A Moscow First, How To Procure a Reading Card And Other Tales

January 27, 2012

Moscow First: Today, I got caught in a [closing] subway door. Heading back after soccer practice, I had earphones in and was generally not paying attention to anything except my desire to get home. So when I rounded the corner and saw open doors I went – although clearly not quickly enough. I’ve got a sweet bruise on my arm now – when the doors close, they close with purpose. It’s taken me 5 months, but I now feel like a genuinely rushed and harried Muscovite.

Speaking of rushed and harried – between my new internship, soccer, class and various errands associated with new classes, I have been incredibly appreciative to fall into my bed at night. One of the errands I ran yesterday (to be continued in a follow-up errand next week) was to get my (third) читательский билет[1]. In Russia, there is a new card for everything – a new card for taking courses at the Higher School of Economics, a new student card for the metro, and a new reading card for every new library. And in order to read my class assignments for my new course about corruption, I needed to записаться[2] at the HSE library and get a reading card. Since I’m not a full student there, this process involved a lot of smiling and playing the “I’m a foreigner” card. Finding the building in which the library is located wasn’t difficult, although since signs were rather lacking, it’s a wonder I stumbled up the stairs and around several corners to find the library as quickly as I did. On the entrance door was posted a sign with big letters: ABSOLUTELY NOT ALLOWED WITH YOUR PERSON INTO THE READING HALL: OUTER GARMENTS, BAGS, COMPUTERS, BOOKS, NOTEBOOKS (and the list went on for another page). This is pretty standard for Russian libraries – bring basically nothing with you into the читательный зал[3], so that there is no possible way you could be bringing any unchecked-out book out. The guards and process at the Библиотека имена Ленина[4] are the most intimidating. I walked in with my coat and bag, and was quickly, though politely redirected to a special coatroom to deposit my belongings. I then returned to start the actual process of convincing one very strict and one slightly less strict librarian that they could and should give me a reading card (which I need in order to check out books or read articles for class online). The strict librarian was the stereotype apparently known the world over – she looked disapprovingly at my passport and ID card, identifying me as a слушатель курса[5] at HSE. I fumblingly explained who I was, and that someone at the main office had sent an e-mail saying I should receive a reading card. Strict librarian immediately called said main office to ascertain that I was not fabricating the existence of said e-mail. After getting of the phone, she told her (much kinder by the minute) colleague, in the most disapproving and unbelieving tone, that the important person on the other end of the line had said to give me a reading card and full access to electronic resources. Strict librarian clearly could not believe her ears. Now positively warm other librarian filled out my form (with extreme puzzlement about how to write down my hyphenated last name), and even complimented my Russian. At that moment, I felt how far I had come from my arrival in September, when the idea of this entire process of finding a random building in Moscow, navigating the cultural intricacies of what one may bring into a library, and actually communicating (rather, pleading) my case for receiving a reading card would have had me break out in a cold sweat.

The thing is, I don’t want a reading card to take out books – I just want access to electronic resources so that I can read all the class assignments online. But in order to get a username and password to access electronic resources, I need a reading card. This is my little taste of the bureaucracy of Russian daily life – and knowing I will go through this whole pleading and convincing process all over again next Wednesday (the only available day to show up at a different office to get a username and password) has me rather weary with anticipation. And despite the ready-made and very valid excuse for failing to complete the readings for class next week, I would like to do them. (I’ve been able to find most of them online in various forms, and since the “most of them” constitutes 4 books and about 800 pages of articles, that’s been plenty to keep me busy.)

I ended this lovely day of the more trying aspects of life in Russia with one of the absolute treats – a Gogol play at СТИ, Записные Книжки[6]. It was wonderful, with incredible staging and hilarious references to the Gogol bust standing at the corner of the stage. The bust was used, in turn, as a coat stand, hat rack and as the recipient of a rather long monologue about how the key to life is deceiving others while avoiding being deceived yourself. (The character uttering this monologue is, of course, deceived in the end). The appearance of a corrupt bureaucrat (the Russian bureaucrat, or чиновник[7],  being quite the favorite character of Gogol’s) made me laugh, in the context of just having come from a class about corruption in Russia. Thankfully, the class had me well-prepared to understand that section of the play, since my vocabulary lists include all manner of words related to bribes, bribe-taking, deceptions, fraud and the like. By the end of this course, I will not lack for choice of words to describe all manner of illegal goings-on in Russian.

And while I’m on the subject, there are many other things I like about Russia. (My mother informed me over New Year’s that my blog posts were rather heavy on my critical observations of life, academics, and culture in Russia. A new goal for this spring is to properly communicate the wonderful aspects of people and life in Moscow, although they usually aren’t as glaring or as funny as the trials and tribulations). Over lunch today at my internship (more to come on that subject!) everyone was engrossed in a debate about the relative merits of the various operas in Moscow – and let me tell you, this was quite the detailed debate. Although these Russians are certainly more highly educated than most, it is a mark of Russian culture to a) genuinely enjoy the opera, ballet, and theatre and b) know quite a bit about it. I got lost when the discussion turned to the comings and goings of the most talented members of the choirs of these various operas. I love that over the Russian lunch table, the discussion spans a ridiculous range of topics, from the absolute advantages of (genuine) fur coats over all other forms of outerwear, to the differences in tastes of roasted nuts versus non-roasted, to the U.S. presidential candidates, to the Russian presidential candidates, and back to the relative merits of various Moscow opera houses. This broad and varied discussion is peppered by the ever-present Russian anecdote, a literary quote or two, and appreciative exclamations about the borscht we are eating.

All, to be continued. (And I’ll try to get some pictures of winter Moscow in to break up the text of the next post!)

Until it gets even colder, as has been promised,


[1] Chitatelny’ bilyet – Reading card – allows entrance to and borrowing of books at a library

[2] zapisatsa – register – incredibly helpful verb, for you Russian-learners out there

[3] chitatelny’ zal – reading hall

[4] biblioteka imena Lenina – now it’s technically called the State Library or some such nonsense, but everyone still calls it by the old Lenin name – especially since the metro stop right under it still bears the name of the good ‘ole Vladimir Ilyich.

[5] Slushatel’ kursa – literally, “taker of course,” but hey, it gets me past the security guards at the door

[6] Zapisnye Knizhki – Notebooks, or Pocketbooks in the writing sense

[7] chinovnik – one of my favorite words in Russian. It encompasses much more in terms of cultural connotations than simply bureaucrat, or government employee.


One Response to “A Moscow First, How To Procure a Reading Card And Other Tales”

  1. James Bellingham said

    It is great to see you are posting again! Following up on your comments above, I’m curious to hear perspectives on the US election – given all the excitement regarding elections in Russia I’m somewhat surprised that our elections even make their news.

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