I’ll blame my lack of posting on a few things. First, wrapping up finals season always comes with alternating bouts of productivity and extreme laziness, meaning that when I was working, I was burning the midnight oil, and when I wasn’t working, I really wasn’t. Second, Ryan got into Irkutsk two weeks ago, so between showing him Russia, making sure he knew where to go around the city and how to get there, and trying to keep him entertained, that’s occupied me, too. Finally, it’s Christmastime, which I’ve been preparing for with great anticipation (!). Check my next post for that.

But, having Ryan here to show around the streets of Irkutsk (he’s been clinging to my Irkutsk-Detroit analogy as an explanation for many of his discoveries) has been fun to one, see what I’ve learned since I got here almost four months ago equally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and two, to revisit and expand my knowledge about a few aspects of the life and culture I’ve been living.

Russian America. Our Buryatia trip hadn’t completely run down Midd’s budget for excursions for our Irkutsk group, so Elizabeth organized a van tour around Irkutsk two weeks ago after our classes. The theme of the tour was “Russian America and Irkutsk;” to give the appropriate history lesson (parts of which are from our Baikal studies learnings, parts from the tour). . . .

Russia’s expansion into Siberia began in the mid-sixteenth century with the explorer’s Ermak’s expeditions into the northern edge of mostly uninhabited Siberia, basically looking for furs and more land/power (think infant European mercantilism à la French in Canada, British in India, &c.). Russia’s sphere of influence slowly reached southward into the modern-day territory of Irkutsk Oblast’ (province) and the southern Russian Far East.

Ust’-Ilimsk, Bratsk, and Irkutsk (1661) were established as ostorgi (think trading posts not too dissimilar from French and English forts in North America) to coordinate the trade of Siberian furs, Chinese teas and silk, and other goods between European Russia to the west, East Asia, and Russian America, that is, Alaska, to the northeast. When the Moskovski Trakt, a land route leading to Moscow, reached Irkutsk in 1760, the city’s position as the unrivaled center of Siberian trade was confirmed.

Irkutsk also served the last mainstay in the journey to the northeast to the Bering Strait, which stood between the Asian Russian mainland and the virgin tract of Alaskan furs and gold. Entrepreneurs, travelers, and explorers alike had their last home-cooked meals and attended their last church services in the same places, some of which were still standing. It was around sites like this that the tour itinerary was planned.

Our tour began on the site of Irkutsk’s founding at the Spasskaya Church, around which the first city walls had stood, including basic living structures for permanent inhabitants and the traders (originally the word for “guests” was applied, though without carrying the warm connotations of familiar company; later the term “buyers” was used). Our tour guide, one of the head members of the Russian America Society of Irkutsk (in which my host sister, Masha, takes part, we figured out through random conversation), had a handy binder of portraits, old photographs, and maps to help illustrate her speech.

We didn’t actually go down too many streets that I hadn’t ever at least walked down or passed (in the city center, the oldest part of the city and thus, the part of the city the tour was around), but obviously, walking down the renamed Karl Marx Street, you don’t pick up the fact that the old fort wall used to be there, going around one of the three oldest churches in the city, which, thanks to the Soviet purges of the 1920s and 30s, was razed to its current, empty-square state. So, needless to say, it was a much appreciated addition to my Irkutsk education.

The day of the tour also happened to be that of the first blizzard of the season, so as interesting as our stops at the old trade buildings, administrative centers, monasteries, living quarters of the famous Russian explorers and managers of Alaska all were, piling back into the heated van was ecstasy. And I forgot my camera. Luckily, the city’s not going anywhere, so I’ll get the pictures to share before I leave in June.

Baikal, again. Last weekend, Ryan and I took a breather from Irkutsk (the smog, frozen perspiration of the river, and industrial fumes get frozen in our normal -15 to -30 deg. C. weather and just kind of hang around all day) on Baikal. My first weekend in Irkutsk, our coordinator Elizabeth had organized our first Baikal experience, so I thought it only fitting to give Ryan his first taste of the lake ASAP, too.

We got to the bus station, located in an almost-really-bad neighborhood, around midday, got our tickets for about $3, and hopped on for the hour and a half ride to Listvyanka. When I had arrived in Listvyanka three and a half months earlier, it was a bustling little, half-touristy lake village with the smells of fresh-caught and cooking fish wafting over the crowded market. Negative 25 deg. C. temps apparently change that, so Ryan’s and my arrival last weekend was a lot less exciting.

It was almost scary. There were a handful of people stretched out over the main 2-3 km. stretch of road along the lake, the café where we had a late lunch was deserted except for the three grumpy staff members. Judging from the strength of the salespeople’s calls of “Get your fresh [product] here,” you couldn’t have guessed that it was only Ryan and I walking through the half-emptied rows of tables at the market.

We walked a bit and got our pictures, and then decided to find a hostel as it was getting dark. Hung out around the hostel, watched a movie, and then turned in for the night. The next morning we got our free breakfast and headed out to find some more pictures before our marshrutka back to Irkutsk pulled up.

The Buryatiya experience. After having finished our Baikal studies class, and having done so in somewhat good form, Romany and I were looking forward to putting the experience out of our minds (this is the class of randomly connected chapters of history, ethnography, geology, &c. related to Baikal, presented in weekly 3-hour-long 1-on-2 sessions with the sometimes incomprehensible Pavel Alexandrovich). But, when we, with Ryan, found ourselves in the Irkutsk Theater for Youthful Viewers named for Aleksander Vampilov (just a name) at a Buryatian and Russian Folk Dance concert, we found that our knowledge could be put to some use.

Romany’s Buryatian friend Zhakka performed in a few of the dance numbers. All three of us Americans (standing out very obviously in the sea of Mongoloid Buryat faces attending the concert–mostly family and friends of the performers; it reminded me of being at family functions of Filipino friends in grade school) enjoyed the show–a lot, actually. In addition to the first song and dance performed by a group of aging Buryats, slightly off-tune but as enthusiastic and earnest as anything, there was a lot of mixing of traditional costume, dance forms, and music with more flashy, stylized, and techno motifs.

What struck me most was how much the entirety of the show appealed to the entirety of the age-spectrum of the audience: Western and mainstream cultures seem to lack a lot of the inter-generational appreciation that traditional ones, including the Buryatian one, maintain so well. Buryatiya, much like Russia, situated on the border of Asia’s steppe and Europe’s taiga, is an interaction of the Far East with Central Asian and Slavic culture, and I loved being able to see and point out, thanks to my time here, how strikingly the dance, music, and audience-performer interactions all reflected idiosyncrasies of the people. Romany and I could point out the intensity of the Buddhist-based clockwise circular movements; the seriousness of the reenactments of snapshots of religious, hunting, and livestock-raising life; and the jubilant unpredictability of shamanistic practices. Too bad that we couldn’t have just gone to this show with Pavel Aleksandrovich and talked about it afterwards instead of taking our final. . . .

The final countdown. Excluding the three and a half hour Middlebury exit testing last Friday, Tuesday through Friday of this week I had a final every day, and two on Tuesday. Cramming for language testing isn’t that helpful, so I didn’t try and I didn’t get stressed out at the fact that I couldn’t. I’d say that I’m kind of disappointed with how much I learned as far as grammar rules, syntactical structures, and so on go, but that’s only because (I think) that those are the measures of learning that I’m used to measuring up against.

The whole cultural adjustment, figuring out public transportation, figuring out how to literally walk a bit more Russian– figuring out life from scratch, basically, is another education in and of itself, and compared with the fresh-out-of-America-ness of Ryan, my baby-step successes are put in a little bit clearer light. So I’m moderately to rather pleased with how much of both that I’ve got. That said, I’m looking forward to actually getting a lot more done “for the record” (i.e. GPA, resume, &c.) next semester, especially since I won’t be having to worry (as much) about trying to not get lost.

  1. rahallsten says:

    fresh-out-of-America-ness? I am doing quite well I will have you all know.

  2. […] a quick browse through the Aritsts’ House (Dom khudozhnikov) next door, from which our Russian American Irkutsk expedition had taken off, Romany and I found a random art gallery advertised on the side of the street. The […]

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