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.


Katie said...

Hey, I'm happy you got that fellowship, that's huge! Good thing you're healthy again to enjoy it, too.

Hillary said...

Yeah, that is so awesome. I miss you and I hope you're doing well! Write me an email sometime :)