Mar 10, 2008

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.


Natasha said...

ося, как хорошо что стоновиться тепло. кто тебя бросел в снег? или тебе просто масленица надаела? и последьний вопрос: неужели все прикрасные русские создание произошли от водки? не обежай меня.

sexualChocolate said...