Posts Tagged ‘Irkutsk’

Our longest ride of the week–40 hours–came next: Chita to Khabarovsk on the Irkutsk-Vladivostok train. Most of our wagon-mates were on ’til the end of the line. More notably, nearly a third of the car consisted of a band of Uzbek migrant workers.

They were spread out through the car, but it seemed that the “main” guy was one of the two sitting across from us, since the others came to him for tea, bread, etc., for which it seemed they had pooled their money together.

Most of them had made the early spring journey from Central Asia to the Far East coast to work during the warm, shipping season before. The main guy/our neighbor told us that he owned a grocery shop back home with several employees, but still needed the extra money from summer work–a fate to which he seemed to measuredly resigned. (more…)


SURPRISE #1. Since I was unopposed, I have won my election and am excited to have been named president of Sputnik for the 2010-2011 year. Hooray! Thanks for your support (?). Note: No bribes were involved in this. I swear.

"Party of the people." Photo AP.

Photo AP.

SURPRISE #2. Since Irkutskites, so they say, are heirs of the revolutionary spirit of their Decembrist predecessors, Moscow-administration chosen candidate Sergei Serebryannikov did NOT win the Irkutsk mayoral elections yesterday, and the other (independently, self-nominated) United Russia/KDFR candidate (Kondrashov) will take his seat as mayor soon.

Yevgenii Yevgenievich shared this news with me yesterday with a great deal of excitement. He didn’t know the name of “other candidate”, but just knew he wasn’t the guy that Moscow wanted.

On the other hand, Tatyana Eduardovna was disappointed with the results, as she and her boss (city duma deputy) were pulling for Serebryannikov. She was all aflutter last night, (more…)

"You're stronger and bolder from year to year, army of the Soviet people!"

"You're stronger and bolder from year to year, army of the Soviet people!"

Since the holiday began a many year ago when, of course, men defended the country and women stayed home to have babies and cook, I’ll save the discourse on sexist discrimination for another day.

The abbreviated history: the day was started under Lenin to honor those in the Red army, but once “the Fatherland”/USSR fell to pieces, they decided to call it “Men’s Day,” to balance Women’s Day on March 8. Or read the long history.

But, old names stick. Ryan and I went to a concert at the Philharmonic, bearing the name of the former holiday, attracting the age group of people most attached to such a name (i.e., seniors). It was also free, attracting a larger than normal attendance, as well as two poor American students, yours truly. (more…)

At the gate to my flight from Berlin to Moscow, again surrounded by the fur-donning crowd of Russland, I’ll admit, there was slight dread of going back. That was the closest to home I’d be for another five months. Landing in Moscow and re-arriving in Irkutsk four days after that, though, were happy enough meetings of Russia, that old friend, that one….

Russian birch on a pathI remembered the Irkutsk bus numbers and all the useful parts of life, but apparently had forgotten declension endings. That’s the revenge of the language pledge after two weeks of breaking it, I suppose. It was vacation.

Romany and I spent a good deal of time together the first half-week/weekend after my Wednesday arrival. One day, we traipsed around Irkutsk in the falling snow (meaning slightly warmer-feeling temperatures). I totally spaced on bringing my camera, and I want to revisit a lot of these places, too, so pictures of these places will come eventually.

First we hit the Officers’ House (Dom ofitserov), rumored to be a cool building with schizophrenically interesting and/or open exhibits through its halls of random offices and businesses. (more…)

To properly describe my experience in the realm of the Russian “holiday season,” if such a concept actually exists as a period defined apart from the general conception of everyday life in this country, then I should go back to my Thanksgiving holiday here.

Walking out of a delightful evening of intercultural dialogue (conversation over wine with Russians) on the last Thursday of November, passing the central market, my cohorts and I noticed that within the past few hours, a gargantuan “Happy New Year’s” light-up sign with accompanying fir garlands had been hung on the face of the main shopping mall. That may have made my Thanksgiving more complete than the sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie had.

I don’t consider myself a total minion of the U.S. of Consumerism Culture that I left behind in order to spend the holidays abroad. But, I won’t lie, the probably coincidental Black Friday start of the Russian end-of-the-year shopping season with the Irkutsk central market’s sign-hanging and Christmas-tree construction really did touch my little heart, somewhere between my conviction that Christmas is the “Season for Giving” and my capacity to get an adrenaline rush when I see big red signs including the symbols “-” and “%.”

Thanks to the Soviet reconstruction of, well, everything, (more…)

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). . . .


There’s not really a midterm season here. Or, there is, simply by the fact that it’s “midway through the term,” but that’s about its only defining characteristic. But for the sake of preserving traditions from the homeland, here’s my exam schedule and otherwise busy schedule. . . .

Exam schedule (“exam” in the singular). I had my first test that counts for a grade of my Russian life on Wednesday. It was in Microeconomics, that is, the class from which I was absent for 5 weeks. But since I met with the professor for about an hour on Monday (which she’s offered, and I’ve accepted, to make it a weekly thing), I felt caught up. Part of that was the fact I read about 60 pages of the econ textbook for about 4 hours one night, and then then did everything in the little course workbook/pamphlet that I had missed.

So in preparation for our 5-question, short answer vocabulary test (i.e. “midterm” “exam”), I just went back and re-read all the definitions a few times. Basically, turned out to be the easiest midterm of my college career. And the only reason I give said accomplishment any credit is the fact it is one of 3 factors of our grades, which are even more subjective than college grades anyways (a test, a paper, and participation/showing up). And the fact that I did it all in Russian. Yay me, right. . . ?

Taking the test with Russians was also an experience. First off, when I walked into the class, everyone was frantically tossing notebooks and asking each other definitions (including “What does ‘economic efficiency’ mean?” which I assumed was one of those terms, where even if you didn’t know it was the “relationship of input to output,” you could theoretically write anything dealing with either “economy” or “efficiency” and basically get it right. . . I guess they’re only freshman, right?).

Second, the Russian ideal of the “collective” doesn’t stop when tests begin–the constant murmur/talking went right on through the test, even right on through when the teacher was reading the next question. I could mayyybe understand how this might be acceptable in the culture, etc., but I was thrown off by the fact that there were two separate lists of questions that the teacher read, one for each form of the test. Hm.

Afterwards, I was talking to one of the friends I’ve made in that class, Vova, and asked him how it was. He laughed and said, “Not that great,” but shrugged it off: apparently, you can also ask to re-take tests, no questions asked, well. . . bad choice of expressions.

Otherwise busy schedule. So on top of a freak phenomenon of us actually having slightly more homework this week, I also had my two English lessons to help out at on Tuesday and Thursday in the center, as well as had a date or two to keep, which included one on Wednesday to the theatre, since I and Romany each had 2 tickets to the theatre from our grammar prof.

The performance was great, as my companion Nelli (a Petersburger who frequents the theatre there and who also acts) and I agreed. The show was “Starshii syn,” (The Older Son) at the Irkutsk Dramaturgical Academy Theatre, directed by an ex-student of our professor’s, who had especially given her 6 tickets (Patrick and his date didn’t show) to share the Irkutsk theatre scene with her Americans. It was staged in the small side theatre of the main theatre downtown, which I loved, seeing as it reminded me of all the intimate Hepburn-Zoo-like theatre spaces on campus back at Middlebury.

The set was very cool: it perfectly recreated a courtyard outside of a Soviet period apartment building built over a train station, broken concrete, puddles, sandbox, bench, under-used trash can and all. At first I was under the impression it was a sort of modernistic, deconstructionist set/production, eerily predicting a strange urban future of the world, but then I realized it was more or less just Soviet.

The plot involved two students, Vladimir and Vasilli, who missed a late-night train home in the early fall, got cold, and decided to crash in an apartment occupied by a 17-year old kid waiting for his father to come home. Vladimir decides to make up the fact that he’s also the son of the kid’s father, and the plot unfolds with the new “son” and his friend having to keep to their lie, falling in love with the father, and then with the already-engaged “sister” and the neighbor, whom the younger “brother” is also trying to date. Oh, and the father has bad nerves and breaks down right before he learns the truth, and his two real children are about to leave him at home alone with their marriage and studies. When he does learn the truth, he closes his eyes to the deceit and takes Vladimir as his son.

Even though the too-happy (Soviet) ending disagreed with my taste for the potential tragedy of the situation, I appreciated the depiction of the father’s love for “his children,” as was displayed in a tender scene when he interrupted his daughter’s fiance’s toast to his health, and instead made a toast to “his children,” which included everyone on stage, and in a sense, it felt like the audience too, for no other reason but the fact that he loved them and wished them the best.

. . . Generally, I’m not sure how I feel about the fact I haven’t been held accountable (i.e. testing/grading-wise) for any of the material out of my other classes, i.e. the ones that I’m paying for to actually help get rid of grammar and syntax errors every other word or three. Nonetheless, even if the midterms at the IGU Mezhfak aren’t as formidable a stress-fest as Middlebury’s, I had a busy enough week to feel like a 10-day adventure to Mongolia and back is deserved enough.

Check back here on Mon., Nov. 2 when I’ll return from abroad-abroad. ‘Til then, I’ll be on a train or camel or in a yurt, journal and camera in hand.

No pictures of Irkutsk yet. My apologies. I’m still placing myself in the I-don’t-look-Russian-enough-to-pose-as-a-student-at-The-Photography-of-Architecture-Institute-which-doesn’t-exist category in order to take pictures of ugly Soviet apartment buildings.

By the time I do categorize myself as such, I’ll probably have some weird new aesthetic for concrete, meaning I probably won’t apologize for sending lots of probably not-that-interesting pictures, so I’m doing it in advance.

That said, I am starting to take a mostly unconditional liking to the city life of Irkutsk.

I like leaving my window open for “fresh” (city) air at nighttime, which produces the effect of living four stories up from some back, relatively calm street of Manhattan, yet with cars rolling by with music blaring, people walking by shouting, car horns and alarms continually going off. . . in short, produces the effect of living four stories up from some back, relatively quiet street of Irkutsk.

After classes end, usually around 3 p.m., I take the slightly longer walk to the bigger bus stop where I can get a bus for 2 rubles cheaper (6 cents) because 1) I like maximizing my outside time, since I’m spending a lot more time indoors anymore, and 2) I feel good about saving the money. This will add up to about $10 by the end of the year, if I keep it up. This will translate into ice-cream money.

But taking midday busses (or trolley-buses – the one’s with the electric wires overhead, same price) might be my favorite thing to do in Irkutsk. In addition to it representing the end of the school day and a nap to come in the 30-minute future, the clientele of 80% elderly people quietly sit there, all looking out the window, the afternoon sun that usually comes out after the morning fog, and the general peace and quiet despite the fact that I’m still in the city, all usually end up being a consistently good 15 minutes of the day.

The nighttime busses are fun too. Everyone’s in black (which they are all day, too, it’s just more striking at night or something). There’s young people leaving from and getting to different bus stops to buy alcohol and drink with their friends behind the bus stops. And it’s generally darker on the streets than most of your city/suburb streets of the U.S., which contrasts with the fluorescent lights of the busses and of the alcohol-and-cigarette kiosks in a cool way. All meaning that nighttime is just as exciting and abuzz as daytime. The city thing. . . .

A few of my stops over the past week:

Sunday. Church (tserkov’). Found the Roman Catholic church in the city center online, which has a 10:00 mass. When I got there, mass was in the basement chapel, since the main church is mostly for like tourism. Polish priest, mostly Polish people there. Their accent (which is actually more understandable to me than the Russian one) is basically comprised of not mumbling and replacing the L sound with a W. But mostly everything about mass was the same. . . only it was in Russian. Plus they dip the host in the wine, like the Orthodox. And they do a rosary after Mass. Meaning I basically have the Hail Mary in Russian down.

Monday. Pool (bassein). After being turned away on my first attempt to swim at Sportzal Izumrud due to my not having a swimming cap, this time, I came ready. This included: the necessary doctors note indicating that my hands didn’t itch and that I at least thought I was healthy (see “Example 3” in my post about my trip to the clinic), the extra stamp on the doctors note indicating that the gym knew I had the doctors note, my new little paper ID card with my picture on it, the stamp on my new ID card indicating that I had shown my student ID to the woman at the desk indicating that I was a student in order to receive the student rate, the receipt that I had paid the 100 ruble student rate, and my coat-and-shoe check ticket. Surprisingly handing all these over in a nice and organized little stack, I got my temporary locker key and proceeded to the locker room.

Changed. Gave my key to the locker room attendant (another generally stern-looking woman). Took the mandatory 5-minute shower. Added the cap and goggles. Proceeded to the start line. When the previous 40-minute session was up and the buzzer sounded, the previous group got out of the pool, and I with the next got in. Exactly 40 minutes later, I got out. Subtracted cap and goggles. Took the next mandatory shower (no time suggestion). Got my key back from the locker room attendant. Changed. And left. Talk about structure. . . .

Tuesday. Mexican restaurant (meksikanskii restoran). Nana, the director of the Middlebury School in Russia, our program, was in town and took us out to dinner to chat, see how we were doing, etc.

Ha. Great. “Rio Grande” was the name of the joint. I had heard rumors of this place for two years at Midd from Irkutsk alumni. I’d have to rate it as living up to all the quirkiness promised. The decor, the outfits, the sign reading “Texas, 10 km. Mexico, 15 km,” the chips that were more like sopapillas with a ton of salt, the salsa that was more like tomato puree. It was a nice dinner, tasted good enough, reminded me enough of home to enjoy it, gave us things to laugh about and explain to Nana why they were, well, wrong, and it was free, to boot. Go Midd.

Wednesday. Cut class (progulivat’ uroki). Don’t worry, I went to my classes, just not the ones at the lycee: on Saturday, I had gone to the IGU Lycee, a high school connected with my university, to see their students’ “konferentsia” (conference), which consisted of a guest lecturer from IGU’s ChemFak (he rambled for 40 minutes about the history of natural science and how that meant it was important for them to go to college? Note, I’m not loosing the message in translation here) and 2+ hours of 8th graders’ PowerPoint presentations on random topics with varying degrees of coherence/incoherence, of peer approval/inattention, and of interest on the judges’ part, displayed by how many or how serious of questions they asked at the end.

This meant that the little boy who measured air pollution in different parts of his apartment for like a month or something did rather well. Alternately, this meant that the little girl, who tried applying the scientific method to (the history of?) punctuation and who ended up telling us at length about what each punctuation mark means, was eventually asked by the main judge, “Do you feel like you know more about punctuation marks now?” As an aside, she answered (lied?), “Punctuation marks have always been my favorite part of the beautiful Russian language, and I think I use them very well.”

Regardless, I told my host, Olga Nikolaevna, I’d come back the following Wednesday, but accidentally at a time I had class, so I didn’t go to high school. I’ll go back next week sometime.

Thursday. Club (klub). Pronounced “kloop.” The name of this club meant “attic,” which I think is just supposed to carry the meaning of a cool, hip, hidden place to hang out, not like anything seedy.

It was a kind of kitschy decor, but nice, they played good music, would have been better if there were more people. More young people, especially. To give you an idea of the general age group, I think there were five birthdays being celebrated that night, ages probably 25, 25, 30, 30, and 35+. Food and drinks were pretty expensive, and I’d rate the cover charge (200 rubles) as not entirely worth it. Especially because we got there 6 minutes late for the free entry, which ended at 10. And also because there are apparently better clubs in Irkutsk. Why we didn’t go to one of those, still not sure. Oh well.

So despite the so-so-ness of the club itself (as Cathy told me via Skype from South America, apparently the club capital continent of the world , “Well, you are in Siberia”), decided to make the most of it, so we toasted, danced, ate a bit, had good convo. “We” means Nelli and Ira, two of my Russian friends, plus 4 of the Germans, who insisted on paying for my Heinekens, since it was “their” beer. I bought a round of Millers as repayment (it was the only option from America). All in all, a fun night with good company, which ended around 4 a.m. when I got home and got my 5 hours of sleep before classes.

Friday (Pyatnitsa). A still too-early bus ride to school.

First sight of Siberia, a few minutes before landing in Irkutsk.

First sight of Siberia, a few minutes before landing in Irkutsk.

Moscow seems completely manageable compared to a week in Irkutsk. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great little spot on the map, which, needless to say, I never would have found or wanted to visit if it weren’t for this program. Not that there’s any American comparison, but still–think: a nice downtown with the character of a skyscraper-less Boston, add in some Easter pastel-colored paint and the advertising flare of Tokyo, the traffic of Manhattan (times five), and the outskirts of any typically creepy-after-dark of any urban area (thus the Detroit comparison), and you’ve got Irkutsk.

But all that was pretty darn well kept a secret until we (I speak of my two Middlebury comrades Romany and Patrick) got in over our heads here. We flew in last Saturday morning, met three smiling women at the gates that would be our host moms, better described by “khozyaika” (a landlady, house manager, etc. …who does amazing cooking and generally makes everything okay at the end of the day), and set off for what would be home for 10 months. I live on Kostycheva Street on the side of the river opposite the center, just a 10 minute ride from the International Department (the Mezhfak) of IGU.

After our on-site orientation at Elizabeth’s apartment just off the main pedestrian walkway, which they actually built to house the administrators of the KGB back in the day, we set off on a week of confused bus rides, awkward conversations asking directions, missed meetings, and a slew of other new “experiences,” I’ll say, too many to enumerate. Of course, mixed in there were also some making friends, learning new things, and, not to forget, realizing that summer was officially over 1) with two days of overcast weather and rain, and 2) with the start of the new school year.

Right now, we’re each taking the same 5 classes with each other, that is, it’s only us 3 Americans in the same 5 classes at the Mezhfak. We have “Practical” Grammar, Speaking and Writing Practice, Russian Literature, Post-Soviet History, and Baikal-o-studies (had to do the literal translation of the word on the last one; to clarify, that’s the study of Lake Baikal just upstream). All of the classes, as any, have their ups and downs, and after just a week, I’d say we’re all pretty comfortable with the lectures and homework. Discussion we’re working on, obviously.

When they say the city is a history museum, after only being here a week with limited time for random wandering about, they really have a point. The city stems off of the water of the Angara River with little wooden houses with the most beautiful woodwork and multi-colored paints that are scattered throughout the modernized areas. Then there is the actual downtown on the north/east bank, which also includes some pretty old buildings, a lot of which definitely cropped up in the decades surrounding the turn of the 19th century along with the Trans-Siberian Railroad’s opening. All of the high-rise apartment buildings that make up the western side of the Angara’s skyline are the still very alive and working remnants of Soviet-built concrete housing. There are cranes scattered everywhere, building new and modern apartment buildings, working on the bridges and dam, being used in the industrial work of the city, and so on.

Looking ahead… Tomorrow we leave for an overnight trip to Baikal, which includes a 20 km hike on day 2. Next week we’ll be starting to visit mainstream courses in different departments, since we’ll each be dropping one of the 5 classes to semi-participate in a real Russian university class for Midd credit. I’m still working on getting a wireless Internet connection at home. And lastly, I’ll eventually get the guts to take the huge clunkin’ camera out for a day to get some pics of the place—but don’t count on too many of those great National Geographic photos with an old person longingly looking into the camera. If I ever came by one, I’d be lucky to escape without being scolded, though maybe not very loudly, with all the Russian severity you could stand, if not without a broken camera, too.