Tuesday, May 8, 2012

I recently completed my translation of a chapter from a multivolume work about the town of Vytegra.  The translation process was both challenging and fulfilling.  I had to learn to strike a balance between staying faithful to the original Russian text and making it flow well in English.  I learned a lot about the history of Vytegra from deciphering and analyzing the text, and I gained a greater appreciation for the places I visited during my stay there.
Since the translation is too long to post here, if you would like to read it, you may email me at:
(As soon as it appears on the Vytegra website, I will post the link)
Since the trip, I have had much time to reflect on our journey, which was a life-changing experience for me. There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about Russia. I feel myself being drawn back to Vytegra, and I have made the decision to participate in RUSLAN ASB again next year. I would really like to do a research project on the local healthcare system in the town, especially as it pertains to mental health and attitudes surrounding mental illness in the provinces.

Россия, я скучаю по тебе!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

I managed to snap these pictures in the village of Makachevo, in an elderly couple's home. I couldn't believe it until I had seen it, that people still live like this, like they have for so many generations. In the center of the house stood a giant stove, like the ones I had read about in folktales. The old lady seemed ancient. She was dressed in red, and I felt like I was in the presence of all things authentic and truly Russian. I feel deeply sad that these villages are in terminal decline. There was a little girl following us while we were in Makachevo, and I wondered if she, too would live out her life here, and become an old babushka herself. How much has life changed here? Had the old lady's childhood been much different from that of the little girl? I looked carefully at this old woman's eyes, and wondered what they had seen, and felt so privileged to have seen them.

But there were so many signs of life of Makachevo. It seemed so genuine there, and the people were welcoming, sincere and enthusiastic. I will never forget having a snowball fight with the village boys.
Here is a video of one of the boys reciting some poetry, with a distinctive "backwoods" accent.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Reflecting on our first day in Saint Petersburg

It's hard to believe our stay in Russia is over. It was short in reality, but felt much longer than it was. I don't quite know what to say, other than that I am still processing my feelings on the matter, now that I am home. To give a bit of background, here is my journal from the first day - a day full of great experiences, but also a feeling of being overwhelmed by such a mass of people.

Saint Petersburg was quite an experience. Between the Hermitage and the Peter and Paul Fortress, the city’s impressive imperial history made its might felt. Through a tour of the city, we learned about the architectural transition between the imperial and Soviet eras - how the ornate European castles gave way to concrete, uglier structures. I found myself fascinated by the city - what with gutted Ladas and abandoned buildings on one street of Basil’s Island, and a great load of small luxury good shops in Nevski Prospect. We had a couple interactions with the Petersburgers, and they seemed friendly enough, many of them speaking some English even.

I read the news every morning and often see Russia on the front page - and it’s rarely a happy occurrence. When I read the news this morning and saw that two people had been arrested in an assassination plot to kill Putin, I felt connected to events in some way - at the least more than previous. The happening was also a good lesson in how the world’s people are all very similar in their aspirations for a fair representation in their government. I’m sure that if I lived in Petersburg I would feel a good deal of anger over Putin’s reign that I don’t quite feel as an outsider.

Saint Petersburg was described as a logical place that could drive one insane and as a place cursed. The myriad of people, Russian and foreign tourists alike, moving about like bees in a hive down the straight roads and along the Neva river was dizzying. While I have read very little about Saint Petersburg itself, compared to the provinces, I can see the allure the city held to authors. It is a busy place, full of dichotomy - evidenced by the very reasonably priced bar we visited and the 20,000 ruble cigars I saw at in a shop on Nevski Prospect. The curse that Peter the Great’s first wife placed upon him and his city is thought to be connected to the city’s ecological problems. The floods that killed many Petersburgers long ago have been prevented by the damn - but that created another issue. The curse has yet to relent, it seems, as the water is in bloom; it’s effectively poison due to the level of bacteria in it.

Petersburg is very clearly a project of the empire. Unlike Moscow, the city was planned and is full of straight roads. The city administration has been logically located in the heart of town, where it can take advantage of the organized streets for transportation. Moscow was built from the center out in concentric circles, an organic city to the synthetic nature of Saint Petersburg. The buildings were made in European architectural styles designed by foreigners and overseen by them. This was an effort on the part of Peter the Great to send a message of modernity to other empires. The fortress and sea access of the city is connected to the expansion of the empire as Peter built up the Russian fleet. It was designed to hold off siege and act as the base of a great military. The Hermitage and its art collections were used by Catherine to show the wealth of the Empire. Foreign diplomats would see the best art of their culture in her palace. It was designed for lavish effect and cultural intimidation.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Today was the first day back after our whirlwind trip to Russia, and I never expected to miss Vytegra as much as I do.  The time we spent with the kids there was something that will stay with me for a long time, and I will always have fond memories of the people that we met there.  The last night we spent in Vytegra especially stands out, and was one of the most bittersweet moments of the trip--bitter because we were leaving, and simultaneously happy because both our group and the Vytegra youth club had over come the initial anxieties that came along with our very first interactions, and collectively, I believe we shared the best evening of the entire trip.  I will forever remember the epic snow fight that we had the entire walk back to the hotel, when both sides lost all inhibitions towards each other as every one of us was either tackled to the ground or attacked under a barrage of well-aimed snowballs.  When the time finally came to say our goodbyes to the kids, we all became emotional to some degree: here, we said goodbye to the people that accepted us, with incredible generosity, into their lives for five incredible days, and we said our farewells, wishing somehow that we could stay in the sleepy, snowy town of Vytegra if only for one more day.  Years from now, I will only vaguely remember the master paintings we saw in the Hermitage, and most of the souvenirs I bought or received will be broken, lost or given away, but the things that will stay with me are the memories and experiences that I shared not only with the RUSLAN group, all of whom became my good friends in the ten days we spent together, but also with the people that we met as we took our first venture into the heart of Russia, and I sincerely hope that it will not be our last.
On Thursday, we ventured out from Vytegra to the surrounding villages to visit the schools.  Instantly, we could tell a difference between the schools we had visited in Vytegra and the one we were placed in at the village.  For one thing, there was a huge difference in the ability of the students there to speak and understand English, and they appeared to be much more nervous about interacting with us than the kids in Vytegra.

After visiting the classes, we had tea with some of the school staff and a few of the children who had served as guides.  Because it was the first day of spring, the younger children gave a short performance:

Saturday, March 3, 2012

School No.1 Performances

Meeting with the students has been the most eye-opening and fun part of the RUSLAN trip for me.  I loved answering their questions and hearing their ideas about America.  Even with the internet, I was surprised to find that many of the students knew American movies or bands.  As soon as we were introduced to our first classroom visit, with the 10th graders in School No.1, we were treated to some performances.  The first was a cover of a Metallica song.  Right away there were signs of globalization, from this song to questions about the Vampire Diaries to the girl's swooning over my picture of 30 Seconds to Mars.  It made connecting easier, as we lost our nervousness after finding common ground.  I truly enjoyed seeing these talented students perform for us and I pieced together parts of their performances in this video for everyone to enjoy!  From Metallica to the tango, these students showed us many of their talents and passions, and these moments have become the highlights of my trip.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Yesterday, we ventured to the villages of Andoma and Makachevo. The drop between town and country is as sharp and drastic as the one between Petersburg and – forgive the hyperbole – the rest of Russia. Houses. You blink. Forest. Blink again. A field that seems to stretch to the White Sea. To think of navigating this region before modern roads is terrifying, and “The Snow Storm” from Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin has become incredibly realistic. Unfortunately, I was not married to a stranger. Yet. It wasn’t snowing yesterday.
At the school in Andoma (which uses five buses to bring in students from the surrounding villages), we toured the classes. By far, the most Russian thing I have done on this trip was sing a verse of ,,Очи Чёрные” to second graders. The classroom had a piano, and it was the first time I have sung a song while someone played it. For someone who went through a major Rat Pack phase, it was exhilarating.
The eleventh graders were interested in higher education, but the problems of tuition, living expenses, and family unemployment were vocally and candidly expressed – far more so than what I heard in Vytegra’s two schools. We are all human, and it is encouraging to know that we have similar anxieties. However, it is distressing that those anxieties are based on what restrains our potential (especially for those who have so much) and limits our social mobility (especially for those who yearn to and work to advance). During our tour, the school’s museum and newly renovated chemistry classroom were presented as its crown jewels. The sciences are stressed, and the students’ enthusiasm was palpable. Not only are these kids creative juggernauts, but they want to be rocket scientists. Literally.
(above – evidence that Russians need little reminders about Russian, too)
At the Winter Palace, we saw how the tsars lived. We even saw the view from Catherine the Great’s bedroom. In the village of Makachevo, we were fortune enough to enter and observe a home. Modest – yes. Pratical – yes. As with so much in Russia, things were worn-out and run-down, but they had a lived-in charm. However, I am fully aware that I say this from the standpoint of the news boots of an American tourist. These people are living what I find to be curious and cute.
I have come to see chopped wood as a symbol of life and death in the Vytegra area. This is Russia – a symbol must contain contradictions. If you do not have a massive pile of firewood behind your house – “Goodbye. We’ll bury you in the spring.” The logging trucks are a prominent sign of industry in the area, but the logging industry (not based in the area, not concerned with this area, not operating with responsible ecological practices) is one of the many punches that outside organizations are landing on this small town.

The Ups and Downs of Vytegra

After my first post I am still feeling great, perhaps even better, to be in Russia with a fantastic group of Russianists!  Since my first post, we have been to the Alexander Svirsky Monastery, we have worked in the museum, gone to the schools, conducted interviews, had dance offs with the Vytegor youth, slid down ice hills, went on a one horse open sleigh, and, without a doubt, had way to much delicious Russian food and tea (but I am not really complaining). 
Our trip from Saint Petersburg to Vytegra was beautiful, we passed by birch trees, pines, and evergreens coupled with an abundant snowfall; the Russian “Heartland” is at a level of beauty that is hard to qualify.  We learned in our course that natural beauty is a strong paradigm of the Russian “Heartland” and it was evident in on our trip from Petersburg to Vytegra.  The monastery was also beautiful; we heard monks sing.  Last year I heard these monks sing and it was one of the many highlights of the trip.  However this year I believe the singing was even more amazing; the music brought me to tears.  And nearly everyone on the trip bought a CD of the Monks music.  I will post some photos of the monastery from last year( black and white film). 

It is hard to follow Denisovich’s last post; it was extremely eloquent and moving.  Being in Vytegra and its surrounding villages I have noticed many social differences that I did not experience last year.  On Tuesday we all went to a Youth club, and at this club we played many games.  There was one game in which a woman, who lead this club, put two photos up on a screen, and then asked us Americans, and the Russians, to tell her what the juxtaposition evoked for us.  The woman would then put another image on the screen to show what images meant together for her.  One of the pairs of images was a toothless chimpanzee and a hand grenade.  People in our group guessed many things, I though perhaps the image to later appear would be death.  I was shocked to see that the image the woman picked was a woman driving and even more shocked that the Russians, and many in our group, broke out in laughter.  Clearly social justice is not strong in this town; that is to say I was offended.  Later in the Village of Andoma we sat in a class room with eleventh grade students, and it seemed as though the teacher was allowing the children to be gender normative by saying “our boys like sports and are girls don’t”.  She believed that the only sport a girl could do was ice skating, but they do not have a skating rank and thus were not sporty.  Although I did experience some negative energy while being here, it is not to say that I am not having the time of my life, it just saddens me to see such backwardness in such a wonderful place. 
In fact I had so much fun at other points during the youth club.  If you are browsing the blog I really suggest watching Andrew’s video of us dancing.  This video just goes to show that, even though these are provincial Russians from a small town, they are amazing at just about everything.  They can dance, sing, speaking English well (a lot of them anyway), they are craftsmen, and excel at many subjects.  Schooling here is outstanding.  For people that our browsing the blog, and not in Vytegra, can look no further than Andrew’s video if they need an example of how talented Russians are compared to us. 
On the other hand, connecting with the youth this year has been especially rewarding.  Denisovich referenced last night’s get together with the Vyegor youth, and it was really an exciting and special point of the trip.  Before Denisovich asked those two girls to talk about homosexuals in Vytegra, the approached me first and asked “is it normal in your town to be gay?” And of course I answered yes.  I was eager to tell this to Denisovich because he, as he said, wanted to plant a positive seed about this topic.  I met some local little monsters (Gaga fans); this was a fantastic experience for me.  These monsters knew little English and so we talked about Gaga at length in Russian.  They also knew a lot about Russian Fairy tales, which was not only interesting context for my research project, but also another great way to connect and use Russian.  I was really glad to make some friends and practice Russian. 
In Vytegra I am researching the legendy and skazki native to Vytegra about Peter the Great.  With this information I hope to find the ethnographic importance of Peter the Great in Vytegra, from the past to the present.  I have got many historical documents to work with from the museum, and a few tales as well.  Some of these documents are difficult to translate because they were written in the 19th century Russian, and consequently use words such as “hath”.  Nonetheless they are very useful documents.  I also received more information from Elena, deputy mayor, about Peter the Great’s travels to Vytegra.  Yesterday I interviewed a woman that works at the museum, and gave us a tour of the Klyuev museum, about Peter the Great’s influence in Vytegra.  She was extremely knowledgeable about the legendy of Peter the great, and I was lucky enough to learn more legendy about Peter from her. 
I am extremely glad to be back in Vytegra right now! 

Isolation on the Road

As our bus left St. Petersburg for Vytegra, I quickly fell asleep. Having woken up early that morning, the gray sky and ramshackle buildings on the outskirts were enough to put me to sleep well before we made it outside the city limits. We were already in the countryside by the time I woke up. Glancing down at my watch, I realized that I had not been asleep for very long—apparently, the transition between urban St. Petersburg and rural provincial Russia is abrupt and seemingly worlds apart. Soon we stopped by a rest area for a bite to eat. Inside was a café, which, admittedly, was much nicer than I expected it to be. (I later found out not only that this rest stop was new, but that it was the only such oasis on the entire route from St. Petersburg to Vytegra.) After buying an apple and some orange juice, I stepped outside. The young lady at the register was pleasant (it was obvious to me that it was obvious to her that my fellow travelers and I were foreigners) and I found myself wondering where she was from, how she ended up working at this roadside rest stop, and what her future held.

A couple hours later, I found myself wondering the same thing about our young, fashionable waitresses at a small restaurant just outside the Alexander Svirsky Monastery. Apart from the monastery and the handful of dilapidated houses and shops surrounding it, there was nothing—just birch trees and snow. Where did these waitresses come from, and why were they still there? How frequently did they encounter outsiders—particularly Americans? Where did they buy their stylish clothes? How often could they escape to the European playground that is St. Petersburg? These questions, which in hindsight seem like demeaning trifles, genuinely crossed my mind. The isolation of their small community seemed unbearable, and I wondered whether I would be able to survive in such a place. All roads leading in and out were in extremely poor condition—it was, quite literally, a challenge just to depart.

For all the infrastructural shortcomings and intolerable isolation of the surrounding area, the Alexander Svirsky Monastery was breathtaking. In the midst of a seemingly hopeless village stood this beautiful complex of a centuries-old symbol of Russian religion. The white walls of the monastery appeared to blend seamlessly with the snow on the ground. Whereas the isolation of the nearby restaurant had given me an impression of misery just minutes earlier, the isolation of the monastery was beautiful, peaceful, and entirely fitting. How can the isolation of one place mean two different things? Here we see another contradiction of the Russian provinces—the simultaneous beauty and misery inherent in its natural expanses.

The story of the monastery itself is fascinating. Having been converted into a psychiatric hospital during the Soviet era and only recently restored to serve its original religious purpose, the monastery’s transformation is symbolic of Russia’s tumultuous history. As was the case for other religious institutions, the Soviet experience brought with it a top-down imposition of cultural censorship and submission before the party apparatus: monks were executed, religious icons were boxed up, and mentally ill patients soon moved in. It was hard to imagine that this place was once anything but a fully functioning monastery. As we have learned, religion is a central tenet of Russian provincial life; the Alexander Svirsky Monastery is exemplary of the post-Soviet religious revival. But even so, the monastery remains isolated and, for all its holiness, houses a relatively small number of monks. Like so much else in the provinces, the monastery is at once a stunning symbol of the traditional Russian heartland and a reminder of its turbulent past.

Small Business in Vytegra

While on this amazing trip, I am conducting a research project on the development of small business in Vytegra and I wanted to share some of what I have learned. Among the things I am curious about are various political, economic, and cultural barriers to development. 
Thus far, I have had three great interviews with local businesses that lead me to believe that the biggest obstacle to the development of small business in Vytegra is the local administration. This was a surprise to me, as I came here expecting that any political problems would come from the federal government. Power in Russia is extremely centralized and vertical, meaning that the top authorities in Moscow make all the decisions. From there, policy slowly trickles down through the various complex levels of administration. The town of Vytegra is at one of the lowest levels of this hierarchy of power, so I assumed that the local administration in Vytegra would not have the ability to create and execute policy that was against policy on a higher level. However, the problem in Vytegra is opposite of what I expected. The problem is not that the federal government is creating laws that are counterproductive to the development of small business in Vytegra, but that the local administration is.
According to the first person I interviewed, the federal government has created many policies that are great for the development of small business, but the local government does not understand them and instead implements policies that impede the development of small business. I was informed that two of the officials in the local administration who work with small business have absolutely no understanding of economics and what small businesses need, as one is a Veterinarian and another is a former police officer. One way in which the local administration demonstrates that it does not understand economic development with respect to small business is that property taxes for the type of business that the first interviewee hopes to get involved in increased 106 times what they were in 2010 by 2011. The drastic increase in property taxes has frightened formerly eager investors. In my opinion, another thing that might be the cause of bad policy is that the local administration has its own short-term objectives in mind.   
The second person that I talked to has owned a business for a while and has never encountered any economic or political problems, as the business was personally financed by the owner due to former business endeavors. The only concern this person has is future competition from two businesses of the same kind that are currently being created.  
The third person that I interviewed told me about how her business property was seized by the local administration because of, as she thinks, is her decision to get involved with local politics. She said that she never had financial problems or issues with the local government until property taxes were increased. In response to the increase, she voiced her opposition and expressed interest in running for the local administration in a business-related department. When she did, the government used shady measures to "legally" seize her salon and give it away to a local organization. As for now, before she runs for office, she is running an ad-hoc business in which she travels through Vytegra and the surrounding area and has taught in one of the local schools.

In contrast to what I hear from local businesses, the administration unsurprisingly says that it does everything it can to promote the development of small business, such as subsidizing new start-ups. One woman in the administration said that she is going to try to get me an interview with a person who runs a business that received subsidies. I hope that this happens because I have been told that the subsidies are a hoax or go to people who do not spend it on a business. The administration is also willing to answer any questions I may have, so today in my research time, I am going to draft up an email. I am quite excited for the response I receive. 
Although I am not quite ready to return home, I am looking forward to spending time reflecting upon all the information I have received. I have collected a lot of  great information and I hope that I can use it to help the small business owners in Vytegra. Drawing from my experiences here, the stereotype that Russian businessmen are corrupt could not be further from the truth (at least in the Russian provinces). The people that I have talked to are just people trying to make a living despite policies of the local government. The three business owners that I talked with were extremely nice and open to my questions; it seems that they want me to learn all about their situation. One person even brought me a huge stack of papers that include different federal and local decrees, statistics about local tax rates, a speech by the new Governor of the Oblast, as well as relevant news articles. 

I decided to do a research project in Vytegra for relatively superficial reasons. My main objective was to gain some research experience and I picked the topic of small business because I am interested in development economics. However, after being here and conversing with the local business people, the children, and just walking around, I realize how much I have grown to love this little provincial town and the people who live here. Although I am around the world in a Russian town that many Russians themselves have never heard of, the people who live here are just people like anywhere else in the world. Sure, they face some problems that we--fortunately--may never have to deal with, but just like everyone else, they do what they can with what they have and try to make the best of their situation. The people of Vytegra are my friends, and I want to express how much I value their friendship by executing a good research paper. I would be extremely happy if my work makes its way back to Vytegra and helps the business people in their endeavors.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

No home for Kluev

Kluev has achieved a cult hero status in Vytegra (and as a result of this, M. Makin.) But what kind of life would Kluev have if he were to live in Vytegra now, as a homosexual man? Our kind guide to the Kluev sites denies his sexuality, and Alina Vladimirovna (as we are calling her nowadays) provided the context the guide left out, so that Kluev's situation could be understood. After all, it was on charges of Homosexuality that he was arrested and one of the reasons he was executed and chucked into a pit. He has become a martyr of the soviet era to the people in Vytegra, but I myself see him as a homosexual martyr to that cause, though that is pretty well lost on this town from what I've seen.
I took the opportunity over dinner to ask Sergei how growing up gay in Vytegra would be like. To summarize an insightful and complex conversation, a Hell on earth is what it would be: the city, a coffin and most every peer, a nail holding down the lid that shuts out the light. Despite the kids macking everywhere and abortion being the primary form of birth control, the social conservatism runs deep here, (though I see this as common to most rural areas.)
I walked through Vytegra tonight with a number of the local students looking for an opportunity to discuss the issue with them. I asked two older girls what people here thought of homosexuality. The word "gomikosektsualnost" got quite a response; one girl put a good bit of distance between the conversation and I, saying that it was bad and that she didn't want to talk about it. The other agreed to indulge me and we had a long conversation. Pretty well everyone thought it was bad, (as a few others entered the conversation). She thought that everyone chose their sexuality. I challenged this and asked her to consider the situation if there was no choice. She considered it (more so than I would have expected), and said that it was still unnatural and wrong. I said that cars were unnatural too, but we still drive them.
I said that Kluev was gay. She denied it. I said that we pretty well knew he was gay. She conceded reluctantly and agreed. She asked me about homosexuals in the USA. I said that there were bad regions, but gays were commonly accepted. She said this was not the case with Russia. She said it did not happen in Vytegra (remember that, cause that's important to my point). I said it happened everywhere. I said that I had friends back in Michigan who are gay. I said that I love them, because they're my friends, and that we must embrace our differences. I said that everyone just wants to be happy in their life. She agreed with the last point. I asked "If one of your friends were to tell you he was gay, what would you do?"
She considered that for quite a bit. She said that she would still be his friend, regardless. I inquired why. She said that it was because they were already friends before, and that he was mostly the same person to her.
I thought I was going to combust with something tasting vaguely of victory in my chest.
Setting that aside, the sentiment that homosexuality didn't happen in Vytegra made me want to scream obscenities from the church's bell tower. A man was arrested here less than a century ago for being homosexual - laws against which remained in effect until 1993 - and is later shot, his body left unmarked in a mass grave with nothing remaining but a book of poetry and a picture of Sergei Esenin. That man was none other than Vytegra's most famous poet son, Kluev. I could cut down a tree with a baseball bat before I could say homosexuality didn't exist in Vytegra with a straight face.
What it boils down to is that nobody here wants to talk about it. What, with the way they whisper the word "homosexual" around here, you'd think they were trying to say Voldemort. Dumbledore's words "Fear of the name breeds fear of the man" are ludicrously appropriate here. If the space was safe enough for people to openly admit that they are homosexual, if they could speak up while remaining confident that their name won't be whispered fearfully as "gomikosektualnost'" then people here would realize just how normal being homosexual is.
I will close this message with a new set of competing paradigms in provincial Russia. When we first met the local youth at the Dom Kulturi we played a game. We stood in a circle, each of us facing a Russian counterpoint. We pointed at our noses, saying that we each had one. We pointed at our cheeks, saying that we both had red cheeks. We pointed at the other's chest and said that we both had a heart. We shook hands. We hugged. We became friends. We set aside our differences spanning an Ocean and a language so that we could see each other as the same and worthy of each others' love.
And yet, despite this warm invitation, the same community turns inward to the people that certainly aren't as different from themselves as we are with closed eyes and a closed heart. All that remains there for them is the sound of snow crunching under boots as they walk away - exile and death.
To be sure, these paradigms are not unique here. They were included in the small print on the back of the contract everyone who grows up in a rural community signs at birth. Even then, the cities are guilty of this as well, though there are usually enough people to keep each other in check. I love Vytegra - with its agresticism, beautiful countryside, resourceful folk, and long list of social problems, how could it not feel like a second home? But Kluev's legacy is less a star on the rap sheet than a blemish as seen from my eyes. I can only hope that time, acceptance, and, however insignificant he or she may be, the questioning foreigner with bad Russian can make something of a difference for the youth here.

Poetry Reciting

I wanted to quickly share a video that I got today during our travel to the villages.  Today, we got to experience the village life.  After a ride on a wooden sled pulled by a single horse, we went to the village's "club" to talk with the village youth and tour the library.  We got a short performance of two of the children reciting poetry for us.  Here is a girl from the first grade reciting her poem:

It was amazing to see the dedication to the arts and music, spanning across all age groups in the heartland of Russia.  It made me feel embarrassed that I could barely memorize a few verses of Shakespeare and play only a few cords on the guitar when kids half my age here could do so much more.  Even though they are always the ones asking me for my autograph, I feel like it should be the other way around.  I feel extremely privileged to have experienced their performances and witness their talents.

Vytegra night shots

Vytegra Has Guests by Vera Terekhova
Translated by Kristina Pingston

On February 26th, for the third time, a group of students from the University of Michigan in the U.S. came to our district, headed by their leader and instructor at their institution, Alina Makin.

The foreign guests come here for Alternative Spring Break as part of the project "RUSLAN". The coordinator of their visit to the town is the honorable citizen of Vytegra, Tamara Makarova.

On February 27th, the American students acquainted themselves with the Russian heartland by going on an excursion to the district's local history museum and meeting with the town's administration. It is necessary to say that they had prepared for meeting our country, having obtained vital knowledge of it.  In the period of practically a week, the young people will participate in volunteer work. For example, in the museum they will do video work on the museum's establishment, one of the best in the province, digitize its recordings and photographs of its exhibits, and translate material on the history of our region into the English language. After that, they will put all of this information on the museum's website. They will also participate in volunteer work in Vytegra schools №1 and №2, and the school in Andoma. In addition to this, many interesting meetings and activities await them here.

Our guests' trip to Vytegra will end on March 3rd. They will be discussed in more detail in one of the issues of "The Red Flag".

The Road from Petersburg to Vytegra

I apologize that this is my first post, as it is a few days old. We have just been having the time of our lives here. I hope to give some more recent updates soon!

After exploring the culturally and historically rich center of St. Petersburg, I felt that I was in a whole as we travelled through through the stylized Soviet apartment blocks of Leningrad, and then once again as we left Leningrad and entered the Russian provinces on the way to Vytegra. The transition from Leningrad into the countryside reinforced the idea that the provinces are isolated from the capitals, as there was no transition from the enormous city into the provinces; there was literally a line that divided the two. 

Although rather abrupt, the transition from Petersburg to the provinces was exciting because it brought a feeling of peace as I looked out the window and realized that we had entered the beautiful Russian Heartland. We drove only for a few minutes, but  it felt as if we were hundreds of miles away from the bustling city of St. Petersburg. A thick forest of snow-covered birch trees lined the highway that led us deep into the Russian Heartland. It was as if we were traveling on the very road painted by the Itinerant painter Ivan Shishkin or Isaac Levitan. Only a city as unnatural and imposing as St. Petersburg could be a five minute drive in the opposite direction down this road. We drove further and further down this birch-lined road for hours and saw nothing, save a little cafe, until we reached the Monastery. The contrast from the city was reinforced by the fact that our cell phones did not get service and our modems gave really weak signals. 

Our arrival at the monastery was as abrupt as the transition away from St. Petersburg, but unlike the big city, the Monastery was not unnatural and imposing. The Monastery, while grand and magnificent, looked as if it had always belonged there. It was as if nature grew organically around the Monastery, rather than the other way around. This harmonious connection with the land made me realize why this Monastery is considered the Holiest place in all of Russia. 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

There is a reason it's called the House of Culture

Interacting with the local high schoolers in the classrooms has rewarding, challenging, inspiring, and constructive, but sometimes you just need to have a dance-off. It's human nature. The youth organization in Vytegra organized an event at which the following occurred:

Some compelling footage, no? We have definitely left our mark on this town – as these Russian teenagers have left deep impressions on us. Two of the most frequent words heard lately – "talented" and "well-rounded." From dancing to drawing, from speaking English to crafts, these locals have demonstrated almost effortless proficiency.
In the United States, we heard a lot about individualism. We pass the word around frequently, but my interactions with Vytegrans have been a truly dramatic example of people with skills and passions, people ready to offer and flaunt their talents. On the first day, we were treated to a traditional Russian dance – and then a tango; to a rendition of ДДТ's "Осень" – and then two girls' original compositions. The variety of interests and dedication these students have to their studies and hobbies affirms that while the road from Saint Petersburg to Vytegra may not paved, it leads to somewhere unique and enthralling.

           On the trip from Petersburg to Vytegra we experienced the transition from center to periphery through the windows of an old creaky bus. Initially the shifts in landscape came quite quickly as we rapidly transitioned from Petersburg, to Leningrad (outer Petersburg / Soviet era apartment blocks), to the beginnings of the countryside. While we were prepared for it, many of us were struck by the abrupt change from city to country that took place on the border of Petersburg. As one student (Dennis) said “you could have a Leningrad apartment, with a provincial view”.
            Once in the country, the view from the bus window remained much the same for miles and miles. If you removed the nuanced distinctions in buildings, vehicles, and signage, the road out of Petersburg felt like it could have been in northern Michigan. Having spent a large part of my childhood “up north”, I found a certain comfort came with the view.                                
            Small pockets of houses came and went, with various lone buildings spread sparsely in between as we made our way the Alexander Svirsky Monastery. I had known from our class discussions that this was an important monastery. Yet I missed the significant detail that this was not just any monastery, but the holiest site in all of Russian Orthodoxy. Its significance is due to the appearance of the Holy Trinity to Alexander Svirsky, this being only the second time they have appeared to man. The implication of this began to sink in as we walked onto the grounds of the monastery: this is holy land. I was initially, and through the course of our visit, struck by the modest humility of this place. I have visited other places of religious importance such as Notre Dame, and St. Peters. Those were intense in a grand, and spectacular way, but the Svirsky Monastery’s stark simplicity was a sharp contrast to its religious significance. To me this contrast only served to heighten the intensity of our visit. I did find it interesting that the holiest place in Russian Orthodoxy had only about twenty monks in residence. Is this function of the decline in monastic life in general in Russia? Or does this have to do with the monastery still healing from the trauma wrought upon it during the Soviet era? While at the monastery, a group of professional singers from Moscow performed two songs for us. The cliché “you had to be there” immediately comes to mind as I reflect upon this performance. I don’t think any of us was prepared for the intensity, or the power with which these five men sang.
            Leaving the monastery with a new respect for the orthodox religion, we boarded our bus to finish the trip to Vytegra. We experienced our final transition from center to periphery after leaving the monastery and crossing the border between Leningrad and Vologda Oblasts. Almost immediately the road went from paved to a bumpy, slippery, and unpaved one. We rattled and bumped our way along for the next few hours, only stopping when our bus briefly broke down to the rapid drop in temperature. Our capable drivers quickly fixed the bus, and we finished the journey to Vytegra.
Today, I chose to work in the museum instead of in the school so that I could finish transferring one of a kind audio tapes from the museum to mp3s.  This was a welcome break from the non stop activities of the previous day, which included a visit to the local schools and the youth group, which although incredibly fun and insightful, left us all exhausted.  We were all extremely impressed by the accomplishments of the Vytegra's students, and we were very surprised to find that their English was much better than our Russian, or at least my Russian.

My guide was very insightful and I think we both learned a lot from each other.  Some of the things I learned from her included:

1) Wedding rings in Russia are worn on the right hand instead of the left and share the same myth about the blood vessel running from that finger all the way to the heart.  (I had learned this because she had asked me what my silver ring with elephants on my right hand meant)
2) Russians find it strange that Americans are always drinking water or have bottled water on them.
3) Dean Martin's "Make Me Sway" is an incredibly popular song in Russia, as well as "O Susanna"

When we went to visit with the Russian youth group, we were put to shame yet again as the kids completely destroyed us in dance battles, but as many members of our group put it, they did have the home field advantage.

Today, however, I went to work at the museum and afterwards, joined back up with the group to visit the Klyuev museum and the church in Vytegra, shown in the pictures above.

It is something wonderful to wander around Vytegra and just enjoy the local atmosphere. The air is clean, there sky has little light population at night, and the scenery is beautiful. While the snow is too loose for proper snowmen, the enjoyment gained from observing Vytegra more than makes up for it.

Vytegra is like many small towns in the United States, if incredibly more isolated. The only way to travel to this town is by vehicle and a 6-10 hour drive. The local businesses are not chains stores, everyone knows everyone else, and the children are incredibly interested in the  world beyond Vytegra's borders.

The residential and business have no direct boundaries, and in many cases the owner live behind the store front in a attached apartment.

Birch trees exist across the entire region, and the unfrozen river glistens in the moonlight. Down every steep hill is an icy track where children (and myself) have slid across the snow either on their stomach or backpack as a make-shift sled. Children walk themselves home from school here, even the young ones from the primary school. Mothers and father pull and push small children and infant in strollers that have sled feet instead of wheels.

Live is different here, and yet incredibly familiar for those that can identify with their own humble beginnings back home.

Last year I went on the ASB service learning trip with Ruslan to Saint Petersburg and Vytegra, and this year I was lucky enough to return.  Returning to Russia is just about as amazing as being here for the first time.  I was overwhelmed being in this city again.  There were many things that surprised me being in Saint Petersburg the first time: the European beauty of the city, the cold Russian pedestrian façade, the striking soviet Leningrad architecture etc.  But ultimately I was most surprised that I was so overwhelmed by the exact same things again; being in a City like Saint Petersburg is an extremely surreal experience; it is so unique in this city because of its European style, its contrasts, its power, and its art.  And all of these things are visible by simply walking through the city; Saint Petersburg’s atmosphere is apparent through architecture (among other things). 

Last year I took photos on black and white film, however it took me a long time to get them processed and edited.  I think because we went to some of the same places it would be appropriate to post them now.