Mar 28, 2011

Однократная виза (Introduction to Maikop and the Republic of Adyghea)

Let me take this opportunity to answer a question that, perhaps, I should have answered earlier in this travel-blog.  Where am I?

Many of you, like me, thought I was in Russia.  Alas, I can't be, because last week I took a bus to a friend's house in a city in nearby Krasnodar Krai (translation: Krasnodar Oblast), and my companion said "there are no Adyghe people in Krasnodar Krai, because it's Russia."  Meaning, she goes to school with me in Maikop, but she lives in Russia.  And it was great to be back in Russia, let me tell you, although I didn't stay long, and before nightfall I was back in Russia.

I live and teach in Maikop, capital of the Republic of Adyghea.  "Republic," in the Russian sense, means "Krai," which is the same thing as an Okrug (Oblast).  But not exactly.  Russia contains 21 "Ethnic" Republics, which are political divisions dedicated to one or two local non-Russian nationalities.  You may remember the Republic of Buryatia, to the East of Irkutsk, where I unexpectedly landed on my first day in Russia, unaware that I was not in Russia.  Buryatia is home to the Buryats, Tibetan Buddhists of Mongol descent.  Adyghea is home to the Adyghe, non-Tibetan non-Buddhists of Caucasian descent, but even more Caucasian than you or me.  The Adyghe are Sunni Muslims (many only nominally), related by blood and language to many surrounding Caucasian peoples, and totally unrelated by blood and language to many more surrounding Caucasian peoples.  The region is rather diverse, though in this non-Russian republic, ethnic Russians are actually the majority.  But they couldn't call it the Republic of Russia, because that would just be silly.

And so, all official signs are in two languages, Russian and Adyghe, and the two times I've heard the republic's president speak, it's been in Adyghe.  I won't try to describe the language, because бзылъфыгъэм джанэр егыкІы.  This is a picture of the Adyghe National Museum, during the celebration of the Adyghe new year, which was the 21st of March this year.

The Adyghe mark the event the same way every ethnic group marks every event - they dress up in ornate native dress and run around in brisk circles. 

I'm not an anthropologist, but I'm going to go ahead and add that to the list of universal human qualities.  Humans assign unique names to each individual.  Humans keep domesticated animals, if not for economic reasons, then as pets.  Humans love to dress up all fancy and run in circles.

Adyghe kids are just like Russian kids, which is to say, just like all kids. They dress in the latest Western fashions, sometimes with an Adyghe twist.

Like us, they listen to


and, for those inclined towards the esoteric,

The Adyghe are famous for their hospitality. I was told at the museum that if you drop in on an Adyghe family, you can stay for three days before they ask why you're there. And what's more, after they ask, you don't have to answer for another five. If they don't think it's a good reason, they have to wait an entire week to tell you. All told, you can live with an Adyghe family for over a month before they tell you to get the hell out. Once they do, though, you'd better listen - there isn't a single variant of national costume without a dagger of some kind.

Anyway, Maikop is the Republic's capital, biggest city, and cultural center.  I made up that last one, but I can't imagine where else the cultural center would be.  Compared with Irkutsk, Maikop is a much smaller, quieter, arguably friendlier place.  If in Irkutsk, they had a tank in the center of every neighborhood, Maikop has but one humble gigantic fighter jet.

If Irkutsk's Lenin is projecting his arm outward in some dramatic appeal to the people, Maikop's Lenin is just quietly adjusting his coat.

I live in Dormitory 3, a student housing complex far from the center of town, but close to the fighter jet.  My room is on the top floor, just up and to the right from the part in Vladimir Putin's hair.

I have two neighbors - Artur, the Chechen martial artist mentioned in my first entry, and a brooding, silent, black-haired Russian girl who refuses to look at or speak with me, except for the one time I accidentally opened the bathroom door into her face, and she said "OH GOD" (but in Russian!).  For the record, though, she was cold to me long before that.  She is a dark and foreboding presence in my life, and I'd rather get kicked in the chest by Artur than suffer one of her glares.  I don't have a picture, because I thought her grim visage might break my camera, and she probably doesn't appear on film anyway.

Let's see, what else.  Tourists in Maikop can visit John Lennon's boyhood home, which I'll admit, I did not realize was in Russia at all:

But that isn't the only notable cultural site.  Like in Russian cities, Maikop also has a huge beautiful church in the city center, except there's something funny about it.  Earlier today, I stumbled into an hour-long conversation/sermon about Islam from a young mufti who works there, which was incidentally the first non-profane Russian language I'd heard in three days.  Among other things, he explained why music is incompatable with Islam.  I could tell he knew I was listening to Kraftwerk literally ten minutes before I got there, he had that look in his eyes.  You know the look.  But he pretended he wasn't certain, and for my part, I pretended I regretted it, and we got along fine.

This entry maybe lacks the depth I was hoping for, but mostly I wanted to get some pictures online before my camera gets stolen again.  I also haven't taken many artsy/attractive photographs, but it's getting warm, and soon I'll be headed for the surrounding mountains, which will be very very scenic and wonderful.  I wrote a paper and presented it to a giant conference of Russian students and teachers today, which I'll discuss in a future entry.  Point is, now that that is passed, I'll have more free time, and can maybe blog a little more.  Here are two more pictures of Maikop, more to come of course.

And finally, at the risk of embarassing the Russian military, a risk I really have no business taking, I wanted to post this picture too.   If nothing else, it will help them improve operations in the future.  They were recruiting at the dance concert I talked about earlier, and talked to me at great length, even though I'm probably not eligible for service.

Mar 17, 2011

Дружба народов (On diversity in Russia)

The cultural depth and diversity of Russia make the American Melting Pot look like an American chamber pot. 

I went to a concert of Caucasian national dance, in which groups from various Caucasian republics and ethnic groups performed traditional music and dance in traditional costumes, and was awestruck within a few minutes, and not once bored in the entire four hours.  The performances and performers were beautiful, and even more impressive was the crowd - hundreds of cheering, screaming young people, waving national flags and otherwise delighting in their own cultural diversity.  This was the Ingush cheering section:

I was so taken with the whole scene that I got lost in thought for the whole four hours trying to understand it, and express whatever feeling I settled on.  But, as often happens when I'm in Russia, the longer I reflected, the more trite and inadequate my reflections became.  The country will amaze me in some way or another and I'll get so carried away in thought that I forget where I started, and the whole process can even be isolating, as there's nobody to discuss it with, and it doesn't seem that interesting when described on a blog.  How can Russians often be so xenophobic, but also live peacefully among, and describe to me with palpable pride, other cultures of all varieties, religions and histories?  The ruling party sponsored the whole dance show, and some of the national dance groups included ethnic Russian students.  Russians are very, very fond of this poem by Fiodr Tiutchev in such situations:

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

I found the following, kinda lame translation, and brushed it up a little:

You can't understand Russia with the mind,
Can't measure her by kilometer:
Russia is the only one of her kind -
To know her you can only believe in her.

But THEN... while I was sitting in a crash taxi on the way home... that one thought struck me.  "An American chamber pot!"  Eat it, Tiutchev.  Actually, it was a little more crude when I first thought of it, and it went through a few variations, but the point is that I expressed the inexpressible.  The moment I set foot on Russian soil, something in the air calls me to greater and greater literary heights. 

To be clear, I in no way mean to disparage America, America is plenty diverse, I love it, and plan to die there if Russia doesn't interfere.  But in a 24-hour period here, I ate Uzbek national cuisine, saw Ingush/Cherkess/Gypsy/Adyghe/Russian national dance (I made one up, try to guess which!), and taught English to a girl from Russia's Arctic coast, who wore an ornate Nenets (far Northern Reindeer-herding people) headscarf to class.  And I think it's worth noting, if a little obvious, that in contrast with America all of these people are indigenous - the Russians and all of their minorities are on their own land, which naturally accounts for the stronger cultural expression.  I didn't really make one of those cultures up by the way, they all exist, among hundreds of others.  This week, I wanted to do a theme of Adyghe culture (I'm living in their republic, Adyghea), but I realized I haven't learned enough yet to say anything interesting.  Their main national dish is a lot like polenta.  More insight is forthcoming, as well as a description of the city of Maikop.  The result is my bloggiest blog post to date: two stories about nationality in Russia, the one above, and this one for contrast: 

Story 2:  Another reason I love Russia - Russian TV has broadcast every single event of the Biathlon World Championships in Khanty-Mansiysk for the past two weeks, and they never have to explain the rules or the events - the viewing public obviously already knows them.  I haven't seen a single basketball game since I got here, but I've seen probably 10 hours of skiing and shooting, and all the big companies even have biathlon-themed commercials to accompany it.  It's heaven.  That's not my story.  My story is about Russian nationalism and Russia's oft-discussed, never-resolved inferiority complex.  I know, you're laughing already. 

So last Sunday was the saddest day of the year - the last day of the Biathlon World Championships.  The last event was a 6-kilometer (mile) women's relay.  The protagonist of our story is the Russian TV announcer.  Before the race, he discussed in depth the triumphs of each Russian woman-biathlete, and the race began on a note of great optimism.  However, the first round of shooting was a disaster, and our Russian hero missed 3 of 5 shots.  From the start, the Russians were hopelessly behind.  The announcer was deflated, but patient, and tried to keep up the mood even as the second and third women skied slowly and shot terribly, ending up in 19th place out of 20 (take THAT, Japan).  However, by this point in the race, the Ukrainian and Belorussian teams had emerged as the two leaders.  The announcer then decided that, "even if our girls don't perform today, at least our sister Slavs and neighbors will triumph, which is not the worst possible outcome." 

The cameras and announcer then followed the Ukrainian and Belorussian women for the remainder of the race, as if they were Russian.  But THEN, at the last second, a German skier outshot both of them, raced to the front, and won the gold.  As soon as this happened, the announced lapsed into a fit of despair and self-hatred, decrying the sorry state of Russian biathlon, detailing the failures of each of the four women, and then finally, calling for the firing of the entire training team, who should be replaced immediately before they embarrass the nation in Sochi in 2014.

Russia can neither be understood with the mind, nor the blog.  I hope this was remotely interesting, and promise to do better in the future.


I don't have much time for proper, organized blog entries at the moment, as I'm preparing a big Russian-langauge paper for a big conference, more on that later.  I'm also teaching a lot of English classes.  Last week, the topic was education, so I took a small creative leap and taught my students about Pink Floyd.  This week the topic is the United Kingdom, so I'm teaching them about the American road trip. 

In home-news, I won a fancy new fellowship for grad school, which Berkeley awards to promising incoming graduate students who obviously didn't have girlfriends in college.  It includes a stipend for two summers of classwork, usually used for langauge study, so as it turns out, this blog may never die. 

I'm going to try to upload a short video I took of the Ingush dance group performing at that concert.  The dance is an homage to watch-making, a craft for which the Ingush have been famous for centuries.  That's my assumption at least, watch for yourself.

Actually, there was an error uploading the video, I guess I was a little too optimistic that that would work.  Anyway, just imagine something culturally rich, you get the idea.

Mar 5, 2011

Кавказский Дневник (Caucasian journal, part 1)

Thoughts and observations on life in the Russian Federation, as recorded by Djozef Kellner during his travels in the North Caucasus:

  • More people are killed by ice in Russia than in all other Northern countries combined.  Did you know that?  Well I don't know that either, but if it isn't true I'll eat my hat.

I hope I'm right, because I'm not sure I can digest that much fur at once. In Irkutsk in the springtime, pedestrians looked like bobblehead dolls, bouncing between watching their feet on the never-salted sidewalk and watching the skies.  Maikop hasn't had the same volume of snow, and the buildings tend to be shorter, so the risk is a little smaller, but holy god you can't imagine the sound when one of those ice blocks falls from a roof onto the concrete.  If you get a bunch of snow dumped on your head and down your coat, you take a deep breath, cross yourself and go home immediately.  Maikop is far, far safer than Irkutsk, but I can't get too cocky.  It's not just my fighting Chechen neighbors who might deal me a devastating blow to the head.

  • Water-drinking is a corrosive foreign practice, to be crushed at every opportunity by Russia's women. The basic principle, I would argue misconception, is that water isn't hot, and 'has nothing in it,' and is therefore of no use to the organism. As far as they're concerned, tea is such an improvement to water that water has been rendered obsolete. If the Russians had succeeded in building their utopia, they'd have cut out the middle man, and tea would come straight out of the faucet. Alas, that would mean that thousands of Soviet workers in thousands of identical Soviet tea-kettle factories would lose their jobs, which is, incidentally, why communism doesn't work.   I was lying in bed sick and had poured myself a glass of water. Elena Ivanovna's mom came in to check on me, and, while happily conversing about something completely unrelated, picked up my water glass and dumped into a potted plant next to the bookshelf. Then she replaced it with tea and jam. She treated that glass of water like it was some sort of trap, set by somebody else, that I was about to unwittingly fall into. By clearing Russia of such traps, the babushki keep it safe for future generations.

  • In Russia, there is no national consensus on passing on the sidewalk - which side one passes on depends only on the will of each individual Russian, his own judgment and the dictates of his conscience. I'm not the first foreigner to observe this phenomenon, though Russians categorically deny its existence. We enlightened Westerners know to default to the right side. Russians defy any such convention, and in that way, are maybe freer than we are. The cost of this minor liberation is that, after an often-needless series of evasive maneuvers and sidesteps, the walker with a weaker will can end up ankle-deep in snow, when there was more than enough sidewalk space for both people. That is, incidentally, why capitalism doesn't work.

  • Russians don't know anything.  Okay, I'm just upset because I've been sick and need sleep, I'll qualify that.  Young Russians don't know anything about their local geography.  It is totally futile to ask any question that involves the cardinal directions; there was no reason for me to even memorize them.  One girl, who worked at the bookstore and sold me my map, had the audacity to mark Dormitory 3 on it.  Complete opposite side of town from its actual location, and for the first few days, I got terribly lost whenever I tried to navigate by my map, or by those useless foreign constructs, North, East, South and West.

  • Related observation: babushki usually know which crash taxi goes where, but if they don't, they'll consult with six other babushki at the bus stop until they have a definitive answer.  Problem is, it's only definitive in the babushka frame of reference, not in any absolute sense.  That is to say, a panel of seven babushki put me on the wrong bus.  And not just that - I hadn't slept in two days, and like I said before, I had a fever of 116 degrees. When I got out in roughly the right region, an even greater shock awaited me.  Another self-assured babushka, without the benefit of a babushka-panel, told me just as definitively that the dormitory I'm looking for does not exist in Maikop.  Huge, nine-story student housing for AGU in the Cheremushki neighborhood?  We don't have any like that.  She was so confident, I believed her.  If you haven't lived in Russia, you probably can't imagine my surprise.  And not just surprise, but my sense of loss.  All my stuff was there, my camera, my lesson plans, plus my phone numbers fo I could call the dean and get a new place.  So like always, I said "I understand, thanks!" and gave her my most genuine babushka-smile, and then, looking at the sun, headed East towards my dormitory on the West side of town.  I don't have a great internal compass, but I have great faith in the external compass which was also, shockingly, not reading correctly thanks to the girl at the bookstore.  By the way, this is not an exaggeration or a tall tale, I want to be clear about that.  A young couple turned me around and told me how to get home.  It was five or six blocks away.


Life is good, my health is fully recovered, and I've moved out of my nest at Elena's house back to Dormitory 3, which is now heated and comfortable.  My Russian is in shameful disrepair, and I've been disappointed and stressed about it, but I'm studying and reading, and striking up conversations about topics I don't care about, with people I have no business talking to, just to get experience.  Sometimes I'll ask three people the same question, just to practice the sentence, which requires a bit of acting on my part to look genuine.  I have temporary neighbors in the dorm, minor Russian celebrities who are here to compete in a national comedy show called KVN.  They're very friendly, and one of them is a history teacher, so I spend all my time talking to him and counting how many cigarettes he sucks down per hour.  We played poker last night, which was great.  There, I blogged.  Happy?  That's my life.  I rushed through this, because I only have nine minutes of internet left.

Elena's parents continue to take care of me, invite me to dinner, and make sure I'm alive and well.  Hopefully I'll write more about them, but my for now, I'm reiterating my request that you thank them in the comments section.  I only had one taker last time.