Thursday, March 3, 2011

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.

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