Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Past and Present in Provincial Vytegra

After exploring Petersburg and the surrounding countryside, we finally arrived in Vytegra, and spent the day getting a quick introduction to the history and current state of this rural town. It took a while for me to get my bearings, but after a few hours of exploring, the modern-style grid-like city center was easy to navigate. We navigated down the sidewalks to the mayor’s office, where renovation construction and ambitious sports center plans were juxtaposed against other dilapidated features of the town, which I will explain in further detail below. Nonetheless, after meeting with the mayor and the town administration, we headed down the road to the museum.

The museum seemed very well maintained and seemed that it was constructed with much attention paid to every detail. A new museum employee, Olga, took us through the museum’s exhibits, explaining local flora and fauna as well as centuries of local history.
Compared to the previous readings and films I have seen, the city of Vytegra is much more open about their Soviet past than I would have expected. The main street in town is still called Ленинский Проспект, Lenin Prospect.
However, it seems that to a large degree Vytegra considers its Soviet past as just that: a historic context in which their town took its current form. In the museum, equal note was given to the Soviet period, and several representations of Lenin and Soviet "Мать"-esque propaganda posters were on display. I definitely plan on paying attention to the post-Soviet perspective more closely in the following days.

In contrast, many aspects of the town after leaving the museum reminded me that Vytegra – unlike the museum – could not be mistaken as being from anywhere in the United States. Much of the town’s infrastructure is seriously lacking in funding due to a variety of reasons, and such economic hardships were evident as we walked through the town. I was (and am) most impressed by the amount of snow accumulated. In some places the snow has reached a height rivaling my own, and to walk around it looks like they have cut into the snow and formed makeshift ice- and snow-covered sidewalks where they might be located in the few summer months. If we have complained this winter in Ann Arbor about lack of road maintenance, we have nothing to complain about in comparison to Vytegra residents, whose cars have all but disappeared in the buildup of snow on the side of the street. In addition, the large church in town, though appearing as if it were magnificent in its heyday, is allegedly falling into disrepair due to lack of funding and donations.
These developments do make me wonder whether the troubles are due to economic hardships or the priorities of government spending, but it’s likely that it is in fact a mix of the two.

I am told that Vytegra School No. 2 may not have electricity and heating tomorrow, as the government is struggling to afford such “luxuries” in many state-maintained buildings. Perhaps then I can see first-hand the effects of the economy and culture on the Vytegra youth and education in the provinces.

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