Mar 10, 2008

Страховка от карманников (Photo collection, Siberia in winter)

Don't get too excited - this doesn't really count as a blog entry. And to make sure you don't get confused, I'm going to make it as dull as possible, and pack it with Russian names and terminology, historical references, personal reflections and philosophy, and other crap you don't care about.

Just kidding. It isn't a real entry, but it also won't contain any information; I'm off to Mongolia in less than four hours, and haven't begun packing. This is just a collection of photographs.

As you might remember, some young Russians accidentally walked off with all of my pictures from last semester. I didn't discuss it in detail at the time, because I was still upset about it, and wanted to move on. But here's the full story - I was in a crash-taxi with a handful of friendly Russians, who just like most strangers on the street here, were warm, curious, and interested in hearing about my experience. They wanted to see my pictures, too, but I guess i didn't understand when they asked - I'd only been here for a few months, and my Russian wasn't up to par. Russians love swapping pictures, and as a guest in any home, seeing all the family photos is pretty much mandatory. So it's a cultural thing.

Anyway, like i said, I didn't realize they wanted to see my pictures, and there was a fair amount of miscommunication. For example, I didn't tell them where the pictures were. Understanding that I was still having trouble with the langauge, they took it upon themselves to find the camera in my pocket, take it, and presumably admire the pictures in the comfort of their own homes. Another miscommunication - I didn't have a chance to give them my address, so they could return the pictures when they were done looking at them. As such, I never did see that camera again. Live and learn.

But in case any more Russian art-lovers get curious, I wanted to post these pictures online, for safe keeping. Enjoy. Don't bother writing comments, though, I'm in Mongolia, where the average yurt doesn't even have a high-speed connection. And if it's as awesome there this time as it was last, I may never come back.


I'm taking a geography class here, so I bought an atlas to learn all the various mountain ranges, rivers, etc. This picture in the introduction struck me. The caption said, "the three races of the world." I'd like to be the guy who represents all white people - I'm definitely just as qualified as the guy with the funny hat. I'm hoping to get the nod for the next edition - I've even prepared a picture, to send to the editor when 2009 rolls around:

This will sound like yet another food-complaint, but I really do look like this after forcing breakfast down my throat every day. So I nailed this facial expression in just one try, this morning before class.

Most of these pictures are on Baikal, around the city of Severo-Baikal'sk, which I briefly wrote about last week, and visited at the end of February. Except this one isn't. This is in Irkutsk, on the river Angara, taken from the gigantic hydro-electric dam. Although it probably goes without saying, this building is obviously haunted with the ghosts of the hundreds who died building the dam.

This is in Severo-Baikal'sk.

The city was built to support the legendary, yet ultimately doomed Baikal-Amur Railroad. Have you all been noticing that as a theme? I think this blog could very well be called "Russia - legendary, but ultimately doomed." I won't bore you with details, but ask me when I come home. The railroad and tourism are the town's only real economic activities, which makes it exceptionally clean, and exceptionally soul-crushing if you aren't a tourist or a railroad worker. Lucky for me, I was a tourist, and it was beautiful.

Like most far-off, idyllic Siberian villages, Severo-Baikal'sk these days is mostly used as a nuclear test-site. The small population is for the most part composed of physicists and weapons experts, and their babushki, who nostalgically recall even the earliest atomic blasts over the lake in the 50's. Back then, they were twice as beautiful, 1000 times as toasty-warm, and nobody made you wear stupid goggles or vests.

This one is just the sun rising.

The lake is frozen until about May, and the ice was at least a meter (foot) thick where we were. But due to mysterious natural forces that no scientist has yet pinned down (I assume), these huge rifts form in the ice, really suddenly and unexpectedly. We were lucky enough to watch this one appear.

After some time, the rifts become huge , winding spines of broken ice that spread randomly all over the lake. And it's not just normal ice, either - it comes in a million different shades of blue and gray. I really failed as a photographer, though - I couldn't figure out how to capture the awesomeness, or the size. I guess a professional would have some sort of object in the frame to offer scale, but I just press the button and trust Canon to do the rest. Take my word for it, though - each of these chunks of ice is the size of a semi-trailer. Or a shoebox. I guess I don't remember. And yeah, it is hard to tell.

I came across this hidden gem in a museum of local art in the city. Of course I should let the piece speak for itself, but in case there's any confusion, its Jesus, wearing a bed sheet, flying out of a magical doorway on Lake Baikal, shooting rainbows out of his hand.

This is a Zimovyo (translation: señora) that we came across in on a hike through the woods. In Siberia they're everywhere. It's basically a tiny wooden room, with a wood-burning furnace for heat. Siberian tradition dictates that there should always be dry wood and dried bread inside for stranded travelers, and after a night in one, it's your duty to replace both for the next person. However, more contemporary, post-Soviet Russian tradition says "screw you, whoever you are - I ate all the bread, burned all the wood, and your life means nothing to me." So they're usually empty.

We ran into these two fisherman on the lake. They had broken a series of 10 or 15 holes in the ice with a sharp stick, and paced back and forth, monitoring them all day. We were lucky enough to see them pull up two decently sized Kharius (translation: they caught some fish). It was kind of funny - when they caught a fish, they admired it for a second, then punched it in the head a few times and then unsentimentally broke it in half, while our vegetarian group-mates looked on in horror. I'd never seen anybody punch a fish before. Anyway what's really important, is that they caught these fish with just some old wire, pieces of already-caught fish, and their hands. It was really amazing.

This is Lenin, with a mohawk made of snow.

Unfortunately, our vacation did have to end some time. This is back in Irkutsk, where life continued as bizarre as usual. This one requires a little Russian to understand: That says "medical supplies." I'm not making that up.

I wasn't actually in the market for medical supplies, but the creepy alley sure was intriguing, so I followed the arrow. I didn't have to go far, though - the medical supplies were behind the rusty, bomb-proof door on the right. I bought a few IV bags, an X-ray machine and a metal hip-bone and went on my way.

Don't think the Russians kids aren't 'with it!'

This picture looked a bit nicer when it was small on my camera screen... but I wanted to highlight this part of Irkutsk. All winter, a weird fog rolled through at night, and in the morning, everything was covered in ice-crystals, and it looked real neat. I recommend this picture for a desktop-background. See, there's a little place in the top right for icons. I also recommend the picture of me after breakfast.

I also made it to the dacha for a really nice birthday/reunion party, and got to see the whole 'four-generations-of-talkative-happy-Russian-family' thing... which of course was great, except for the 'countless-generations-of-secret-disgusting-recipes' thing. So I played with the dog, talked to everyone, and accidentally forgot to eat anything.

This is back in Severo-Baikal'sk. Lake Baikal on the left, isolated village in the valley, pine forest on the right, huge beautiful snowy mountains in the background. So in case there's any confusion, I am pretty happy to be here. And to make the deal sweeter, there were also ancient petrogliphs on the rock faces behind me. I didn't take pictures though, since they're always much cooler in theory than in reality. It's amazing to imagine what possessed ancient people to record their lives, and to guess what the pictures might mean. On the other hand, I can draw stick figures too, and mastered that particular art form when I was four.


I'm off to Mongolia, where as you might remember from last semester, "dreams get happiness." So another update - as of March 21st, no crushing despair. Здорово!

Ты меня уважаешь? (On alcohol)

The "80%" bottle - it's like culture shock for your liver.


Russia - Land of paradoxes, home to the most mysterious and psychologically complex of world cultures; the most troubled, yet proudest of global powers. From it's perch above Europe, boundless Russia refuses to be forgotten, often rapidly and unpredictably changing the fate of the entire planet. How can a people thrive in such a harsh and unforgiving land? How does such a raw and often backwards culture consistently produce giants of world culture, the likes of Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, Tchaikovsky, Pushkin? From where does this often unstable nation find its legendary strength? To this day, the best explanation the West has produced are these famous words of Winston Churchill -

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Whatever. I don't see what the big deal is. I mean yeah, I had to live here for six months or so, and I studied it for a bit before then, but I think I've figured out Russia pretty well. I even came up with an equally catchy quote. Ready?

"Russia is like a swimming pool full of vodka."

You know... because it's pretty big, and it's made of concrete, and it's full of vodka. And you can die in it.

Pretty catchy, huh? If anybody wants to send it on to the New York Times, I went ahead and got the mailing adress for you, to make it easier -

Public Editor
The New York Times
620 Eighth Avenue
New York, NY 10018

Tell them who said it, though - I definitely want credit.


Today's theme is a natural next step from 'holidays' - alcohol. Of course, Russians celebrate most holidays with a generous helping of vodka. It's also how they celebrate non-holidays, like "Monday," "Thursday," and many others.

In my last entry, I intentionally (translation: accidentally) left out a particularly big holiday, called Maslenitsa (Cinco de Mayo). Maslenitsa, I think, is the equivalent of Mardi Gras, with a hint of pre-Christian paganist culture. That's my guess - according to my Soviet culture textbook, "On the Great Russian Plain," published 1981, it has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, at all. All I know is, yesterday in Irkutsk, there were at least ten enormous parties on the street, and people were even more drunk that usual. That's another interesting cultural difference - in Russia, people don't tend to drink in bars and restaurants as much, but more often at home, and occasionally, on the street. And at work, and in bars and restaurants.  As you just might know, Russia has a little drinking problem. Literally every culture guide begins the 'alcohol' section with something like this:

"The stereotype that many Russians are heavy drinkers is one stereotype very much based in fact."

And it is. Drinking has a very long, usually tragic history in Russia. Many historians even label alcoholism as one of the major impediments to Russia's development, and the government has adopted this view several times in the country's history. Countless anti-alcohol campaigns, both by the Tsars and the Communists, have proven unsuccessful, and the government has even tried absolute prohibition twice - once in 1914 under Nikolas II, and again in 1986, as part of Gorbachev's Perestroika reforms. And judging from the bored sigh of my history teacher, I'm not the first smart-ass to point out that shortly after both of those dates, the entire empire collapsed.

All notable events have, in one way or another, been connected to vodka. Here's something Disney won't tell you: the "Miracle on Ice" was made possible by a drunk goalie. The Cold War was basically just drunk trash-talking, from this side at least. First man in space? Drunk pilot. But it's not only the powerful and famous that drink - even the little guy sometimes shares in the fun.


Yesterday was Maslenitsa, and I headed to the center to join in the celebrating. It was actually a really great time - all sorts of delicious (and not just by Russian standards) food, folk dancing, music, contests, the whole deal. This is what it looked like:

It has a real Carnivale feel to it, which is partly how I decided it was like Mardi Gras. It even had clowns:

The guy in the clown suit yelled at the guy lifting the huge weight, and made him lift it some insane number of times. I didn't quite get it, but the Russians seemed to enjoy it, as you can see.

Maslenitsa is also a celebration of spring. Everybody, myself included, wandered away from the parties and toured the city on foot, to enjoy the nice weather and take in the sights. This is me admiring a statue of Yuri Gagarin, first man in space. I had taken in so much 80-proof culture, I could barely appreciate it!
But back to the celebration - the real point of this story, is to show off another one of those "once in a lifetime" pictures. If you do write the New York Times with my quote, tack on this picture - it's really front-page material. I call it "Not my problem":


The man in the fatigues looking our way, of course, is a police officer. The drunk in his underwear climbing the telephone pole is just some drunk, in his underwear. Climbing a telephone pole, over a cold, hard brick sidewalk. Don't bother coming back to the blog, that's as funny as it will get.

If you're curious, the guy made it down just fine, but he made his point - Russian people love getting drunk. There's your cultural insight.

So my life is as exciting as ever. We just got back from an excursion to Severo-Baikal'sk, a city on the northernmost point of Lake Baikal. It's the only place in the country where they forgot to build enormous factories and dump poison in the water, and so it was really beautiful, the air was clean, there were natural hot springs, and you could drink straight from the lake. I won't discuss it too much now, since soon I'm gonna post an all-photos entry, as insurance against thieving Russians. But it was a great time, and it reminded me how lucky I am to be in Siberia (not a joke), on Baikal, when it isn't negative 40 degrees outside. Spring is more spring-like here, too, and it's getting warmer and lighter out faster and sooner than I expected. So no complaints. Actually i have tons, but this entry is long enough already.
Coming up, I have a trip to Mongolia (hopefully), and I finally know my official last day of class here - May 25th. So time is flying by. It's easy to forget, and take this time for granted, even count down to the last day. The endless string of daily tragedies, of course, continues, and that doesn't help. More on that later, too. But in the end, I'm still happy I've had so long here, and the crippling despair hasn't grasped me fully quite yet. Stay tuned.