwo Jima in the Pacific, and my grandfather being a navy radio operator also serving in the Pacific Theater.

St. Alexander Svirsky and his monastery

On Sunday we left St. Petersburg for Vytegra. I felt some regret when we left St. Petersburg, though all the good memories we had in the last 48 ours kept me occupied for most of the 12 hour trip to Vytegra. On the way, we stopped stopped at the Svirsky Monastery, the holiest site in Russia. I was extremely excited to see the monastery, being an Orthodox Christian.

As a Reader in the Orthodox Church, I was very extremely interested in everything that our tour guide told us. The monastery is sited on the only location outside of the Holy Land where the Trinity manifested itself to a human being (in the form of three angels). The waters at the well that St. Alexander dug are said to have special healing powers, and the sand above his grave likewise. St. Alexander is also known for blessing infertile couples, especially with sons. As part of our tour, we visited the unheated summer church, where the monastic choir chanted for us. The acoustics of the church and professionalism of the singers made the experience unearthly beautiful. We did not know if we were in heaven or on earth. I spoke with the monk on guard at St. Alexander's tomb. He gave me all sorts of information on monastic life in Russia, on the religious revival that has been ongoing since the fall of the Soviet Union, and of the miracles of St. Alexander. When we went to the grave to venerate St. Alexander, he even opened the glass case containing the incorrupt body (the body remains very well preserved, despite St. Alexander dying 478 years ago) to venerate the body. After our discussion, he even presented me with a chotki (prayer beads like a rosary) that he had received from a person who had been to the Holy Land! Sergei, one of the Ruslan leaders, and I were shocked, and very grateful for the monk's generosity.

The monastery appeared to be well kept, with the 30 monks living only on donations. The monks had a beautifully restored monastery, having been destroyed under the Soviet Union , and our tour guide told us how the soviet era mental hospital housed in the monk's dormitories had only been closed down last year. Despite its recent past, the monastery was very quiet and had a meditative atmosphere. Inside the complex I felt at peace, living only in the present, in a state of timelessness. This sense of timelessness has been an ongoing theme that the preparatory class that we had to take for the trip repeatedly emphasized. I could feel this in the Svirsky monastery.

I was very impressed by the size and the recovery of the monastery. With its near physical destruction under the Soviet Union, it is very impressive to see how beautiful the summer church was and how new the active winter church is. It was also noticeable that many of the monks were very young, one looked in his mid-twenties. The only old monk was the one whom I spoke, and he said that he had only been in the monastery for 8 years. It was an interesting contrast-the ancient buildings, location, and St. Alexander versus the newly refurnished church interiors, closed mental hospital, and the young and newly entered monks. This contrast I think speaks greatly of how modern Russia operates, as both an old, traditional nation and a new emerging post-communist society. In the monks' own words, “Russia is a strange country”.

St. Petersburg in all its splendor

It was the best of times, it was the best of times. St. Petersburg has been one adventure after another. Our first morning in Petersburg we visited the Winter Palace and the adjoining Hermitage. With the temperature a steady -8 C and snowing, the Winter Palace was blanketed in snow. The Tsars certainly built to impress, the grand staircase was a dazzling display of wealth, but this paled in comparison to the Golden Room, which lived up to its name and had been used to receive the King of Spain by President Dmitri Medvedev only the day before our tour. The vast amount of art in the Hermitage was staggering, our tour guide told us that if we were to spend 1 minute in front of eve piece of art in the Hermitage collection, we would need 9 years to see all 3 million pieces. The collection includes many originals from artists like Rembrandt, Vincent Van Gogh, Michaelangelo and Monet. The odd thing about the collection was that it held much French, Dutch, and Italian art and next to no Russian, perhaps speaking about the Western tastes of the Tsars of St. Petersburg.

After our Hermitage excursion, we had lunch at one of the Stolle Cafe chain restaurants, which specialize in traditional Russian cuisine. Our meal included kapustiye pirogi (russian savory pastries with cabbage), borscht with plenty of sour cream, pelmeni (russian dumplings similar to ravioli), and a salad consisting of apple shavings and shredded cabbage. Petersburgers seem to be very fond of smoking, especially indoors, something that as an American I'm not used to.

After lunch, we had some free time to wander about in downtown St. Petersburg around the Church on the Spilled Blood, to buy souvenirs or just sight-see. I used this opportunity to speak privately with out tour guide, who was very willing to give her opinions on life in St. Pertersburg, contemporary and in Soviet times, and even what she thought of the Russian Orthodox Church. She gave me plenty of information on the Church on the Spilled Blood, how it had only been completed in 1907 and was closed in 1917, destroyed in WWII, reconstructed by the Soviet government over a period of 40 years, and now a museum.

The next item on our itinerary was the Sts. Peter and Paul fortress, the very heart of Peter I's St. Petersburg. Even though the fortress has never seen combat, it has housedd the Trubetskoye Prison, a maximum securitycomplexx used for the violent or political criminals. We saw the former cells of Russian dissidents like Krapotkin, Alexander Ulyanov (Lenin's Brother), and Lev Trotsky. We saw the cell named “the punishment cell” where inmates who broke the rules of the prison were kept in solitary confinement. Though closed now, Trubetskoye has never had a successful escape attempt.

St. Paul Cathedral is also in Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress, and its spire is said to be the highest point in St. Petersburg, as Peter I commanded it so, a law that is still on the books today. This is perhaps the most unorthodox church I have ever seen belonging to the Orthodox Church. Without the Cyrillic lettering, I would have guessed that we had entered a classic Baroque Cathedral in France or Italy. It has classical frescoes on the ceilings, western-style depictions of Jesus, the Theotokos (Mary, the Mother of God), and the Saints in the iconostas, the wall of icons that separates the altar from the nave and symbolizes how humanity's sins isolate it from God, was unlike anything I have seen anywhere else in the world. The cathedral, though, is the burial place of every Tsar since Peter I.

After all this sightseeing, we were given the late afternoon and evening as free time. My group of Monica and Andrew navigated several stores and a Subway only using Russian. The architecture in downtown Petersburg is remarkably old, being of 18th and 19th century styles, unlike the Stalinist buildings that we saw on the trip from Pulkovo airport on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. The pastel colours of the city center contrasted very nicely with the overcast sky that we had throughout our stay in Petersburg. This was different to the Stalin-era drab grey blockish buildings that make a ring around downtown, but even later buildings built in Petersburg, such as the 1907 Church on the Spilled Blood.

St. Petersburg has been a lot of fun, and if we had stayed longer I'm sure that we would have had even more adventures, but we came for Vytegra. Tommorrow promises to be an interesting day, I'm looking forward to the Svirstroy Monastery that we'll be vising on the way to Vytegra.