Monday, April 7, 2008


Last week it became glaringly apparent to me that it was high time I take a break from Russia. On Monday I found myself glaring at foreigners walking down Nevskii Prospekt, mumbling to myself about their obtrusive presence, by Tuesday I had lost any interest in food aside from bread and salami. Out of fear of becoming even more bitter and beginning to take even more satisfaction in not needing to use any of the manners I grew up being forced to adhere to, I decided that it was time to hop across the border to Russia's highly civilized neighbor, Finland.

This weekend was also my friend Alexis' birthday, so off we went in hopes of rejuvenating the mind and body and celebrating her day without any guilt.

Thursday night we packed up and met the night bus to Helsinki, which leaves a short 5 minute walk from my front door. Getting on to the bus (which is a Finnish, not Russian, company) we immediately noticed a difference in behavior. Unlike the loud, often vodka consuming passengers that usually greet you as you step onto trains in Russia, we entered a silent bus where everyone quickly took their seats, turned off their overhead lights and went to sleep. So civilized. After about three hours we reached the border, had our passports and visas checked 5 times including one walk through passport control, and then reloaded the bus for the remaining three hour drive.

Our only real problem with the night bus is that we arrived at 5 am to Helsinki, before anything was open. We sat in the bus station reading about Finland and practicing our Finnish for a while, waiting for the sun to come up, and then ventured out into the city. I have posted a bunch of pictures, so I won't go into too much detail, except to say that Helsinki is the perfect vacation from Petersburg. Had I discovered this earlier, I may have spent far too much of my Fulbright year in Finland. The city is amazingly clean, quiet, without the massive pushing and shoving crowds of Russia, full of extremely polite and friendly people, running and biking trails everywhere, and the food is excellent. I could live out of some of the cafes we found.

Friday's weather was beautiful for walking around, and both of us got sunburns on our faces. Saturday was overcast, but we went to a museum, found great Indian food, and went out for birthday dessert at one of the nice hotels overlooking the park in the center of the city. Sunday morning we got on the early bus and somewhat unwillingly made the trip back to Petersburg, where I am now writing from.

Click here for pictures!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Medvedev's victory

Here is a decent article from the NYTimes about the elections here yesterday:

And another one from the St. Petersburg Times about Medvedev's monopoly on airtime during the "election season":

And here is a great one which shows just how little free speech there is here:

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Upcoming primaries... in the US

Unfortunately, I will not be able to participate in the upcoming Maine caucus since I am in Russia, but for anyone who might be reading and is perhaps undecided about who to vote for in the primaries, I definitely encourage you to watch this new music video whose lyrics are taken from Obama's speech after the New Hampshire primary. I was incredibly inspired by his words, and I hope that you will be too:

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Moscow, Tula, Yasnaya Polyana and back to Petersburg

While I realize that this will probably be the worst post thus far, especially after not posting for almost a month, I just wanted to add some links to more pictures I have posted. I realized that I can post a link here to my pictures on facebook, where I have been putting up many more photos than here. Some of them will be repeats, but feel free to check it out!

Right now getting ready for an interview I wasn't expecting, and getting ready for my trip back to the states next week! Will update about my most recent adventures soon. For now enjoy the pictures!!


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Vyborg and a broken camera

After spending a long Saturday in gloom and doom, wallowing in my need for a vacation from Russia, on Sunday I made a trip to a more provincial Russian town that completely turned my gloom and doom around, and (at the risk of sounding seriously cheesy) reminded me why I love Russia so much.

Sunday morning I met my friends Alexis and Masha at the train station in complete darkness, despite it being 9 am, and boarded the electrichka for the two and a half hour trip to Vyborg. As we rode north-west through birch forests and past tiny groups of houses clustered around the railway stations toward this provincial town near the Finnish border, we were eventually greeted by a soft rosy dawn. By noon we had arrived in Vyborg, and Masha's friend Katia, who grew up in Vyborg, greeted us at the train station to show us around.

As we started our walk around Vyborg, with Katia telling us the history of the town, the town's Finnish side was really fun to see. The architecture of the buildings was distinctly Finnish and people around us were speaking both Finnish and Russian. We went to the fortress and climbed its tower, which gave us a great view of the city, walked down tiny cobblestone streets and went to the market in the center of the town, where vendors yelled out to us in Finnish, and then in Russian. The air was so much cleaner than Petersburg, and I was really happy to have a break from the city life. Masha's friend Katia was wonderfully sweet and completely unphased by our accents in Russian, which is always nice.

Unfortunately, I didn't realize my camera battery was dead, and so I am waiting for pictures from Masha and Alexis. For now, check out the wikipedia site for some pictures:

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Kronshtadt and the Dijeridu

This Sunday my friend Alexis and I ventured out to Kronshtadt, a former naval base on Kotlin Island about 30 km out into the Bay of Finland and a little over an hour's trek from St. Petersburg. Closed to foreigners until 1996, the island is connected by a very long bridge to the mainland.

After arriving at the far northern metro station Chornaya Rechka (not far from where Pushkin famously received his deadly wound in a duel) Sunday morning, we sought out the marshrutka that would supposedly take us to Kronshtadt. I should mention here that a marshrutka is sort of a cross between a taxi and a city bus, you can hail them down anywhere along their normal route and ask the driver to stop at any point along the way. The drivers seem to be self-employed businessmen. Surprisingly, we found the bus parked exactly where our trusty Lonely Planet guide had informed us it would be. After expressing astonishment in a very Russian manner at the price of the marshrutka -- 40 rubles instead of the normal 18, bringing the price up to almost 2 dollars --- we boarded the bus and thought we were on our way. But, as it usually is, nothing can go quite according to plan, and the driver waited until he had filled every seat until he would leave Petersburg. At this point I began to realize that maybe Kronshtadt was a little further away than I thought.

Finally, we set off in our humble mini-bus and headed north-west out of Petersburg. We arrived on the island about 40 minutes later after driving through several different towns, all extremely rural and not in very good condition. As we were crossing the bridge to the island I began to realize that it was not anything like I was expecting; from a distance I could see industrial sites, new high rise block style apartment buildings being constructed, and old soviet-era buildings. After making our way through these areas, we arrived in the center of a town that looked like any provincial Russian town. The bus stopped, and the remaining passengers confusedly exited; no one seemed to know that this was the last stop until the driver informed us, which made Alexis and I feel a bit better about our own confusion.

We set off walking down Lenin St., and after stopping into a church we thought was the one Lonely Planet referred to, began inquiring on the street where the fortress was located, where there was a famous rebellion. Responses ranged from "I don't know, I'm from Petersburg" to "There is no fortress here, we don't have a fortress." Taking the advice of one friendly babyshka who lives on the island, we headed off in the direction of the Naval Cathedral. From here we found barracks of the former fortress, an eternal flame, a monument to sailors, some ships, a lighthouse, and a statue of Peter the Great. (Check out the pictures below) We could not find any information about the site of the famous Kronshtadt rebellion against the Bolsheviks in 1921; perhaps that part of history has been forgotten by the Kronshtadski. The weather was so much better on Kronshtadt than in Petersburg, which made it hard to come back.

After strolling back to the center of town we once again boarded trusty marshrutka k-405 and made our way back to Petersburg. Although late, we managed to make it to a concert at the "Stray Dog" cafe. The husband of another Fulbrighter in Petersburg had joined a group of contemporary musicians for the gig, which is why we had planned to go. Little known fact: within certain contemporary music circles in Petersburg, the dijeridu is really quite popular. If like me, this instrument sounds like something you maybe heard about on a PBS special, check out the pictures below. Once mainly an aboriginal Australian instrument, now the instrument of choice with the in-crowd in Petersburg. Although our friend Dimitrius did not play the dijeridu, instead opting for flute and sax, he managed to jump into the mayhem better than I expected! The sound of multiple dijeridus together is really, really fascinating, and Dimitrius' skills on the flute and avant-garde experimenting totally blew me away, even though he told me later that this stuff was wild and not what he usually does.

This week I am trying to get some work done, and on Sunday I am taking a trip to Vyborg, a small town on the border with Finland. Also hoping to get to Helsinki in the next month or so!

Map of Bay of Finland (St Petersburg is on the right, the island out in the bay is Kotlin Island, where Kronshtadt is located)

Eternal Flame dedicated to the sailors of Kronshtadt

Art-nouveau monument near the Naval Cathedral

The Naval Cathedral, now home to a sailor's club and cinema

Ships off Petrovsky Park

Monument to Peter the Great (you can never have enough of these!)

Dijeridu concert at the Stray Dog

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Three month mark and parliamentary elections

Today marks the start of my fourth month in Russia; I cannot believe how the time has passed. On the one hand, I feel as if I just got here, on the other I feel like I have always lived here and can't really imagine being anywhere else. All of the funny little things that are part of living here, like needing to leave everything but your purse in a locker at the entrance to a grocery store, or the fact that everyone always seems to be carrying a plastic shopping bag for extra things (something I do now too -- so practical!) feel as normal to me as Starbucks and Stop 'n' Shop. The fact that I have no control over the heat in my apartment, and the fact that a fridge is not a standard appliance in apartments in Petersburg do not faze me any longer. I love that I can wear the same two outfits all the time and no one bats an eye, and that I can get free cab rides by offering to teach the driver a couple of phrases in English.

I realized that I have not really written much about my research here, so I thought I would write a little about that. The past three months have been a roller coaster which has included fascinating talks with museum curators, and lots of frustration over the way people interact professionally in Russia. The most difficult part of doing research here that involves meeting with people is, perhaps understandably, getting them to meet with you! Throughout September and October I was continually confused by the fact that if you agree to meet with someone at a certain place at a certain time, it generally doesn't mean you will actually meet until you call each other at that time and say that you will actually meet. A lot of times people will call and just ask you to meet right away... as in as soon as you can physically get yourself to the location where they are! This system goes entirely unspoken of course, and left me bewildered until I got used to it.

In October I went to a conference at the Hermitage entitled "The Museum and the Media," and I was able to observe a lot of interactions between museum officials and of course... the media. Although the conference was presumably designed to shed light on the complexity of the relationship between museums and the media, I kept seeing in the setting of the conference itself, outside of the speakers, this relationship reduced to its most basic level. I was amazed to see firsthand how much of a celebrity the director of the Hermitage is here; photographers and journalists followed him around like paparazzi whenever he appeared at the conference. I also managed to get into the press preview of the first exhibition of the new "Hermitage 20/21" project, which will display the Hermitage's future collection of modern and contemporary art, on the first day of the conference. Piotrovskii, the director of the Hermitage, was there, and of course there were tons of journalists and photographers hanging on his every word and gesture. The press conference at which he answered questions ended quickly with silence on the part of the journalists, and no one seemed to ask him any challenging questions. The cult of personality seems to be present in a lot of different arenas here, not just in politics. During one of the coffee breaks at the conference I managed to meet the director of the Tate in London, Stephen Deuchar, who was incredibly down to earth and really sweet, a great contrast to Piotrovskii.

So far I have been studying what elements of the Hermitage have become more modern in recent years (my starting point is the breakup of the Soviet Union, when funding and governance of the museum entirely changed) and what elements have stayed the same. I also did some research on the Akhmatova museum here, a small house museum dedicated to the Russian poet and writer Anna Akhmatova, for comparison. This is a museum that seems to have changed drastically in the past few years, and now regularly puts on exhibitions of contemporary art that don't appear to be related to Akhmatova at all. This week I am meeting a woman who works at the supposedly super-modern Hermitage art storage facility to see the site and talk with her about what she does. The more I read about the Hermitage, the more it seems like it is just a microcosm of Russia itself: sprawling, slowed down by a dense and thick bureaucracy, plagued by inefficiency and resources skewed toward those who need it the least. Despite all this, like the country in which it is found, within its dimly lit rooms, peeling paint and widely flung-open windows, the Hermitage contains an undeniable charm that cannot be found anywhere else.

Oh, and as for the parliamentary elections that took place today: it seems Putin's party has won in a landslide. No surprises there, but it will be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of days and weeks. Candidates for president have until around the 23rd to declare their candidacy.

The view from my friend Masha's window, she lives on the far northern edge of the city:

When we only had minor snow....

Exhibition at the Akhmatova museum: