Friday, March 15, 2013

A Reflection on Our Final Goodbyes

After having been back in the states for several days now and getting back into the groove of things and finishing up my last days of college, I have been thinking a lot back to our final goodbyes with those in the Vytegra community. I am recollecting how we were inundated with hugs, handshakes and smiles from our friends from school no. 2 and our program partners. I found it incredible that such a strong bond could have been made with people who hardly speak the same language as us, and I know from this experience that love and friendship truly have no boundaries. I found these lengthened goodbyes so heartfelt and genuine, and it made me sad that people don’t behave that way in the United States when saying their final goodbyes to others without it being superficial. I could see just from how long they took to part from us how much our presence means to them. I can tell our visit to Vytegra is that one disruption a year in their tiny, provincial town life that they must look forward to very much. 

What I am looking most forward to now is keeping in touch with my new Russian friends, and perhaps even getting their addresses so I can send them letters (I have always thought that writing letters was a much more, traditional, old-fashioned, and more meaningful means of communication than simply email or using social media). I have already begun to talk to some of my new friends, and perhaps now I have a bit more time to get to know their desires, their opinions, and their plans after high school to understand what they want out of life. I think what I’ll come to find is my new Russian friends will most likely want what I want: a stable future, a close group of friends that can be trusted and confided in, and a place that feels like home. I am so happy that I was able to connect with this group of people, and I can say that I have become even more motivated to learn Russian so that I can communicate with them even further. I think my realizing that my Russian friends and I most likely want the same things out of life holds a very important implication: no matter how interconnected the world becomes, no matter how much Russia advances or becomes modernized, and no matter how quickly the Russian Heartland might wither away one day …the people that I met are always going to want the same things. And at that, those things are always simple things. Not fancy cars, flashy clothes or Ipads. Not anything material. Despite their community being so underfunded, they never once asked us for anything, in fact they showered US with gifts. All they wanted from us is friendship and good memories to last them, which is exactly what I think they received. And it’s what I wanted and received as well.  

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

here is the video of the singing at the monastery that I promised forever ago... watch it on YouTube for 1080p HD. enjoy!

Our trip to the villages surrounding Vytegra gave us a view of the Russian Heartland I think we were all expecting. Here you could clearly see the paradigms of stagnation, isolation, and timelessness. The dilapidated wooden houses, the cold landscape of almost pure white, and the overall lack of people echoed everything I had pictured about the Russian Heartland prior to our trip. 

That being said, I think I speak for everyone in the group when I say that our excursion to the villages was incredibly enjoyable and satisfying. First of all, we got to ride on a one-horse open sleigh through the village. This was a very COLD experience, but I still felt like laughing all the way. Even Mallory got over her fear of horses and joined us (see photo below). We also were joined by some friendly dogs who enjoyed chasing our sleigh and every car that happened to pass on the road, which was not a large number. After our sleigh ride we got a tour of the local library, which had a small exhibit of antiques and traditional artifacts from the area. The library was very small, but you could tell that it was very valuable to the locals. Finally, we had a delicious tea in the company of a couple beautiful бабушки (babuushkas, for those who don't speak Russian). The cooked us delicious блини (blini), which are like Russia's version of crepes, and other delicious pastries with homemade jam. I don't think I could've eaten any more than I did, but just writing about it makes me hungry again. The babuuskas were incredibly nice and lively, and it was obvious that they enjoyed our company overwhelmingly. Its no secret that they don't get many foreign guests to entertain. They were brought to tears when it was time for us to leave, which became no easy task. I could have sat and had two or three more cups of tea from the Russian samovar and attempted to eat more blini, but we were on a schedule of course. 

All in all, I loved our trip to the villages. It gave us a first-hand look at what life is like for the locals. I was pleasantly surprised that in such a cold, harsh environment like a northern Russian village we were still able to find so much warmth. 

Rural Russia

If you are looking for authentic cuisine, regional arts and crafts and traditional Russian hospitality, you will never find it in St. Petersburg or Moscow. Only in small villages like Makachova will you be welcomed into a peasant’s house by the babushkas to enjoy tea straight from a samovar along with traditional Russian pancakes, pastries and piroshky and be given to eat until you can have no more. In short, a visitor to the heartland becomes a member of the family when he is seated at the dining table
            Despite the challenges and the lack of resources, the Russian heartland continues to produce talent. When we visited the babushkas in Makachova, we met a little girl who attends the village school. Her name was Olesei I believe and she was no older than 6 years of age. She had just begun her first year of English classes. Alina was showing her cards with simple English phrases on them. Olesei not only pronounced the phrases in almost perfect English, but she was able to learn and to recite them quickly. When I asked her to count up to ten in English, she was able to do so with confidence. It is people like Olesei in my opinion that will determine the fate of the heartland.
            And lastly, another important moment for me was when we together with the Russians recited poetry in front of the village school administration as we celebrated the 8th of March or international women’s day. Before that, Jake and I had stayed behind with the 11th grade Russian teacher and her class. I remember she asked me whether I thought Russian was hard to learn, to which I replied: русский язык сложный но красивый or Russian is a complex language but a beautiful one. After our poetry recital, the teacher replied that although English was a complicated tongue, it too was nevertheless deep and rich in meaning like Russian. It was amazing that even though perhaps we could hardly understand the words, the mere rhythm and rhyme of the poems were enough to touch the strings of our hearts and unite us at deeper level. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Departing Thoughts from Russia

I knew it would be difficult leaving Russia before I had even arrived in Vytegra. At a stop at a cafe on the trip there, I walked around a nearby dilapidated building out of curiosity and to clear my head; the thoughts I expressed then showed how and to what extent being in a completely new environment had affected me. I felt an undeniable connection to this place, whether it was the surrounding forests that evoked nostalgic images of my home, Northern Michigan, my ancestral roots in Eastern Europe, the mini-course I had taken in preparation for the trip, or all of these working and interacting with each other. The fact that I could recognize this so early in the trip only foreshadowed the degree to which the rest of my experience in Russia would transform me.

Alexander-Svirsky Monastery

During the first half of the ASB trip, I was an empty cultural vessel, being filled up continuously with novel experiences including exotic sights, interesting interactions with Russians, and in a literal sense with all of the delicious food. The reflection sessions and blog posts could only begin to arrange, combine, and unfold my deeper feelings about what I was going through, and fortunately allowed me to do so at least to an extent. Only until the last few days did I actually begin to truly look introspectively to see if the Adam that went into the trip was the same Adam that came out. If anything is evident from my writings and pictures, the answer to that question is evident: a different Adam emerged. I was forced to not only confront how I dealt with new experiences, but also how to reconcile them with the person that I was, which was not always easy, and sometimes came with great difficulty. Out of this came the idea that no matter where our lives takes us, we always carry our own personalities, beliefs, and attitudes that guide how we go about new situations, which is something that should not be forsaken, but recognized and confronted to get the most out of your personal experience. Once I came to this conclusion, I was able to appraise the rest of my Russia trip in a more holistic way, seeing where I may have done things differently and what I really did appreciate.

Russia managed to extract from me what no other experience has thus far, and that is something I will always carry with me. It really is a place of purity, elegance, beauty, and truth, and I may never again find a place with all of these qualities in such great proportions. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Russian hospitality

I have never felt so welcomed anywhere in my entire life as I did in provincial Russia. The hospitality our entire group was met with was almost overwhelming and entirely unlike anything that I think could be found in the United States. The people we volunteered for, the students, and the villagers we met were always excited to see us and went out of their way to make us comfortable. While we did not get a long time to interact with the students we met in Vytegra, they left a lasting impression on me. On only our second meeting, they hugged each of us individually in greeting and to say goodbye. Our final goodbye on the last night was difficult for everyone and there were many promises of visiting each other, and while we really barely knew each other it still seemed fitting. Despite the fact that our sphere of communication was limited to the small overlap where our Russian and their English met, it was not necessary to know every single word we might want to say in order to make personal connections. We had a snowball fight with them on our first night, which was a fun bonding experience that required essentially no words at all.
We were presented with gifts from nearly everyone we met, which we had been told before the trip that this was something to expect, but I was still surprised by how often it actually happened. Nearly everyone we met, from students to the hotel to the town administration had some sort of gift for our group. They had even planned ahead of time to help celebrate Women’s Day on the 8th of March for all the women in our group, and we all got scarves, chocolate, and flowers (the picture below is of me holding my flowers at our Women's Day celebration). Even the smallest of gifts that I was given touched me because it was obvious that these people cared and had been looking forward to our arrival for a long time and wanted to make our visit as wonderful as possible. This trip has left a lasting impression on me of the genuine hospitality of the Russian people.

Overcoming the language barrier

Some people feel satisfied with their knowledge when they solve a particularly difficult math problem, and others when they write a good paper. For me, there is no feeling quite as rewarding academic-wise as overcoming a language barrier. My passion for languages and specifically for Russian serves me well in this country, especially in the heartland because hardly anyone here speaks good English. Volunteering in the local museum in Vytegra has been an incredibly rewarding experience because of how challenging it has been. On our second day of volunteering, we were sent to the museum without a translator and had to figure it out ourselves, otherwise we would not have been able to do what was needed. This pushed me to come out of my comfort zone of only using simple phrases that I knew were correct in order to communicate with the woman for whom I was working. Even though I was self-conscious of making mistakes when speaking, I had no choice but to try. This type of challenge is the only way to really learn a foreign language, and I’m glad that I got the opportunity to have to push myself by being forced to figure it out.

Hanging out with some of the local high school-age kids is also helping to improve my Russian skills and learn more about Russian culture at the same time. While they do all study English in school, they prefer to speak Russian with us when not in class, and are always willing and eager to help us get our point across. The most rewarding part of overcoming our difficulties with communication was that even though our conversations consisted of cobbling together my limited Russian with a few English words and certainly not a whole lot of grammatically correct speaking, we still became friends.

Alexander Svirsky Monastery

While I was excited to visit the Alexander Svirsky Monastery even before the trip started because it would be unlike anything I had ever seen, I did not realize just how amazing of an experience it would be. Initially it felt odd to have to wear a long skirt and headscarf in order to be allowed onto the monastery grounds as a woman, but seeing every woman around me in the same thing made me quickly forget and I liked it because it “made me feel Russian.” As our guide took us around and talked about the various buildings, it struck me that the monastery was built before my own country was even founded. The idea of history in Russia is much deeper and further reaching than it is in the United States. We got to see beautiful frescoes that were hundreds of years old yet still completely breathtaking, and it was very moving to see how evident our guide’s sincere passion about and belief in what she was teaching us was when speaking about the frescoes and using them to tell the story of Jesus. We also listened to four local men sing traditional church songs that were so moving that it almost brought tears to my eyes. I also loved seeing the iconostasis in the church because while my history class had made it sound quite interesting, seeing one in person blew me away with how impressive it was. Despite the fact that I do not practice Orthodoxy, it was still a very spiritual and moving experience to explore the monastery, take some holy sand, and see the body of Alexander Svirsky of which some parts are still uncorrupted by time and wear. It seemed so characteristic of the Russian heartland to be able to drive for hours and see nothing but trees and then come across this beautiful monastery, then drive many more hours before coming upon another sign of human existence.

Accounts of Some of My Most Favorite Memories in the Motherland 

One of my most favorite memories from the trip was visiting the Soviet b440 Foxtrot class submarine on one of the water reserves of Vytegra. I am fascinated by the Cold War era, and I was astounded by how complex the technology of the submarine was given the time, and can only imagine what modern submarines look like. We saw its sonar detectors, diesel engines, control rooms and heard about how the seamen exited the sub through its torpedo launchers cases of emergency. One of our guides on board was a man by the name of Sergei who actually had served on an atomic submarine on a fleet of 120 people, and he was recounting on many of his experiences during the war. One of the most interesting things I heard him say was that he never felt any impeding sense that war was coming soon. I found this to be quite ironic---so much money, time, resources and training had been invested into building the Soviet army and naval fleet in preparation for this war, and yet, there wasn’t even a concrete feeling that there would be actual combat in the near future. 

Another highlight of the trip for me was visiting the Alexsander Svir’sky Monastery a little over halfway to Vytegra from St. Petersburg. I was mesmerized by how colorful and full of life the frescoes still were, and the biblical stories they told were very heartfelt to me, even though I am not a religious person. My favorite stories were the one in which you could see Jesus Christ healing the common man of his maladies, such as the bleeding disease and cerebral palsy. Hearing the church choir sing in church Slavonic was breathtaking, and even though I could not understand what they were saying, it was almost an out of body experience where I could feel there passion and love of their faith, and it brought tears to my eyes. Also, the story of how Alexsander saw the Holy Trinity before him and how they blessed the sand they were standing upon was truly remarkable to me. Also, I’d like to think that a mini “miracle” happened to me on our visit to that monastery. We were told that if we touched the bags of holy sand that we collected from the sand pit inside one of the tiny structures within the monastery to Alexsander’s tomb that we would be granted our wishes. I had been coming on with kidney infection for the last two or three days which was becoming increasingly painful, and I wished that my symptoms would be relieved. No less than a few hours later, all my pain was gone! I am not exactly sure what to make of this experience, but even if it was a fluke or just pure luck, it was a story that I’ll be telling over and over again for the rest of my life. 

In the Andoma village, as well as in School No. 2, I recited a poem by Alexsander Pushkin I believe might have been titled “Deep in Siberia’s Mines” for the students and teachers. This was a poem I recited for the first class I ever took on Russian history in my junior year at Michigan. You can only imagine how I must feel…little did I know that a little over one year later I would be in Russia reciting the very same poem. When I heard the students began to recite the poem in Russian after they had recognized it, I felt so honored and happy that I had shared a poem with them by a poet that has contributed so much to Russian history and has impacted so many Russians lives, especially in the provinces where poetry becomes very important. 

It seems that I have had infinity and a half memories on this trip that will stay with me forever. The most interesting note that I will most likely ever have to say about my time in Russia is that it is almost exactly the country I pictured every time I envisioned Russia in my mind ever since I was a little girl. I always had an image of the cute little babyshkas in their colorful embroidered head scarves inside tiny log huts in midst of a snowy, cold, vast wilderness. I also had always pictured the metropolises as cold, unwelcoming and dark in its layout, which is exactly what I found to be true when I first set my eyes on it when our plane descended into St. Petersburg. This makes me happy, for Russia was always a country that I had always fascinated me in the way I had pictured it in my mind, and ever since I was a little girl I knew that wanted to come here one day. Who would have thought that around ten or so years later, that’s exactly what I would do.   
One of my favorite memories in Russia was visiting school No. 2 on our second day of service and spending time with the school children. I will never forget the time all the girls gathered around me to look at my pictures of SeaWorld, Disney World, and my travels to Africa and India. I wanted to show them these types of pictures as opposed to only pictures of my friends and I, for I knew that they would be familiar with some of things I was showing them and in that, we would be able to connect on a higher level despite our language barrier (most of them knew all of the Disney characters and one of them told me that there was a "Dolphinarium" SeaWorld equivalent in one of the bigger cities that she had visited!). We also bonded over music we enjoyed (personal favorite: Barbie Girl by Aqua). This experience has shown me that there are no boundaries when it comes to connecting with someone if you truly show you care about them, even if there is no common language in between. I am happy that by just showing that I cared about the schoolchildren's country by coming all the way here to share my experiences, to hear theirs in return, and to do continue research my specified topic of defining what the small business economy in provincial Russia is, that I am making a significant impact here.

Another one of my favorite memories was seeing Lake Onega for the first time. Seeing the lake frozen over and covered with snow from one of the watch towers was remarkable, and it made me envision how beautiful it must be during the summertime. I have gained a new found appreciation for this lake. Before, I would only use it as a geographical marker for understanding where Vytegra was situated in Russia, but now, I see it as a resource that has not only fueled a lot of Vytegra's local economy (by providing work for builders of the canal in the 18th century to today for fisherman who sell their produce in local markets), but also something that means a lot to the people of Vytegra. During our school visits to school No. 2 and the Andoma village school, we heard from many students that they love to go to Onega in the summer to swim, to relax, and to enjoy the scenery. They boasted about it so much that they wanted us to come back next summer to enjoy the lake with them. It almost made me wish that I lived next to something such as this lake that meant a lot to me--I live in a very industrialized area where most of the town's natural beauty has been taken away. 

On the same day, I really valued our time touring the emergency response unit and hearing about the training process for becoming a professional rescuer. I found it fascinating that the federal government gave this facility so much money to buy high tech, almost state of the art emergency vehicles and boats, even though the populace this unit serves is only around 11,000 (and declining). It made me wonder why so much money would be allocated to this type of facility in such a remote area (I thought it would make more sense to have a unit of such scale in a bigger city such as Petrozavodsk, but then again, perhaps I am simply overestimating the costs). Nonetheless, I found this facility to be very impressive, and it showed me a lot about the Russian's regard for efficiency, safety, and having the best technology possible to serve their purpose of helping people in emergency situations. I also was quite impressed with the emergency response museum...they had flat screen TVs, large projectors, and sound animations for mini models of the town! For better or for worse, having studied economics for so long, I have started thinking primarily in economic terms, and seeing how advanced this museum in what to me seems like the middle of nowhere was made me think about how the city can advance at quite a fast rate given the federal government's help. However, I know all too well that this growth is disjointed---federal government money is unreliable and very concentrated, and often does not end up helping the entire populace of a provincial town such as Vytegra as a whole. My personal feelings about this is that I think the town could have benefited more from the federal government's money if it had gone to the severely underfunded schools as opposed to building a grandiose emergency facility that only has so much scope in a town so small. This made me think back to this theme about Russia moving towards being "impressive" as opposed to rational---instead of allocating funds to the most optimal areas of need, such as schools and medical facilities, they would rather concentrate investment in other places to seem impressive. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Village

    The villages around Vytegra seemed to reflect Vytegra itself. While we visited the village that the poet Klyuev’s parents were buried in, I saw what I had expected Vytegra to look like. There were less than fifty buildings in the whole village. There was no school, only two grocery stores, and a library. Everything was rural. The only sign that it was a village in modern Russia and not one in Soviet Russia, were the satellite dishes adorning almost every house and an advanced pay phone.
    The most pleasant surprise for me was the hospitality we were exposed to. In Vytegra, we were recipients of extreme warmth, kindness, and caring. I never expected that to be magnified in the village. We visited a resident named Viera’s house. When we got there, blinis were on the table, tea was brewing, and Viera was beaming. We sat down and just enjoyed each others' company for an hour or so. Viera, knowing the 8th of March was coming up, took time to personally address all of us girls. She wished us good luck in our futures, with our education, and in our love lives. The overall feeling of welcome was overwhelming. Though nothing exceptional happened, this was one of my favorite days on the trip. There was good food, great people, and lots of love.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Emergency Rescue Center - Lake Onega

Seated on the Southeastern shore of Lake Onega, the Emergency Rescue Center and Training Station proved to be a spectacle separate from the other sights of Russia. All the facilities were in very good condition and were being run efficiently, much more so than any other building I have seen yet during this trip. What could best be described as a combination of Coast Guard, Search and Rescue, and the DNR, the station serves a whole host of purposes related to responding to emergencies on Lake Onega and the surrounding areas. The size and posterity of the center displays the funding power of the government, which gave no shortage of equipment, vehicles, facilities at the station's disposal.

The vehicles in the center particularly interested me. I have seen cars and boats used for emergency purposes before, but the range of vehicles I saw there very much impressed me. They had to be specially equipped to handle the harsh conditions of the area, so we saw cars with enormous tires and amphibious, roving vehicles (like the orange one below, called the Elk). There seems to be nothing these monsters can't handle, and maybe even overkill for the actual needs of the area. At any rate, the station possesses all the machinery and man-power necessary to take care of any emergency situations in the area, and I would have liked to see these vehicles in action, saving people who have fallen through the ice or responding to other possible disasters.

My New Russian Friends

Last night was our last night in Vytegra. We had a beautifully put together farewell dinner and afterwards we met up with our Russian friends we had met at the different schools. For around a half hour, we didn't even leave the Cafe where they had met us. Instead, we stood around laughing, talking, and taking turns singing songs from our cultures. Then, we walked around town and there was Russian being spoken and English being spoken and we were really hitting our grove with communication. The goodbye I had to say to my new friends was one of the saddest, yet best, farewells I have ever experienced. We group hugged, individually hugged, sung songs, and it took us around an hour to fully say goodbye. Though we only knew each other three days, that couple of hours was some of the warmest I have ever experienced. It was a beautiful way to end our trip and I have absolutely no doubts that we will not lose touch with our new Russian friends. I know that I have made friends for life!

Blini's, a cow, and happiness

By: Celine Smith

    Going to Klyuev’s village was definitely the highlight of the trip for me. It started off with our visit to Andoma school, where we were warmly greeted by faculty and staff, meeting so many warm and wonderful people. They were so excited to have us, and we were more than excited to be there! One of my favorite parts was the poetry section where the students recited poems to us with music in the background, interspersed with our own recitations as well. I just love how into poetry they all are and how seriously they take it, so different than the U.S.! I wish I had a primary school experience that placed such an importance on poetry. I have only recently begun to realize its significance and I feel that it could have added a lot to my education in high school and even before. We were then given a delicious lunch and were surprised by a huge spread of sweets and presents, due to the next day being Woman’s Day, which the school closes for. Not only were their jams, pastries, candies, and more, but they also gave us flowers and homemade scarves! I was in disbelief with their generosity.
    As it turned out we were running behind for our visit to Makachova, the village of Klyuev, where we visited a library and then the home of Viera, a little Babushka. This was where the magic began happening (not that it wasn’t already an amazing day). Viera was so tiny and the most adorable elderly woman, who was beaming with happiness and love. Although I neither of us speak each others language, I understood her based purely off of the emotion she was radiating. She was bustling around making sure everyone was happy and satisfied, trying to get us to eat more than our exploding bellies could handle, and was smiling and laughing so much that she would randomly wipe away tears from her eyes. At one point she told us that she lives in the house with just her two cats and her cow Marta. She said that Marta was like her sister and that they understood each other and she began tearing up again. Every time she spoke and shared her happiness and love with us, I became overwhelmed with emotion as well, tearing up and just wanting to give her the biggest hug possible. I was able to give her several hugs before leaving though and after one of them she was saying something I couldn’t understand, but got the sentiment from her gesturing that I gave bear like hugs (haha). When we asked her to take a photo she would nervously bustle about fixing her hair and scarf and straightening her clothes. Then after the photo, we would look at the picture, and in traditional fashion, her shining smiling face turned blank for the photo. Such a funny comparison considering that in the photo she had the straightest, sternest face you could imagine, hiding all of her soft happiness.
    Before leaving, she showed us Marta, taking Jackie and I back first. The stable was connected to the house and the first doorway and room was so short that you had to be completely bent over the whole way across, leading to another taller, yet smaller room where pregnant Marta stood. Seeing Marta and Viera’s relationship and how they related was so touching that I began to cry. It was so powerful and the whole experience of her gratitude and happiness to have us all there was so overwhelming that I just couldn’t contain myself anymore. She had us feel the head of the calf in Marta’s bulging belly and it was so incredible! We then were able to pet Marta behind her ears, with Viera proudly chatting away the entire time, beaming and radiating an energy that I have rarely felt from anyone. Leaving her was so difficult as she walked us outside, and a few of the other girls and myself left her with a group hug, expressing to our gratitude and how we did not want to leave. She stood at the side of the road watching us as we left, exchanging waves as we saw her for the last time. I was so touched by this meeting with Viera, the purity of her emotions and intentions, and with all of this being said, it will remain etched into my memory and heart forever.

Vytegra in Comparison

Celine Smith (once again, posting through Mackenzie)

    My experience in Vytegra has been really eye opening and brought me many new questions and perceptions of the heartland. Going to the schools and seeing what daily life is like for those that are raised in Vytegra was very telling for how and why things are as they are here and how they differ from the U.S. and St. Petersburg. By interacting with the students, exchanging questions, and seeing how subjects are taught has been absolutely fascinating and given me many comparisons to make with other abroad experiences I have had along with at home.
    One area that really surprised me was the emphasis placed on the arts. I should have been expecting this more than I was, since we were fairly warned that they would all have poetry memorized, revealing the importance that they place on it, but it is much more extensive than that. Seeing students interaction with the poetry in person is so powerful in a way I could never have realized from being told in a classroom and how musical and crafty the majority of the students were was on a level I have never experienced in the U.S. or anywhere else for that matter. This goes beyond the classroom and to the community at large, exemplified by the Children’s Creativity Center, which has many different craft lessons, such as lace-making, that is free for all children to take. The fact that this is free and that there is such a variety available to all children was astounding and frankly made me envy this aspect of their culture. In terms of the U.S., we focus much more on the hard sciences, at the expense of art, which has left a hole in our culture that is slowly growing larger. The art in Vytegra seems to help maintain a hold on the past while the city is looking toward the future. Through lace-making and poetry, the youth are able to connect with their ancestors and elders in their community and maintain an important part of their culture in a steadily globalizing and homogenizing world. Although we did not spend much time in St. Petersburg, I can safely assume that this is not the case in a larger city and that their schools are probably focusing more on hard sciences at the expense of art, in the same way the U.S. is. This realization is one of the strongest of the trip that I really hope to bring back with me and vocalize to others to bring in a new viewpoint and example of the importance of art and the humanities.
    Another interesting experience with the schools was my sparse interactions with males that were not students. All of the teachers I met were women and I only met one male administrator. Although I later found out that the male teachers tend to be in the hard sciences, this discrepancy was very telling to me, especially in conjunction with other experiences surrounding gender that we have had on this trip. I know that this is similar to the U.S. in that I have only had a handful of male teachers and in that handful only 2 or 3 were not in the hard sciences, and it just goes to show the structural gender divides that still exist throughout the world. Although there are no laws that specify that women and men have to be interested in certain topics, it becomes apparent that there are expectations that are still being reinforced silently throughout the world. This realization is not due only to the gender of teachers that I met, but also to our experiences at the youth center and other random experiences we have had as a group throughout the week. Overall, the realizing some very stark differences and similarities between the U.S. and Vytegra have epitomized the importance of traveling and immersing oneself in another culture, because these are realizations that I could not have come to in such a deep and meaningful fashion as I have while here in Vytegra.

On the way to Vytegra

Side Note- This is by Celine Smith- could not work out signing on myself....sooo yeah :)

Although we spent the majority of the day on the bus, it was quite the experience and gave much to think about. The drive through St. Petersburg only took about a half hour, which then translated into Leningrad filled with old soviet architecture and tall buildings, and finally to the natural terrain on the way to the heartland. The way in which this transition occurred and the differences in each step spoke so deeply to the history and current state of living in Russia and its development.
    First off, it is pretty apparent that money and power are centralized in Russia's two major cities. The amount of care put into the infrastructure just outside of the city is noticeably different  and seems to be stuck in the soviet era. Then as one moves on, the effort and care put into the heartland and even the roads themselves seems to be almost nonexistent, at least in comparison. This level of separation between the three leads to a very cyclical reaction as to why  change is not rapidly approaching the different areas. For example, as we were driving along, I could not help but think that I would never want to drive on these roads, picturing my car off the side of the road stuck in snow. Safety and inconvenience are most likely the major factors in the lack of visitors or residents in Russia’s heartland, which affects the development of these areas. Since there is not as much demand for development, the resources and time will inevitably not be put into improving infrastructure, yet people will not go out to these areas unless this is done. With this being said, Alina did say there has been improvements since she was younger, which I definitely believe, such as more gas stations and attempts to bring tourism to the heartland, like in Vytegra. She said this was due to the increase in car owners since the Soviet period. While this may be the case, it has been a slow development, and I do not see the process speeding up, with the aforementioned cyclical problem and the harsh natural world into which development would occur.
    The surrounding environment on the way to Vytegra is also something to be mentioned, since it held similarities to places like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, while also portraying some major differences. One is that there are no shoulders on the road or guard rails, which became apparent when I became sick on the road and we couldn’t pull off immediately. This is something that is taken for granted in the U.S. and the importance is never realized until the convenience is gone. This adds to the reason people may not make the trek out to the heartland, yet much may not be able to be done on this front since the climactic and environmental conditions of the area are so harsh. Overall, the connections and implications of the infrastructure of the heartland and St. Petersburg are not hidden by any means and bring forth many layers of Russian life today.

St. Petersburg

Side Note- This is by Celine Smith- could not work out signing on myself....sooo yeah :)

    Upon reflection, I am uncertain as to what my expectations were for St. Petersburg, but I can say that whatever they could have been, they were exceeded by what I experienced and learned during my short stay. We were thrown right into St. Petersburg with our first major stop being the Hermitage museum. I was really thankful to have Olga, our guide, with us since she was able to give us some background on what we were seeing to add depth to our observations. Following the Hermitage, we ate lunch at a local restaurant where I sat near a window with Mackenzie and Victoria and we were relishing in “people watching”, chatting about what we saw. All of this, along with the bus tour as a whole, the stop at St. Peter and Paul’s Cathedral, and souvenir shopping added together to form a whirlwind of a day in St. Petersburg that left a lot to process.
    What stood out to me the most from this day was The Hermitage. I was completely blown away and overwhelmed, which was not all due to the pure extravagance of it all. The whole time I could not stop thinking about what it meant that Russia had all of these pieces of art and history that weren’t even their own. To have all of these pieces that any country would kill to have, let alone the country that the piece originated in, displayed a great power and I knew must hold great significance. My first thought was how it reminded my of the colonizers of the world, such as England and France, who hold many pieces of cultural significance that do not belong to them, yet are in their possession in order to be “kept safe”. Thanks to Olga, I realized that this wasn’t the case for Catherine the Great. After hearing Olga’s explanation and our talk on the bus, I thought about how interesting it is that she wanted all of these pieces to impress foreigners that would come to visit, to display her power and importance. From what I can recall, these were all bought or taken as gifts, so they definitely have a different tone than the aforementioned pieces taken by colonizing countries, but they have a similar purpose, that of showing off power. This expression of power at first didn’t resonate with me, I thought of how I would not consider someone with many expensive things to necessarily be someone I would respect with important and meaningful decisions for an entire country. I think this is because I recognize that this display of power is a facade for try and make up for something that is missing; in this case, the right to the power that is being displayed. Neither Catherine the Great, nor the colonizing countries of the past had a right to the position of power that they took. Making these connections was really significant for me because the period of colonization has been a topic I have always found fascinating, so it added depth and meaning to a topic I knew little of before.
    Besides the Hermitage, the city had a lot to offer in connections and realizations that I would not have been able to come to otherwise if I were not to see if myself. For example, I found it interesting that I never saw a female athlete at the sports center, which led to an interesting conversation we had about gender in Russia during the debrief. I look forward to making more connections between St. Petersburg and the Heartland, especially upon my return after having experienced a different side of Russia

On the Road Home

Here I am again on an empty Russian road, this time leaving a town that welcomed me with open arms. I’m sorting through a lot of feelings, good and bad. I’m sad to be leaving Vytegra but I’m glad that I made enough of a connection to the people there to feel so sad to leave them. I wonder what will become of the town as its population continues to decline. My new Russian friends tell me that they will be leaving Vytegra to study in St. Petersburg. I hope that they will be well in all that they do, and I know that they will because they are such good people and that’s what good people deserve. If our paths could cross again someday, I would think myself incredibly lucky. Finding friends here is exactly the motivation I needed to return for a study abroad program in St. Petersburg before I begin law school. It would be good to see friendly faces in a strange city and to know that I have someone there for me if I need them. And knowing these guys, they would have my back in a heartbeat.

A Russian Craft

Russian lace-making is an art reserved for those with great patience and focus. I thought that the lace weaving activity was very culturally immersive. What they considered to be crafts, I considered masterpieces. I was very impressed by even the smallest crafts in the learning center. It was great to see how much importance the community placed on their traditional arts and their continuation, and I was very happy to find out that any child in the town could learn how to weave lace for free. And it wasn’t just here; between the youth center, the craft center, and the museums, it was obvious to me that the people here are close-knit and supportive, and generous with their time and efforts. It was inspiring to see people genuinely care so much for one another. I hope that I can bring some of that attitude back with me and do as the Russians do.

Returning to Vytegra

I participated in the first RUSLAN ASB trip to Vytegra three years ago. I’m so fortunate to have had the opportunity to go again. The experience is very compacted, so there is only so much one can take in on a given trip. This time around, I was really impressed by the beauty of the Russian heartland in winter. I have come to appreciate what the heartland has to offer, which cannot be found in the cities. What exactly that is, I cannot say - you will have to come see for yourself.

As one of my friends commented on my Vytegra photos - I never knew white could be so beautiful!

When we arrived to work at the museum on the first day, one of the museum staff members promptly announced that she recognized me. I was so surprised! Later, when we visited School #2, two students - Alex and Katya - asked me if I had been to Vytegra before because I looked familiar. I remembered them as well! Little Alessa in Makachyova is growing up, too. It was great to be able to see and thank Tamara Pavlovna again for making this trip a reality.

I will leave you with the words of Fyodor Tyutchev:

Умом Россию не понять,
Аршином общим не измерить:
У ней особенная стать –
В Россию можно только верить.

You will not grasp her with your mind
Or cover with a common label,
For Russia is one of a kind –
Believe in her, if you are able... (translation by Anatoly Liberman)