Archive for March, 2012

 “I should like to call you all by name / but they have lost the lists.”

Anna Akhmatova, Requiem 1935-40


The nine hundred day Siege of Leningrad (блокада Ленинграда) by Nazi forces is a horrific chapter in the history of St. Petersburg, and even in all of Russia. It is considered one of the longest and most destructive sieges in world history, and is by far the most costly in terms of casualties. Some historians speak of the siege operations in terms of genocide, as a “racially motivated starvation policy” that became an integral part of the unprecedented German war of extermination against populations of the Soviet Union.

While you may see the blockade commemorated throughout the city (usually in the form of plaques/statues with “1941-1944” included somewhere), it is still too dark and uncomfortable a subject for many Russians to discuss. It isn’t long ago enough to be a completely distant memory—one graduate student here had a professor whose mother starved to death. Records state that residents of the city who could not or would not evacuate suffered one of the coldest winters in its history. They did so with no electricity and dwindling supplies of food and firewood—all the while being shelled by the Germans.

From the diary of Tanya Savicheva (11), showing her notes about the starvation and deaths of her grandmother, then uncle, then mother, then brother, the last record saying “Only Tanya is left.” She died of progressive dystrophy shortly after the siege. Her diary was shown at the Nuremberg trials.

Once while waiting for a friend to meet me at Dom Knigi, I came across a book about the Siege and thought it would be helpful to look through it before visiting the cemetery and memorial with our class. The images were haunting—people reached such states of emaciation that they could not expend the energy to bury victims of the periodic bombardments, who froze on the streets. Those who were buried, numbering about half a million, were generally sent to the mass grave (now the memorial cemetery).

Perhaps the most well-done part of the siege memorial is the slideshow that superimposes images of Siege-era Leningrad on modern-day St. Petersburg. It was deeply unnerving to recognize many of the places, and know that just a few days ago I had casually walked down the street where frozen bombardment victims were once heaped. It was also disturbing to see preserved samples of daily rations at the time: 125 grams of bread, 50% of which was made up of sawdust or other inedible matter. In the depths of siege winters, reports surfaced that some turned to cannibalism to stay alive. In January and February 1942, it is estimated that between 700 and 1000 civilians died each day, mostly from hunger.

These are the massive civilian casualties from which America has been insulated for nearly two hundred years. It made me feel very fortunate, but it also made me wonder about how that protection has affected our views regarding WWI and WWII. Many Americans on the WWII homefront remember those years as difficult, but not grim or desperate. Today, Americans often think of the period nostalgically, as our great era of cooperation and patriotism. As the 9th of May (Russian V-day) approaches, I wonder how WWII will be perceived by citizens of St. Petersburg.

The worst part was that throughout the tour, we all kept complaining about how cold and hungry we were.


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Things I Forgot

For students interested in study abroad in general, here are a few things I regret not packing at all, or packing too much of:

-Reading glasses. Even if you only use them sparingly at home like I do, reading a foreign alphabet in small textbook font causes a lot more strain. I’m actually concerned that I may be damaging my vision at this point.

-A laundry bag. If you live in the dorms, you will need something in which to bring your laundry up and down three flights of stairs. If you don’t live in dorms and move to a homestay, a laundry bag is still helpful for keeping your dirty laundry contained, as a shopping bag (plastic bags here cost money), as a gym bag, or as padding for when you realize you purchased too many souvenirs that could be described as “delicate.” Laundry lines and clothespins are also helpful to set up in your dorm room, as dryers are uncommon in Russia.

-Writing implements, highlighters, page tabs, etc. If you use a lot of mechanical pencils, those really haven’t caught on here in a big way and you might want to pack enough for a whole semester. Maybe more, because your peers will undoubtedly also forget about writing implements and will permanently borrow yours. There are a lot of small stores in Russia, but they can be pretty random and you might have trouble finding highlighters or office-type supplies when you need them.

-Dollars cash. This is something I brought too much of. Trying to exchange money at a Russian kiosk is like working with the pickiest of vending machines. Any U.S. currency must be be crisp and free of even the slightest tears, creased/faded spots, or pen marks. Of course, the rubles you get in return will look like they were just fished out of a gutter. As a result, I now have a fair amount of money that is completely useless until I get to London, or even Boston. Oh well, at least I won’t go home completely broke.

Other commonly-forgotten items: charging cords, memory cards, backup pairs of gloves, pocket umbrellas, enough snacks to get through the initial plane rides/layovers/settling-in period, sports bras, presents from America for host families, batteries, plug converters, basic medicines and vitamins, bath towels, and bathing suits (I don’t care if it’s Russia–there’s still spring break travels, hotel pools, and banyas).

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Road Rage Safari

I won’t mince words, Russia lives up to its terrible driving record. Statistics show that even though there are half as many cars in Russia as in the US, there are twice as many accidents in Russia. Russians themselves seem to recognize this, and have developed a system of bumper stickers in order to broadcast exactly which kind of bad driver they are:

student driver–you may also see similar stickers with the Russian letter “Ш” which mean the same thing

female driver–while this one may be in jest, this is a serious phenomenon in Moscow (where the logo chosen to represent women is a high-heeled shoe, perhaps more apt in Russia)

driver from Chernobyl

Russians also like to pimp their rides. Not with lights, hydraulics, or spoilers, but with obnoxious (and costly) paint jobs that usually resemble poorly-executed airbrush tattoos. Here are some of my favorites:


ok that’s pretty funny

concept by your 14 year old daughter?

Hipster of the Year Award: “I would like my car painted after my favorite scene from an obscure Soviet stop-motion short film.”

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In keeping with the continuing rise in temperatures, I have chosen a very special, very Soviet, and yet still quite widespread Spring-related word: субботник (subbotnik). This story of this word comprises an interesting look into the world of twentieth century Russia, and its legacy today. This is because to be [on] a subbotnik is to be someone who voluntarily goes out into the city to clean it. For free. On Saturday. Because it’s a Communist tradition.

Cубботник is derived from Суббота, or Saturday. On subbotniks, people are called into the streets with various tidying implements to get the streets and office premises cleaned. This sounds like a job for the municipal workforce or for the building’s maintenance crew, right? But oh wait, in Soviet Russia, YOU are the municipal workforce! At least on weekends.

Today it’s more of a commemorative, one-day holiday type deal. Schools take their kids out to clean the yard and classrooms. Employers get their staff out to clean the premises of factories and office buildings. Everybody is happy to do the cleaning and organizing for free on this one day in April. In most cases, a tea party or a corporate dinner may follow, to celebrate the community spirit/initiative of citizens and staff. And unless a person has been forced into a subbotnik by his or her employer (technically illegal), he or she usually feels contented and satisfied with his or her work on that day. That’s how subbotniks work in Russia today.

It was largely the same when the tradition began in 1919 during the Civil War in Russia. At that time, the new Bolshevik establishment (the Reds) were fighting against Mensheviks, royalists still loyal to the Tsar, foreign aid detachments from capitalist countries, and other disgruntled groups (the Whites). The country was utterly devastated (the Civil War pretty much picked up where WWI left off, arguably causing even more damages), but some optimists were very inspired by the promise of communism. Unlike today’s cynical, apathetic Russians, they felt responsible for their country and empowered to shape it into a model society–which included tidy public spaces.

So on April 11, 1919, answering Vladimir Lenin’s call to improve the railway service, fifteen workers from one of Moscow’s train depots returned to the workshop and moonlighted for ten hours to finished some backed-up repair projects. They finished at 6am the next day, and the records of that night stated that the work was mind-blowingly efficient and fun.

“Alright,” Lenin may have thought on reading the report, “if they loved it, everyone else will love it too. Let’s make it a subbotnik!”

About three weeks later the same railway held its first mass subbotnik that involved over 200 people. The Communist Subbotnik movement took on, and a year later Lenin called for a national subbotnik. It took place on 1 May, 1920, and involved Lenin himself, clearing the rubble in the Kremlin. We even have a ‘snapshot’ of that:

The idea of free labor was then massively exploited by Soviet propaganda. It became a big part of the Communist agenda: you had to work for free and because you were very motivated to work, and you got everything you needed in return, for free. That was the Communist master plan, and subbotniks were part of it.

Unsurprisingly, subbotniks became a communist ritual in which the true communists had to display their loyalty to the party and its ideals. Like show trials, but more child-friendly. Not participating in the voluntary working sessions meant rejecting those ideals, and that wasn’t the best way to win your girlfriend’s parents. So in no time the voluntary subbotniks became an obligatory social ritual. It was soon obvious, though, that enterprises were taking advantage of subbotniks to get some extra profit and pay a little less salary to the workers (interestingly, Communist history is largely the history of suffering workers).  But it worked ideologically, and complaining probably got you sent to the gulag (you know, for more free labor), so the tradition persisted.

And was filmed extensively. This next piece is a Soviet news film made in 1970, one of many which were designed to play before the start of a movie, like the communist version of capitalist “previews.” But the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 didn’t mean that everything Soviet instantly disappeared. And the generation of managers brought up in the USSR still view subbotniks as a good way to spend their employees’ time.

Central Asians (the Mexicans of Russia) make up a significant percentage of municipal cleaning crews

Subbotniks become increasingly common beginning in April, as a form of spring cleaning. Today, 20% of Russians say they take part in subbotniks—a number to be reckoned with. It is undecided as to whether we should attribute this to the Soviet legacy, or take it as a sign that 21st century Russians are actually developing a better sense of community participation. Makes me feel guilty about not cleaning my room.

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The Russian Museum

If you have spent any amount of time in the world’s most famous art museums (Louvre, Met, Prado, British Museum, Hermitage) you will know that by and large…they’re pretty similar in both intent and content. If you so desired, you could learn all about Dutch art in England, French art in Russia, or Spanish art in France, to the exclusion of the host country’s actual national art. So while visiting that museum may be an overall “cultural experience,” it is not an experience specific to the national culture in which you (hopefully) want to become immersed. This problem is especially noticeable in St. Petersburg, where tourists flock to the Hermitage and usually leave it at that, in the process overlooking Russia’s impressive and multifaceted art history.

Today I visited the Russian Museum, which exclusively displays the arts, crafts, and even architecture of Russia (and some of its former territories). It was much bigger than I expected—I was there for three hours and thought I’d seen everything, when I turned a corner and suddenly realized I’d only been in one half of the building.

While sometimes it’s fun and relaxing to just go to a museum and enjoy the art at face value, I was really glad that I’d read a cultural anthology (“Natasha’s Dance,” by Orlando Figes) before my visit. Knowledge of the paintings’ social and political contexts enriched the experience for me, and helped me to stop and take notice of certain pieces that would otherwise have meant nothing to me, and been passed by.

Since the 19th century, Russian ideas surrounding art and its purpose completely flip-flopped every few decades, and it was interesting to see this play out in the galleries. Art could be a spiritual expression of the individual’s creative genius, or a vehicle for social programs and political ideas. For example, towards the turn of the century, artists saw the concept of “art for art’s sake” as a creative liberation from the rigid dogma of politically-engaged and idea driven art that dominated the mid- to late-19th century. So you have a period of increasingly abstract work, until the Bolsheviks put the kibosh on that with the rise of socialist realism.

Of the things I saw, I recommend the 19th century Slavophile and populist art (noble peasants and rural scenes), the folk art (particularly the intricately carved bone ornaments), the socialist realist art, and the enormous canvases (Nicholas II and the Duma, Alexander Nevsky in battle, etc.) in some of the central halls.

Below are a few of my favorites:

Portrait by Serov

Meadow at the Forest Edge, by Levitan. I’m not usually one for muted nature scenes and flowers, but this painting is startlingly real. If you stand in front of it for a bit, you can feel being there—the insect noises, the flowers swaying, the wind sighing in the leaves. It was surprising.

Girl with a Dog, by Trubetskoy

Ivan the Terrible and His Son, by Repin

Bathing a Horse, by Serov

The Twilight Moon, by Levitan


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Russian animation presently finds itself in a state of a deep lethargic sleep. Today’s attempts to make anything worthy are as alive as the growing nails of Lenin (although, he is regularly shaved and manicured, witnesses say).

Dozens of creatively-challenged computer-animated films and series dominate Russian children’s channels (the most popular being “Masha and the Bear“). But the lingering popularity of the old cartoons, or “мультифильми,” indicates that the new ones are unlikely to remain in the cultural memory for long. Going over the golden days of Soviet animated films, such as “Winnie the Pooh” (yes, the Russians insist that they invented it and have their own version), “Nu, pogodi” (“Hey, Just You Wait!”), “The Comeback of the Prodigal Parrot”, “A Mother for the Baby Mammoth”, I would like to share what is considered one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of animation, “Hedgehog in the Fog”–directed by Yury Norstein and written by Sergey Kozlov at Soyuzmultfilm studio in 1975.

The sound is a bit off-sync, sorry about that. But this is actually the best quality of the video out there. And besides, it’s got decent subtitles.

Though not a beloved children’s film, the cartoon (or rather, animated film—it merits the pretension) has been worshipped as the best one ever by the 140 critics from all over the world, winning the first prize at “All-time animation best 150 in Japan and Worldwide” (Tokyo, 2003). But that’s Japan, where they make anticlimactic movies about goldfish who want to become human, so don’t put that much stock into it. Some people would say “good—the film deserves it”, some would grin in surprise. The plot is nowhere near Tarantino and there is not much text in it either—that is why even if you don’t know Russian, it’s still easily accessible. I imagine I had the same impression as a native Russian speaker would have had on seeing it for the first time. For the record, the piece is not always well understood even by adult viewers in Russia.

Frankly speaking, most little kids simply aren’t fans of this short film because it’s not what you’d call kid-friendly. It is often dim and blurry, and today would merit at least a PG-13 rating. If only for its atmosphere, I still think it works. Some compare it to Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” for its observational and withdrawn nature, others see it as an manifestation of the oriental part of the Russian soul. There is a line that is widely cited, among the others, where the Hedgehog says in his melancholic and thoughtful manner: “I am the hedgehog. I have fallen into the river.” Apparently this is pure Zen meditation, although with the hedgehog setting it may provoke the cuddly compassion from the average viewer.

A lighter animated Norstein short is the Heron and the Crane, which I am also very fond of.

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Service Economy

If you have ever been in a local restaurant or store here in Russia, you might have noticed something missing: customer service. No matter where you go, you’ll see grim faces (if they even bother to look up) and the feeling that you, the customer, are interrupting something. Some people blame this on the youth of capitalism here. But I don’t buy that. The generation currently working in the service industry barely remembers the nineties, much less socialism. And any visit to a Russian McDonald’s will show you that western-style service can be taught.

I don’t think the lack of western customer service was brought about by specific historical forces like Communism. From what I understand, it’s just traditional. The Russian brand of customer service is a reflection of deeply held values in the society, and we foreigners tend to interpret it as a bad attitude. Even in my icy, flinty hometown in Massachusetts, salespeople smile and interact with customers using lots of exclamation points: “Hi! Welcome to Macy’s! Let me know if there’s anything I can help you find today!” They’re almost psychotically thrilled to see you.

Not in Russia. Melancholy pervades the Russian service industry. Faces glower at you from behind desks, counters, and shelves. No one expresses a doglike joy when you walk into their establishment. But this is not a mistake, an oversight, or a lack of understanding. It is the expression of an important cultural fact: life is hard. Smiles and exclamation points won’t get you anywhere in Russia. Suffering is where it’s at. This goes back a long way. Suffering is a huge part of the Orthodox faith. It’s how you get closer to God. It’s how your soul is cleansed. It’s how Raskolnikov (and Dostoevsky, for that matter) found God.

In contemporary, secular Russia, the cult of suffering is no less prevalent. Every time I use a 500 ruble note to pay for a 300-odd ruble purchase, the cashier rummages around in her change drawer and huffs, “господи-боже-мой” (literally: “lord-my-god,” but the phrase is such a rote incantation that the English doesn’t do it justice). Women especially bond over complaints. I’ve walked in on lunch conversations made up exclusively of complaints. It becomes a game of one-upsmanship, where each participant offers a complaint even worse than the one just before. In fact, the complaining matriarch has become such a commonplace that a recent best-seller (Pavel Sanaev’s “Bury Me Behind the Molding”) features such a caricature as its main attraction. Russians recognize it as hyperbole, but nonetheless find it endearing. So it’s really no wonder that scowls are more common tha n smiles. They fit better with the culture.

How can I help you?

The bubbly optimism of western salespeople would indeed seem ridiculous here. People would take it as a sign of insanity. They certainly wouldn’t give you credit for the hard life you’ve been leading. And outside of the general grimness in attitude, the service industry does make an effort in certain areas. Even if your food in restaurants doesn’t come quick or with a smile, there’s one thing servers always attend to. They will always take away your plates and glasses as soon as you’ve eaten the last bite. Your cleared plates, used napkins, and empty glasses will fly off the table before you even see the server swooping from her perch near the bar. Sometimes you’re not even done yet. This easily confuses foreigners (especially students on a budget) who feel cheated out of that last sip of beer, or who were still using that napkin, or who wanted that sauce. But this annoyance is actually good service, just from a different cultural perspective.

According to Russian tradition you can’t put an empty bottle back on the table. This is because an empty bottle is a symbol of scarcity, and a Russian table should always be bountiful. So you have to put the empty bottle down on the floor, or back in the kitchen, or right in the trash bin. Any empty receptacle is a taboo. And it’s the same thing in restaurants. If that plate of salad stays on the table one second too long, you might never again eat at the table of plenty. Those flatware-swiping servers are really just looking out for your future.

So, yes, the service looks bad to the American eye. We don’t see the smiles and hear the chipper exclamations we’re used to. And we miss feeling like every sales person is happy to see us. But Russian service, for the most part, is not for foreigners. It’s for Russians. And these, perhaps, are the things that matter most to Russians. So maybe Russian customer service is doing great. For Russia.

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