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Given the popularity of my “In Soviet Russia” meme binge, I thought I would make a sequel. But this time, we don’t even need memes. Everyday life in Russia speaks for itself:

Smart like bull. Best use for babushka.

 

 

 

 

Russian IKEA

Don’t you dare go around it

a liquor store for the whole family!

Because beer is actually just a flavor of soda here

How did they make it to space?

Taking the “cabbage patch” imagery in exactly the wrong direction

The rape alley is now clear for new victims

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Za Baltika!

With AIFS, it is customary to make one cultural excursion per week, but this week we are blessed with two! Today’s trip was to the Baltika Brewery, arguably the largest beer factory in Europe even though it was only founded in 1990.

Baltika, we all know you were founded 20 years ago. Leave the 19th century draft horse schtick to Anheuser-Busch. Seriously you didn't even paint the reins on there.

Tours of the brewery are an amazing deal (only 100 rubles per person, or about $3.50), but are somewhat exclusive in that you must be part of a group with an organization. Our tour guide spoke excellent English, and I learned more about beer than I expected I would. Fun fact: did you know that beer wasn’t classified officially as an alcohol in Russia until a few years ago? It was considered more like a soda. Which maybe explains why so many people drink it at like 10am. There was also a campaign to get people to drink more beer in order to combat alcoholism—because beer is less alcoholic than vodka. But now they’ve somewhat realized that isn’t a good idea, and they recently upped the tax on beer by 200%.

I felt like I was behind the scenes on How It’s Made. There are glass walkways up above the factory floor, and the first one we entered, in this cavernous dark warehouse filled with giant silos of something, smelled like beer–everywhere. The kind of sour, the-party-has-ended sort of beer smell, but a good mood setter. We got to see the computers where they control the machines, at least two displays of all the different awards Baltika has won, and all the eclectic presents their factory has received from other factories. Sadly, we were not allowed to take pictures of the actual factory floor, as this is TOP SECRET. My personal favorite was the warehouse, because Russian forklift drivers carrying thousands of pounds of booze seem fond of Tokyo drifting their way to the loading docks.

Towards the end of the tour there was small museum created for Baltika’s 25 anniversary, where hilarious pictures abounded. The main event of the tour was, of course, the tasting. We were seated at tables filled with all of Baltika’s products and given 20 minutes to free-for-all it. Their beers are numbered, 0-9, from lowest alcohol content to highest. 0, obviously, is the non-alcoholic one, which just tasted like a bad juice. But some of the others were interesting, including “Eve” (or “lady beer,” which has a 5% alcohol content but tastes like sparkling cider), “Old Bobby” (English pub-style ale), and this extra-dry Japanese beer.

After trying something like 10 or 11 types of beer, it was much easier to speak Russian. I’m not savvy enough to tell you any of the types of beer we sampled, be they lagers or ales or whatever. But I can provide you with a WORD OF THE DAY: Пьяный (pi-yan-ii)—drunk. Over dinner, my host mom asked me which were my favorites, and when I told her No.8 and No.4., she promptly told me they didn’t have either of those: they had a No.3 and No.5 and a No.7 and a No.9. But there was definitely a No.8. And No.4 was our guide’s favorite. But perhaps I’m just doomed to never come out of a conversation with my host mom in which I make any sense to her.


So you’re sitting on the red line, minding your own business, when you look up and see an adorable Russian toddler. Then as you stand up to get off at your stop, you realize that’s not just any toddler. It’s…

MULLET SPAWN

To be fair, if anyone can pull off a mullet, it’s an otherwise-precious three year old. But really, why risk it?

I have actually been meaning to write a post about the disturbing preponderance of mullets in Russia for a while now, but it seems that an actual journalist cut me to the chase and wrote surprisingly well-researched inquiry into the mullet phenomenon. Enjoy!

public opinion: sealed

For someone who loves horses, Russia is a fascinating place to be. First of all, horses in Russia do not say “neigh.” As I learned in class yesterday, Russian horses say “ee-go-go.” Really?

Speaking of things that make a lot of incomprehensible noise, perennially shirtless, perennial vote-winner Vladimir Putin also likes to appear in photographs with horses. I can just see his publicist trying to convince him to soften his image: “Vladimir, everyone love little pony. I find one for you and you give sugar cube; opposition crumbles.”

Prowess on horseback was highly valued in the Russian empire, given the necessity for traveling long distances in harsh conditions. The Cossacks (a Slavic culture that inhabited southern Russia and present-day Ukraine) were well-known for their equestrian skills. Buffalo Bill Cody even invited Cossacks (some of whom were actually Georgian) to join the “Congress of Roughriders of the World,” the highlight of his International Wild West Show. Today, Cossack-style trick riding is still performed for entertainment at festivals, circuses, and carnivals.

One of the most iconic images of St. Petersburg is the equestrian statue of Peter the Great by Falconet, colloquially known as “The Bronze Horseman,” in reference to Pushkin’s 1833 narrative poem. This work struck a resonant chord in the Russian apocalyptic mentality with its central image of a flood descending on Saint Petersburg without any hope of salvation.Drawing on his own memories of the flood in 1824, Pushkin transforms the Peter and his bronze stallion into an ambiguous symbol of imperial majesty and inhuman power.

The clerk Eugene, in whose final delirium the statue comes to life, became the model for the suffering little man of subsequent Russian fiction, pursued by natural and historical forces beyond his comprehension, let alone control. The imposing memorial to Peter thus became an enduring symbol of both the majestic power and impersonal coldness of the new “Western” capital.

The image of the horse looms large in traditional Russian lore and imagination as well. One well-known story is that of “the Little Humpbacked Horse,” a fairytale about how a peasant’s magical long-eared horse helps him to capture mythical beasts and eventually become Tsar of Russia.

Then there’s the troika (тройка), or three-horse sleigh developed in the 17th century. This traditional form of transportation is still a common scene found in folk art, like Palekh boxes. The troika’s origin is rooted in the expanse of the country and the necessity of overcoming long and difficult paths at great speed. The troika is unique in its arrangement of the horses: three abreast.  A troika can travel up to 50mph when it gets going, which was an extraordinary land speed for any vehicle in the pre-automobile era

delightful 19th century postcard showing a troika sleigh under attack from wolves

The center horse moves in an extended trot between the wooden shafts under the duga (the central wooden arch that keeps the collar from pushing too hard to the horses’ shoulders), while the horses on either side gallop smoothly with outward bent heads, led by the coachman with only a single rein each.

This arrangement was practical not only in terms of speed, but in that a side horse could be more easily released from the sleigh should it be attacked by wolves, a periodic occurrence when driving through desolate woods.

One of the most famous passages in Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls” uses the troika as a metaphor for Russia itself, and one that still has some resonance today:

“Rus, are you not similar in your headlong motion to one of those nimble troikas that none can overtake? The flying road turns into smoke under you, bridges thunder and pass, all fall back and is left behind!… And what does this awesome motion mean? What is the passing strange steeds! Has the whirlwind a home in your manes?… Rus, whither are you speeding to? Answer me. No answer. The middle bell trills out in a dream its liquid soliloquy; the roaring air is torn to pieces and becomes wind; all things on earth fly by and other nations and states gaze askance as they step aside and give her the right of way.”

But perhaps the most interesting horse-related thing I have come across while here is the Nevzorov Haute Ecole. I first learned about it while waiting in a bookstore to meet one of my friends, and a book about horse cruelty caught my eye. But it wasn’t about horse cruelty as I usually hear about it–mustang round-ups, slaughter, PMU confinement, or neglectful owners. Instead it was about the cruelties of equestrian sports, which admittedly are many. This was the last thing I expected in Russia, as criticism of equestrian sports (aside from thoroughbred racing) is rare even in America, and humane treatment of animals does not have a long history in the world’s biggest mainstream fur-wearing nation. I was actually really impressed.

In about a decade of working with horses in all different kinds of stables, I’ve come to realization that in general, elite show horses are subjected to much worse treatment than horses that are neglected and left out in a paddock. They may be shiny and muscular, but they usually suffer from long periods of unnatural isolation in their stalls, have sore jaws and mouths from harsh metal bits, develop neck and back problems from hours of training in hyper-flexed positions, have their ears stuffed with cotton to prevent distractions during performance, are fed and injected with painkillers so they can continue to compete even when injured or worn out, and tend to turn to neurotic habits as a means of coping with hours of confined boredom punctuated by periods of intense stress and over-stimulation.

Many show riders are spoiled, selfish, and childish (if not actual spoiled, selfish children), who treat their horse as a vehicle on which to show off and exert their control, rather than as an animal with a unique psychology and individual personality. I was surprised that all this was being recognized by a Russian equestrian academy, and I wrote down the name to look it up.

Then things got weird. 

The academy was established by Alexander Nevzorov, a gifted horse trainer (“whisperer,” as people are wont to say). If you run a Google Image or Youtube search of him, you can see him performing complex dressage and trick riding maneuvers without a saddle, bridle, or any other kind of aid. Although his reputation as a rider is still widespread, according to his website, Mr. Nevzorov has recently become enlightened and now firmly believes that all riding is detrimental to a horse’s health. He and his wife, Lydia, have since started a pseudo-scientific, cult-like program to eradicate riding (especially equestrian sport) and bring out some kind of golden age of understanding between man and horse.

Nevzorov recently produced a strange, completely unfocused film known as “The Horse: Crucified and Risen,” and if you read the site, it’s clear that the Nevzorovs view horses about on the same level as Jesus: by their creed, a horse should never be punished, and actually never be made to do anything it doesn’t “consent” to do.

Isn’t there some kind of middle ground here? Is all riding necessarily “parasitizing on physical abilities of another living being,” as Nevzorov says on his bio page? Isn’t it unreasonable to think that human-horse relationships can exist on totally equal terms, with neither ever misunderstanding or irritating the other? I mean, unless you ride your horse, isn’t that basically just like owning the largest, most expensive, and most inconvenient dog possible?

It is possible to enroll in and live at the Nevzorov Academy, upon which you presumably begin life as some kind of monk-novice and make a cult-oath never to ride your horse again. Instead, Nevzorov has embarked on a project to teach horses Latin. I shit you not.

Only in Russia, folks. Only in Russia.

I will update this post with my experiences at non-fast food restaurants in Russia. There are of course plenty more frequented by AIFS students, (Mama Roma, O’Hooligan’s), but I’ve decided to review only the ones at which I have personally eaten. Many students are overwhelmed by Russian-language menus and less-than-stellar table service, and are intimidated out of St. Petersburg’s sit-down restaurants. This need not be!

Shtolle

This is actually a chain, but a surprisingly good one by Russian or even American standards. Their specialty is Russian cuisine, specifically meat pies. The two restaurants I’ve visited are more like cafes, with counter service but also with nice decor and seating areas. I highly recommend the rabbit and mushroom pie.

Conchita Bonita

I have to admit, I had rock-bottom expectations for a Latin restaurant/basement bar in St. Petersburg, but I was pleasantly surprised. The cuisine and decor are pan-Latin and South American, although most of the menu items are recognizable to anyone who’s been to a Tex-Mex place in the States. Every guest gets a free shot, and prepare to be impressed by the quality of the appetizers and entrees (unfortunately the desserts are the standbys you get in any other sit-down restaurant in the city). I recommend the nachos and taquitos. However, like many other downtown basement bars, seating is limited here (avoid busy hours) and it can get very hot and smoky when crowded. Still, this is the place to go if you need your Latin food fix.

Aragvi

This is a Georgian restaurant with a light, minimalist interior (so…not exactly authentic in terms of Georgianness) and has great views of the Fontanky canal. I recommend ordering several dishes (the entrees are rather small, with the exception of the appropriately enormous khachapuri adjaruli) to share. It is more expensive than the many other Caucasian restaurants around the city, so I would save it for a special occasion. But I do give it extra Georgian points for including a free bread basket with the meal, a rarity in Russia.

Sherlock Holmes

An English “pub,” complete with a brick-lined interior, engravings of London, and affordable beer. It is somewhat small and can be smoky when crowded, but I recommend it if you’re out with friends.

Tokyo City

This is one of the better sushi chains you can find in St. Petersburg. We actually had a hard time getting in, because the restaurants tend to be smaller and fill up quickly with couples, groups, and reservations. If you happen to walk in when it’s not crowded, the food is well worth it and sometimes there are even 2 for 1 sushi deals.

Testo

An Italian basement bar with a menu that changes daily, featuring mostly pasta and thin-crust pizza.  It is cheaper than most downtown ethnic restaurants, and had a better selection of authentic Italian food than other restaurants in Russia.

King Pong Cafe

This is a pan-Asian restaurant and is actually one of few establishments in Russia that I can see actually doing well in an American city. It has funky interior design, is not too expensive, and makes really good food. I recommend the Thai fried rice with either chicken or shrimp. It is the only good Asian food I’ve had since leaving London. Unfortunately the menu is only in Russian, and it can be difficult to decipher the Russian transliterations of Asian dishes and ingredients.

Vodapod (Waterfall)

I went to this restaurant for a friend’s 21st birthday party, and we (a group of 15-20 people) had a great time. It isn’t a far walk from IMOP, but if you’re taking the metro it is literally right across the street from Politechnicheskaya. The interior is light, open, and has a kind of ballroom/banquet-hall feel. I remember it was owned by Armenians–in any case, they do have a good selection of dishes from the Caucasus, and the khachapuri (cheese-bread) was a favorite. Around dinner time they also hire live musicians, who looked quite intimidating but were surprisingly good.

Kafe Zinger

It is almost impossible to miss Cafe Singer, located on the top floor of Nevsky Prospekt’s famous international bookstore, Dom Knigi (House of Books). The interior is absolutely beautiful, one of the best surviving examples of St. Petersburg Art Nouveau (many others were destroyed durign the Seige of Leningrad). The cafe also overlooks the Kazan Cathedral, which is perfectly lit at sunset. You definitely pay for the atmosphere as everything (pastries, beverages, small appetizer-type plates) is overpriced, but I think it’s worth at least one visit.

Kavkaz Bar

This Georgian basement bar is somewhat cheaper than Aragvi, and I found it had a better (by which I mean, more Georgian) wine menu. It has a nice atmosphere and they are good about accommodating larger groups.

Baltika Brew

Located right outside Palace Square (ie, very close to the Hermitage), I think this is the first sit-down place I went to in St. Petersburg. Food is somewhat expensive, but beer is about as good and cheap as it will get in the city, this being the restaurant/headquarters of Russia’s famous Baltika Brewery. The place is huge and easily accommodates large groups.

Teplo

This is about as [consciously] hipster as Russia is going to get. Each menu is a handmade scrapbook/”photo album,” and the walls are crowded with books, old maps, and antique decorations. The menu is in English, and I think all the waitstaff (with unbearably cute vintage aprons) are more or less fluent. It’s more on the expensive side (about 500 rubles per person for dinner), so I think it would be better for a date than going out with friends, although their breakfast options look more affordable. If you can’t afford dessert, you might get lucky and be given a complimentary bag of homemade assorted cookies. From the dinner menu, I recommend the shrimp with coconut sauce. As a smaller downtown restaurant, it’s difficult to walk in without reservations.

Khvanchkara Café

Of what I experienced in St. Petersburg, this restaurant wins the prize for Best Georgian: affordable and authentic. While Aragvi is overall a classier dining experience, Khvanchkara Café is a true Georgian family business, with the parents cooking in back while their adult children wait tables. The décor was straight out of a typical Tbilisi restaurant and the wait staff would occasionally break out the folk dance to their favorite Georgian songs. The khinkali were the best I had this semester—big, perfectly seasoned, not gristly—and most importantly, you can order them by the piece instead of being overcharged for a set portion. They also get points for carrying Georgian beverages, like Natakhtari beer/sodas, saperavi wine, etc.

Pelmeni

When you ask the average American to conjure up images of Russian cuisine, you get…dry brown bread? Potatoes?  Beet pulp masquerading as soup?

Now with 20% more wood shavings!

While Russia may not be able to compete with Mexican, Georgian, or Indian for my heart, it does have one thing going for it: pelmeni (пельмени), a dumpling filled with minced meat, fish, mushrooms, or potatoes.  A plate of off-white dumplings might not look like much to the untrained eye, but it forms the heart of Russian cuisine and culture. It is served in every Russian restaurant, is cooked in homes (and dorms) across the country, and every family likes to think it has its own special recipe.

Pelmeni originate in Siberia, so it is thought that dumplings spread westward from China. If you think about it, any food developed in Siberia is essentially the perfect trial-tested sustenance for college students. Pelmeni are valued because they can be kept frozen for long periods of time with almost no change in quality or flavor, and the water in which they are boiled can be used for soup. In Russia (an in other East European countries with similar dishes, like pierogies) frozen pelmeni have the same cultural associations as ramen in the U.S.: a food for students and bachelors who don’t do much real cooking.

My host mom is a cook, and I know that pelmeni are traditionally made in very large batches in a long and tedious process that can involve the entire family. This explains the Russian saying that “пельмешки не терпят спешки.” Literally this means “pelmeni can’t tolerate speed demons.” The saying is used, however, in the general sense of “good things come to those who wait.”

You can usually buy “home style” (домашний) pelmeni from grocery stores. Not only are these cheaper than buying bagged brands, but you get to feel special for eating authentic homemade pelmeni. In the photo above you can see the different variety of pelmeni: the traditional Russian style in the foreground, a pierogi-type turnover dumpling on the left, and the tiny little flying saucer pelmeni at the top. I’ve actually come to prefer the bagged brand (“Raviollo”) as the store brands can sometimes have blander, more gristly filling.

Here is a brief photo field guide to pelmeni:

Standard Russian pelmeni

smaller flying saucer pelmeni made in a mold

Khinkali--not pelmeni! These are Georgian meat dumplings, but you can often find them in the "pelmeni aisle" at Russian grocery stores, trying to camouflage and look all innocent.

Raviollo-brand pelmeni, my favorite so far of the affordable frozen brands


I have a fair amount of experience with study abroad/service learning, both in terms of the actual experience and its attendant bureaucracy. I volunteered in the Ecuadorian Amazon for two summers in high school, doing construction work and practicing Spanish. I have lived, researched, worked on an archaeology dig, and traveled throughout the Republic of Georgia for two summers in undergrad. I served as a work-study secretarial assistant for almost three years at my home university’s Office of International Programs. Most recently, I have almost completed a semester abroad in Russia.

I chose to preface this post with a mini-CV to make it clear that I am not just running my mouth based on a few months of lazy observations. After several years of both working with study abroad students and being one, I think I am qualified enough to make a few statements about the right and wrong reasons to study abroad in St. Petersburg.

These are the right reasons to study abroad in Russia:

–You are dedicated to learning Russian (which, it should be mentioned, is a widely spoken language also valued by the US Dept. of State, so it’s not like Swedish or Tagalog or something). Whether it’s for your career, your family, or an academic research interest, you are motivated to do what you have to in order to make the most of an immersion environment.

–You are dedicated to learning about Russian politics, history, contemporary society, art, culture, religion, etc. Once again, this may be a career or a personal choice, but either way you already know a fair amount about some things but are interested in expanding your knowledge about the country.

–You want to experience a different way of life. You understand the inevitable costs, inconveniences, and cold weather, but are willing to tolerate all that for a few months with the knowledge that the memories and learning experiences will be worth it for you.

These are the wrong reasons to study abroad in Russia:

–You want to get away from your home university. First of all, you will never really get away from it, as you’ll have to continually fill out paperwork, communicate with home professors, and sign up for courses for when you get back. Going abroad is just a temporary fix. Students who do this tend to be completely unprepared when they get here, because they usually chose their study abroad program arbitrarily. It’s hard to make the most of your study abroad semester(s) when you have no idea what’s going on or why specifically you are in this location.

–You want to visit a lot of nearby countries during your breaks. St. Petersburg is actually in a really terrible location for travel. Unlike in Western Europe, where you can book a $40 Ryanair flight to another country for the weekend, the least expensive flights from St. Petersburg to nearby cities (Copenhagen, Stockholm, Riga, Tallinn, Kiev) are $180-300. Any city within reasonable price range is also not going to be that much different in terms of climate, either, if you think you’ll want to escape to the beach at some point. The easily-reachable North European cities, like Helsinki, Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm also have reputations for being notoriously expensive. Kiev, Tallinn, Prague, and Bucharest are the best options if you want to save money. Students with bigger airfare budgets have also traveled to Greece, Turkey, and Egypt.

–You are a hipster and want to go where no other students are going in order to escape “American tourists” for an “authentic experience;” plus you want to be able to have real Soviet souvenirs. While Russia may seem like hipster heaven on the surface (given the sheer abundance of irony and cigarettes), you will hit a lot of roadblocks. Russians will not buy that you are poor-ish. Internet is not widespread. Clothing in St. Petersburg is expensive, and they don’t have Salvation Army. Record players are not a symbol of prestige. Russians will not like it when you drunkenly declare that you essentially love their country because it is amusingly “backwards.”

–Your boyfriend/girlfriend decided to study abroad in Russia this semester. You can’t handle long distance, see this as an extended couple’s vacation, and don’t care that you have little to no actual interest in the country. Unfortunately this happens. A lot. It is not fun for anyone involved. You also run the risk of not learning very much, as you will undoubtedly spend a lot of time with your significant other, speaking English.  If their language skills are more advanced than yours, you may also become dependent on them to speak for you in public—ordering at restaurants, buying metro passes, etc.–all the little things that make up an engaging study abroad experience.