Week 13: Once upon a December (+Quotables)

Posted: December 4, 2009 in Иркутск, Quotable
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

December has a special meaning (kind of) for Eastern Siberia (the region of the middle of Siberia, not the Far East), if not just for Irkutsk. For better or for worse, it has nothing to do with the Mandy Moore song (blog post’s title) or the Disney movie Anastasia about the last Russian tsar, in which the song is featured.

The history. The unsuccessful Decembrist Revolt against the tsar of Dec. 14, 1825 by the so-called “Decembrists” (dekabristy), a relatively small group of high-ranking members of the army, bureaucracy, and society, resulted in a variety of sentences for the group’s punishment. Most were sent to the area around Irkutsk to do hard labor in mines for a number of years, and then were required to settle in Siberia for the rest of their term before they were allowed to return to the European part of the country, excluding Moscow or Petersburg.

The expedition. On Wednesday, our grammar teacher, Irina Melentievna, organized an expedition for us 3 Americans and the German/Austrian/Swiss group of international students (6 of them came) to Irkutsk’s Decembrist Museum, which is the renovated house of the wife of the Decembrist Sergei Grigoriyevich Volkonskii.

It’s a nice, two-story, Russian wooden house (in the Siberian style, meaning the ceiling beams are waxed and door thresholds are higher) with the typical, classical ideal of Russian aristocratic decoration and functionality of the 19th century (meaning French/European, basically). After it’s use as a collective apartment during the Soviet period, when 15-20 families lived there at once (it’s big, but not that big), it was restored to it’s current condition.

The tour goes through most of the rooms of the house, beginning with the domestic upstairs, where Volkonskii’s wife, Marya Nikolaevna, and their children lived through the years Vokonskii served his hard labor sentence, and then once the “home arrest” portion of his exile began. The only still-working pyramid-shaped piano in the world is housed there, and special concerts are still given on it. Journals, stitch-work, and other such aristocratic domestic trifles were also preserved and exhibited.

Lots of pictures too: I even saw a picture of the Decembrist, Podzhio, the role of whom I played in the summer school play (after I as D’Antes got killed). There was also a mirror that’s supposed to make girls prettier and guys smarter when they look into it. I looked into it. Jury’s out on its efficacy.

Quotable 1: Irina Melentievna, during the introduction, even, was intent on making sure we understood everything that was said, interrupted the tour guide about 10 times to either ask her to talk slower, explain it to us, or ask us what she had said. We (Romany, Patrick, and myself) picked up on most of it, but the Germans were a bit more loss, but only because we Americans have had more Russian, not to comment on the mental abilities of the Deutch.

Anyways, after preceding upstairs after the intro, the tour guide, a 20-something blonde (girl), politely announced that questions were to be saved until the end. Irina Milentievna didn’t agree, “This is a special case, don’t you see? They’re ‘for-eign-ers’.” As much as this might have been true, I think everyone else in the room (thank God that it was just us for-eign-ers on the tour) was on the tour guide’s side, who was just (rather well, I’ll add) doing her job. And we really did understand what she was saying.

Quotable 2. The beautiful dining room, sitting rooms, and office of the first floor (used for entertainment) are also still used for special concerts, meals, and so forth. In the green velvet and leather-clad male office/lounge, our tour guide shared, “The walls are green because they thought that it helped calm men down.” We smiled to indicate that we had understood the funny wives’ tales of 19th century rich people. She went on, “and I’d say that we’d all agree that today it’s a known fact that the color green calms you down.” . . . Oh?

Old friends. In honor of A.S. Pushkin’s 210th birthday this year, there was also a neat Pushkin exhibit in the final room of the tour, since Pushkin was a sort of wanna-be Decembrist, but was more or less too chicken because the tsar had kind of taken him under his wing because he liked Pushkin’s poetry. Regardless, Pushkin was an acquaintance, childhood schoolmate, or friend of many of the real rebels, and wrote the poem “In the depths of the Siberian mines. . .” to them in exile, giving a small, rolled-up copy of the poem to one of their wives to hide in her hair-do, who was permitted to visit and be married to her fiancé in the work camps. In Buryatia, we saw the graves of a few of the Decembrists who received this secret message of commiseration, the poem engraved on the above gravestone. The museum exhibit had excerpts from his journals relating to his relations with them.

The museum’s “December Nights” events will start in a week or two, which means good concerts on old instruments in an old house, so I’m planning on trying to make it back there for that. I’ll try to remember the camera that time.

In other news:

  • My presentation at, and I quote from the top of the program, “Regional Sciences Konferentsia of the Young Scientists of the Department of Socio-Economic Disciplines” (the title sure beats Midd’s silly little “Symposia”) was a success. Different departments at the faculty have these student conferences near the end of the semesters for independent research, which involves a 10-15 page paper and the presentation/defense of it. Basically, you get a little certificate, and that’s about it. Patrick and I (labeled as “Interns, U.S.A.” on the program) were the only non-Russians, but it was encouraging to see that we functioned on more or less the same level that they did. So, I read my presentation and clicked through my slides, got asked a few questions and stumbled through mostly informed answers in Russian, got my applause, and got to go back to my grammar class.
  • Ryan (from summer school, not my brother) is coming tomorrow! He’ll be here almost ’til the New Year visiting and checking out the city/Midd program before he does his study abroad here next semester.
  • A long weekend of research and writing and studying ahead of me tonight. Luckily, new company and Vova’s birthday dinner will serve as sufficient distraction.

The Siberian winter goes on, hitting -8 deg. F. temps last night, but the colder it gets, the more these Siberian folk, including myself, are seeming to enjoy it.


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