Russia after One Week

This post will discuss observations about the town, university, people and situations we have encountered. It is long and detailed but intends to provide the texture for our visit and other comments.

Foremost, our visit is fascinating and educational in the extreme and the people we have met at or through the university, and many of the people we have simply come in contact with, have been absolutely warm, cordial and forthcoming. Observations in this blog are just that: factual observations, not express or even implicit criticism of the people, university, town or country.

Next, you need some context. We are not in a major city, nor a tourist center, nor a place in which English is commonly encountered. It is not easy to explain overall gestalt without sounding condescending, but no condescension is intended. Picture yourself in Des Moines, Iowa, a flat farm country prone to cold winters, but in a city nonetheless, and a city with a university of serious intent. Now try to assume that that city was occupied by the Nazi army within the memory of the older inhabitants, and that every other person had some relative killed in the war giving rise to that occupation. I think it not possible to grasp the texture of things without this kind of orientation, however contrived it may seem.

How to organize observations? Let me try a couple of lists, then trace three days of experience in some detail.

Things I have never seen nor heard during one week in Belgorod and some surroundings within 25 miles of the city center: a convertible car; a GPS in a car; a traffic jam even at rush hour in this city of 450,000; a subway; an airplane overhead; the word “Communist” (always “Soviet”); the words World War II (always “the Great Patriotic War”); an American style interstate highway; an American newspaper; an American car other than a Ford or Chevrolet; a large car other than a Mercedes or BMW; a house of worship other than Russian Orthodox; a wooden residence (log type) such as was seemingly universal in my prior visit to the then USSR (1977); a student taking notes on a laptop (though you see them in internet cafes on occasion); a Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts or Arby’s or Roy Rogers or any hamburger joint other than a Mickey D’s; a Chinese restaurant; a bottle of Russian wine (other than sparkling wine) in a restaurant; a jogger.

Things I have seen that I did not expect: exactly one McDonalds; French wines on menus (predominant but never anything good); odd use of old car tires (planters, sidelines on soccer fields); numerous supermarkets that are well stocked (the supermarket near us has everything you would find in a Super Stop and Shop, plus wine and beer, with many Western brands on the shelves, as well as large whole frozen fishes in freezer bins, beer to be pumped into your own bottle, and 5 liter water jugs at very low cost for drinking and cooking (no one, even local people, drinks the water in town due to the chalky earth although there seem to be good wells just out of town); clothing stores that are more specialized (you don’t find a Macy’s but) have complete lines of clothing comparable to a mid-market US store, in all sizes; specialty shops that are very deep in inventory (and a sporting goods store better stocked than any I have seen in the US, with gear and clothing for all sports but strangely not a single racing bike within a sea of thick-tired bikes for adults and children); a grand total of one person on a bike in seven days (this was out of town also; granted it is cold, but not that cold and the streets are wholly clear of snow and ice); streets and roads in generally good repair, with larger roads similar to say Route 9 and secondary roads like a three-lane country road with passing lane in the middle; many many gas stations; no obvious extremes in wealth (clearly some houses are bigger, newer and better, but no seeming slums and no McMansions).


Friday. I get up at 8:30, shave, rotate the recharging electronics in their adapters to European two prong plugs, shower and eat a bowl of cereal and milk (we have shopped in the supermarket yesterday, we visit most every day, it is about two blocks away), instant coffee. I leave with Laura and Matthew, who today will attend my lecture for the first time, when I respond to the knock on my door; three of my students are there to walk me to class in the next building. I arrive and lecture from 10:15 to 11:40 (see prior blog for classroom details). My students walk me back to the dorm, I go up the elevator 9 floors to change from my jacket and tie to casual clothes. We go downstairs and walk two blocks to a café which serves a buffet lunch; inexpensive, decent food and you can look and point so no need for language. Soup, three entrees, two drinks, a couple of desserts about $16, no tip. Although we had been told that someone would take us on an excursion at two that afternoon, no one has arrived by 2:30 and since everyone is incredibly prompt we telephone our keeper who tells us this is a free afternoon but we will be picked up at 5:30 for an event. We walk over to the supermarket for light shopping, visit the bowling alley on the third floor (half empty, big ball, we do not play), let Matthew play an electronic game in the arcade, go back to the room to hang out, read, etc. At 5:30 our keeper picks us up and walks us a couple of blocks to the theater within the University building next door for the International Student Jamboree. The hall is filled with several hundred students. They are dressed in typical attire. The men are wearing jeans, zipper jackets, an assortment of shirts. No one in the entire city seems to have a hoodie except Matthew and me. The women (who seem generally tall and almost always incredibly thin)wear skin tight jeans and high heel shoes or high heel boots even during the day. There are students from about 40 countries here and students from about 9 countries danced, sang, spoke, etc. Every student must take two years of Russian first so everyone is fluent in Russian and the student body seems wholly integrated. We were shown to first row seats (we are visiting dignitaries here). There were three hours of presentations by students from Ecuador, Brazil, Muslim countries from the mid-East, Thailand ,China, India; these people are eating our lunch in terms of building cultural bridges and long term relationships around the world, I think; there is high consciousness of international bonding to create peace and trade, etc. The concert ended at about 9pm, we went back to the dorm, ate a light dinner we cooked ourselves on our very slow stove, and Laura and I drank a half bottle of vodka and ate some odds and ends and passed out exhausted.

Saturday. We get up about 8, are picked up at 10 to go on a hike in the woods. (Just to jump ahead, of course we never did get to hike, though the vodka arrived before noon.) We were first driven to the country to see the University’s newly built retreat for students and faculty. Spectacular brick and grass campus, rooms for 600 people, tennis courts, café, indoor pool, sculptures. The faculty uses it for team building and students can use it in good weather without charge. There are rooms and camp shacks for the students. The place is the best maintained facility we have seen in Russia, and the University is very proud of it. A quick light lunch with vodka was served at about 11:30 by the Professor in the midst of all this. We then were taken to a local museum in a small town. Professor Grobowsky, who is generally responsible for us, drove off to find someone with a key to open the museum in this small town about 40 kilometers from Belgorod. Matthew stayed with Laura and our keeper Katya, in the town square, where there was a small playground. I had a chance to wander around what appeared to be a typical local town; narrow streets, few cars, all driveways unpaved, small brick houses with tin roofs and fences of various materials surrounding almost all the yards, etc. The museum had exhibits of the town from Medieval times (it was a fortress against the Tarters and Turks) to date with, of course, heavy emphasis on the Great Patriotic War. Seems half the town was killed and all the town was burned. You can get a feeling for how it was possible to have a tank battle with 1200 tanks and over a million dead in one battle; the lands are flat, barely rolling, open fields, few trees except for some fir and white birch lining the roadways. Interesting sidelight: when Matthew needed to use the toilet in this town museum, an old woman walked him around back to an outhouse, a wooden shack with a hole in the ground and strips of newspaper instead of toilet paper. Matthew’s first experience with how the world really is (“Oh ,gross!”) Then back to the dorm to rest up; we were picked up at 5:25 by our keeper and her friend who is yet another translator (with a cell phone tuned to the Google translation site) and taken to a play in the town playhouse; very elegant, professional, and of course all in Russian. An historical costume piece about Katherine the Great, people in dungeons being whipped, the usual…. Then our family and our keeper and extra translator went to dinner in a nice restaurant, a rarity with an (almost) English menu, fish tank, large TV in the dining room (a standard feature in restaurants here, this one blessedly not turned on), a decent meal with French wine and a tab for about $180 for full dinners with champagne and wine for five people. We walked back to the dorm, arriving at 11:20. Guess what stops running at 11:00? The elevators. Nice hike up nine floors. Too hyped to sleep, we sit up talking until 2 am before we pass out.

Sunday: This was supposed to be a day off. No such luck. We are picked up by the Professor and a new translator (we have worn out our keeper, she gets the day off) and it turns out we are going to lunch at the home of the translator, who is a fifth year language student about to become an English teacher at good old BSU. When we get to the car, we find three cars instead, and a whole bunch of people who are invited lunch guests. We all drive about a half hour to the edge of town, a small house of brick with a mud yard and stone driveway, corrugated tin roof. We meet our translator’s mother and father and aunt, her boyfriend (an engineering student), and the five other people we met in town who were family friends. The first floor consists of a living room converted into a bedroom for the parents, a den-like room, a rough laundry and a small well-equipped kitchen. The second floor has a couple of bedrooms, a small single bathroom and a living room set with a lunch table. It is not possible to explain the food spread, but to suggest that there was soup, four or five appetizers, several main courses, blini and cavier, shashlick skewers of lamb cooked on the spot outside, a couple of desserts. Tea from a samovar prepared outside because the core was heated to boil the tea water and was fired with small kindling wood (so that the core of the samovar was spouting fire and smoke from the top). All the rooms had detailed ceilings with painted designs; some rooms had beautiful light fixtures of crystal and florettes; other rooms had a single hanging bulb. The floors were covered with oriental rugs on top of linoleum. An odd mixture of elegance and some roughness in the finishes. The other guests turned out to be part of a Russian folk chorale of some note, which included the mother of our translator and the translator herself; they gave a concert before lunch and during lunch, replete with Russian costumes, accordion, etc. Suffice it to say that lunch lasted for 6 hours, and we returned home food-buzzed and the adults somewhat buzzed with a mixture of champagne and, yes you guessed it, about 6 vodka toasts. (Details: you must drink your glass of vodka in one slug of course, and the third glass is drunk for love so must be held in your left hand as it is closest to your heart.) So we have invitations to go ice fishing and come cooking in the home of our translator’s sister (a little bit further out of town; the woman was a singer of Russian songs in Russian and European restaurants in Dubai, which frankly is a bit at odds with one’s preconception of a country Russian woman cooking blinis in a primitive kitchen). In the words of the sage, “go figure.” We are driven back to the dorm, where we are now; Laura is skyping with her mother in Florida, Matthew has gone to bed, I have prepared my lecture for tomorrow and of course am now wrapping up this blog post. Just another typical day in Mother Russia.

Final thought: at each event with the faculty, there are formal toasts to world peace and friendship between peoples. The toasts could seem somewhat dated and embarrassing, except that they are heartfelt and sincere and clearly seriously believed by one and all. We do not dwell, in our own minds, on the reasons for our coming here to teach, but those reasons are indeed consistent with the toasts. So here we are in the midst of an exercise in cultural bridge building, while at the same time trying to teach classes, hold down the vodka, and learn something about the country while we go.

When I get back to Boston, I will need a vacation. I will now sign off, go help wash out some underwear (with a possible five day wait for laundry, we cannot afford the risk of sending anything out), finish scraping the mud out of the treads in our outdoor shoes, and then fight with Laura for control of the Kindle.

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