Nate

As the school year comes to an end and Troika begins to shut down operations, I’m finding it hard to believe that my study abroad experience is just about finished. It certainly doesn’t feel that way. There is no luggage standing in the corner of my bedroom, packed long ago in preparation for departure, as was the case in August on my way here. There is no sudden shift in my daily schedule, as usually accompanies the onset of summer vacation. There is no one saying goodbye, not yet at least. But alas, it is true: the program is done.

As things wind down, I can’t help but remember the daydreams I used to have in the library back at school about studying abroad. I had tentatively decided on Irkutsk as a freshman, and when I couldn’t take another minute of grammar rules or vocabulary lists, I’d close my book, lean my elbow on the carrel and my head on my hand, and think about what life might be like in Siberia. In those moments I envisioned myself—taller, fully built and bearded—leaning against a bookshelf reading Pushkin in Russian and watching the snow float to the street in the window. A quiet, intellectual life on the edge of the earth.

It’s funny to think about that now. Knowing I was off to Siberia, not one of the images in my mind involved other people. As though I subconsciously assumed they didn’t exist in large numbers, or wouldn’t be an essential part of my experience here. In the end, I’ve done just about all I daydreamed except for gaining any physical height or girth, and have found myself, especially in the second semester, spending the majority of my time with Russian people who I have come to love, be it sitting over tea at home with my hostess, looking at Jupiter through a telescope with friends from synagogue, or visiting kids from class at their apartments spread all over the city. Just as it’s true in American colleges, the place itself leaves less of an imprint in your memories than the people who inhabit it with you, and having met such great friends, I have no doubt that I made the right choice in spending my time here.

For those of you thinking of coming to Irkutsk in the near future to study: don’t let Siberia scare you. Middlebury students frequently rule out Irkutsk as an option because they know nothing about it. As is true all over Russia, the unknown is often the best part of an experience, and is often where you find the most fulfilling memories. Don’t fret about the cold: out here, they say they cold can’t keep you grumbling for more than two days, and unfortunately, if you’re trying to escape a frigid time abroad, then you should probably pick a different country altogether.

Your experience will undoubtedly differ from mine, but what I can tell you is that the richness of this part of the world is as deep as the land is vast, and if you want to see the Russia that doesn’t make it into our textbooks—Asiatic Russia, poor Russia, Buddhist Russia, life in the taiga and tundra—what you will find here will astound you. We at Midd are very lucky, for few institutions are brave enough to venture out this far, and what a shame it is that so much space is so often overlooked. Don’t make the same mistake by writing off Siberia. It can be a tough little oyster, but the strength of its maw is the shelter to the pearl inside.

Thank you all for keeping up with us this whole year, we have been continually inspired by your encouragement and responses coming from all over the globe. You all are greatly appreciated, and have made my experience with Troika worthwhile many times over. I am humbled by your dedication to us and to the blog. We simply can’t thank you enough.

And so the troika hurls on! Русь! Теперь куда ж несемся мы?

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Nate

Sarah has written several times already about her dacha experiences, but having gone myself for the first time yesterday, I’d like to give a quick account of my time there, namely in the banya.

When we first arrived, Andrei, my friend Alena’s father, gave a very brief tour of the grounds and introduced me to Olya, who was already there. I offhandedly took Olya to be Alena’s sister, but was later informed that she is actually Andrei’s wife, and is two years older than her new daughter-in-law. (This, by the way, provided a strange cultural question: should I address her with the formal vy, as with Andrei, or the familiar ty? I hedged and went formal at first, but later switched to match my friends.)

Andrei then set us all to work, cutting down large branches of a dead tree so he could later set up a hammock. My four friends and I spent the next two hours or so hacking, sawing, and clipping branches into small piles that either became firewood or were transferred elsewhere. During this time Andrei prepared the banya, and informed we that he was going to “sweat me good.”

Now, for those of you who read Sarah’s memorable accounts, you already know that traditionally time in a Russian banya includes being beaten with leafy branches, in this case classic Siberian birch. My friends told me that Andrei would beat me pretty good, which, having seen photographs of the cuts and gashes endured by the more masochistic banya-goer, had me frightened as I stripped naked and made my way in.

I should also note that I was not alone: my friend Alesha was also with me, as was Andrei and his gravity-defying beer belly. Their nakedness only struck me as odd or somehow unfamiliar when I noticed the Viking-helmet style felt cap Andrei was wearing. Between this and the beating branches in each of his hands, I held my breath as I lay on the hot wooden bench in preparation for the first strike.

No blood was drawn, however. In fact, the foliage felt soft and rather pleasant, regardless of the force behind it. What I realized, though, is that a real banya experience lies less in being beaten with the wet branches than it does in being overwhelmed by the accompanying heat. In between lashes, Andrei twirled the branches over me, letting the water drip and sprinkle down before quickly evaporating. This created a sort of steam blanket that entrapped my entire body and became increasingly hot with each passing minute. At a certain point my body, starting from the bottoms of my feet, began to go numb.

This didn’t feel so bad, even after my arms and legs were entirely gone and I felt like a torso with a head. It was around this point, however, when my character began to override my interest in the experience. The hypochondriac within me started to worry about poor blood circulation. Was this a good idea? With a family history of heart conditions, surely my little ticker wouldn’t be able to handle another minute. The numbness crept through my legs and shoulders, spreading through my chest and up to my ears. Now I was just a head, with only enough ear left to hear Andrei’s heavy breathing as he lay into me.

Then he told me to get up and go outside: stage one was over.

According to him, a good steam comes in three parts, each one shorter than the last. After a few minutes out in the open front room, letting the Siberian breeze cool my body as I regained feeling, I went back in. Andrei said that if I was feeling little pricks all over, that was good—the blood was coming to the surface under my skin. I took this to be the physical analog of those little stars you see after staring at a light, the ones that dance purple and red on the edge of your eyes and then fall away. In other words, not permanently damaging.

The second round was not so bad. Actually, the effect received was the same, but this time I expected it, and accepted it with pleasure. With round two complete, Andrei told me to follow him out to the other room for what he called a “Jean-Claude Van Damme.” Familiar with Van Damme in name only, I had no idea what this could be, but as I closed the door behind me he threw a large bucket of cold water over my whole body. Feeling rushed back everywhere, and the feeling was good. “Vot tebye Van Damme!” Andrei shouted happily. “Now let’s get you back in there…”

Sitting outside in the Siberian wind after round three, I watched the sun set over Irkutsk in the distance. Neither my legs nor my hands were responding to my mental requests for movement, and for three or four minutes I stood with fingers and feet locked frighteningly stiff, looking like Edward Scissorhands bound to a life spent on tip-toe. When that subsided and my muscles relaxed, I poured some water over me, soaped up, dried off, and went into the house for some freshly grilled shashlyk kebab. After that we all went back home to the city. I slept great.

And so ended my first day at the dacha. It’s strange to say, after relating all of the strange feelings and non-feelings I endured there, but I really loved it all. The trials and frights throughout are nothing new. Out here, and maybe anywhere where things are unfamiliar, this is just part of integrating, and it’s become so normal that it often doesn’t even raise my blood pressure—which, given the family history, is saying a lot. But it’s the payout that makes it all worth it. I couldn’t claim to have my finger on the pulse of Russia if it didn’t get burned now and again, but much as heavy banya steam makes for easy breathing afterward, so too do experiences like this one make my time here both satisfying and unforgettable.

Nate

One thing that I’ve been fascinated by all year is that, despite rampant and often terribly misinformed homophobia and a beefed-up cultural machismo, Russian guys are often quite effeminate in their styles and preferences. A case in point is a man I met a few weeks ago while dining with a mutual friend. Let’s call this man Vlad. Vlad is, at first glance, a perfect example of the Russian muzhik, or manly-man. Big, burly, middle-aged but still drinks and smokes like a teenage rebel, Vlad has a scar stretching from his ear to the corner of his mouth, attesting to an occasional but brutal taste for violence. However, having refocused, I noticed that he also did or had many things that even a self-proclaimed “metrosexual” in the US wouldn’t even consider.

The first thing that got me was the purse. Here, “man bags” are the norm among young males, mainly because there are things you need at all times (say, your passport), but nothing big enough to merit a full-sized backpack. Unfortunately for men here, these are, for all intents and purposes, actually just purses, but fortunately for them, they don’t recognize this as a traditionally feminine piece of fashion.

Next was the skinny cigarettes. I’ve been to my fair share of countries where it seems every person on the street is waddling around with a white stub between their fingers, but Russia is the only place I’ve seen men smoking the thin cigarettes that, even here, are marketed toward women. Watching the hefty Vlad smoke one of these was as visually hilarious as watching Israel Kamakawiwo’ole play a ukelele (look for it on YouTube). I’m not really sure what the appeal of these skinny cigarettes is; it would make sense if they weren’t chain-smoked away twice as fast as the normal-sized ones. Perhaps they are to the Russian man as diet Coke is to the American sugar-conscious soda binger—a psychological comfort, and nothing more.

What really threw me, though, is that when Vlad smiled, I noticed something glimmering in his mouth. It wasn’t the golden teeth, it was behind that. Then he stuck out his tongue, and I saw it in all its glory; Vlad is the first grown man I have ever seen with a pierced tongue. While listening to someone, he would occasionally roll the silver stud around in his mouth, sometimes clicking against a tooth, to help maintain interest. This little eccentricity is something I had previously only associated with the girls in my high school Spanish classes with who had dyed their hair all sorts of un-hair colors. Most of those girls still have the wild hair, but long ago pulled out the piercing.

So that’s Vlad, a 40-something purse-carrying, skinny-cig-smoking, tongue-pierced man whose countenance is otherwise something you would not want to run into after dark. Just another bizarre find out here, but a nice man nevertheless.

This week our friend Ben has contributed a guest post about getting a haircut in Irkutsk. Enjoy the great story. Thanks Ben!

 

The place looked pretty harmless from the outside, just a typical Soviet-era concrete one-story building, only painted pink. Sliding gate on the outside, in case anyone wants to rob…a barbershop. After the first door you had two choices: the “men’s side” or the “women’s side”–somewhat like in prisons, I’d imagine. I entered the small men’s salon where two women were standing giving some old guys cuts. The middle chair was free. After standing and looking at myself dumbly in the central mirror for a couple minutes, one of the ladies standing sighed and called tiredly, “Natasha!” into a side room where I could see one lady texting and the other looking at the calculator in her hand. “What do you want?” Natasha asked me.

In Siberia, there are three cuts: “Simple,” “Canadian,” and “Stylish.” Risking the stylish but not wanting to look like a Gulag prisoner, I said, “The Canadian, but not too short, please.” “Come again?” she answered. “But not too short,” I repeated. No answer. Taking a look at my curly head as if it had committed some crime, she grabbed the largest shears out of the disinfecting liquid, which was probably just water. (I should note that only about 0.1 percent of Russians have curly hair, and they are usually Romanian, Latvian, Jewish or in other ways ostracized or come from another at one time marginalized ethnic group.)

After only about a minute of attacking my head, she said angrily, pushing my skull to the left, “hold your head stronger” as if I were a statue that came to life and needed to be put back into my molding. Between bouts of removing enormous chunks of my head, she would zero in on an area as if trying to annihilate all life there. Then came the ears. Most hair-cutters in the free world will delicately snip and buzz around these parts, but Natasha approached my head with the belief that my auditory organs had somehow been placed on the wrong part of my head, or should not be there at all. She sighed and I just about ducked to avoid her lopping off the top half of my right ear. She then brought my head back to with the force of a USSR weight-lifter. It serves to be noted that Russia invented the kettle-bell.

“Straight?” she said. Tempted to say, “Why yes, I am,” I replied, “yes, please,” with reference to my sideburns. She had already begun buzzing. When I looked up to see that I still had bangs hanging down awkwardly at the front, I asked calmly if she could make the cut shorter in the front. “I am not done cutting your hair,” she answered (though with a one-syllable word added here for emphasis. Let’s translated it as “damn it”).

After fulfilling my wish to get rid of those childish bangs all Russian boys under 20 wear, she came to the realization that the shearing was a failure. I could tell from her facial expression hanging in the mirror above me that we would have both been better off had I not even bothered coming in today.

Needless to say, worse 6 dollar haircut ever. This tragedy was reaffirmed by my female track coach, who after asking me what happened, recommended me to a friend of hers, “so that you don’t have to walk around looking like this.” I guess the name is a misnomer then; there aren’t many Canadians in Siberia, but I’m willing to guess that not one of them looks good sporting a Canadian.

Winter on Baikal

March 20, 2012

Nate

This weekend the Irkutsk Middkids set off for Olkhon Island, located in the center of Lake Baikal, about six hours northeast of the city. For those of you who have been following the blog all year, this may sound like a familiar site; I visited and wrote about the island in October. At that time, the lake’s beauty was on full display, but now, in the colder months, Baikal is a different place, having turned into a frozen wonderland where time can seemingly hang in the air like a winter breath. Before coming to Russia, I made a list of things I hoped to accomplish (you can find it here on the blog under the “our authors” tab above). Included on the list was a desire to skate on Baikal’s famously clear ice, and I am proud to announce that, as of Sunday, this desire has become a reality.

Baikal’s ice is a true marvel. Anywhere from three to six feet thick, it is astoundingly see-through; walking on the ice along the shore, you can point out individual rocks lying some 15-20 feet beneath you, as though you had dived to the bottom yourself and opened your eyes. The crispness of the ice lends beauty to its ruptures, as the cracks and splits are frozen within, preserving themselves under the surface as a testament to the processes Baikal endures each winter. There is something quietly staggering in these views, as though the entire Holocene lay dormant underneath your feet. In places, the ice has pushed up large plates that are as pristine as crystal, and often thick enough to give off a hollow tone when struck, sounding almost exactly like the lower register of a marimba. As these spines appear in crops, it is quite feasible, as we learned, to “play” them.

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Nate

Yesterday Russia held its presidential elections as scheduled, and as assumed (if not actually scheduled as well), Vladimir Putin won nearly 65 percent of the vote. Having served two terms as President from 2000-2008 before conceding the position to puppet leader Dmitri Medvedev, Putin is now set to rule in Russia for the next six—or more—years.

Many outside of Russia have been familiar with these elections for the last several months due to unprecedented outpourings of people into the Moscow streets against Putin as early as December. While images from these protests and reports of their massive numbers encouraged Western onlookers, these actions were too little too late if the hope was to keep Putin from extending his stay in the Kremlin. Indeed, the demonstrations were doomed from the start, falling victim to their directionless energy and expression in much the same way as has befallen the Occupy movement around the world.

That is not to say that Russia’s public antagonism toward Putin will end with his victory; indeed, as opposition groups currently amass in the larger Western cities, how Putin will handle their animosity is perhaps the largest question mark in the public mindset today. What will severely hinder the legitimacy of the demonstrations, however, is that their rallying cry for clean elections has been delivered without the desired result. Instead of nominating a face to take on Putin, the amorphous demonstrations took on the formless foe of opaqueness, allowing the reigning United Russia party to deliver sufficiently clean elections while the opposition remained unprepared, and in doing so renew their own credibility without much added threat.

What Putin will do with this reaffirmation is anybody’s guess, but a guess of “nothing new” will probably be close to the mark. This is the exact opposite of what usually happens back home: having been elected, a candidate usually claims a “mandate of the people” and mobilizes his platform to change the political situation, but here the status quo is painted gold with a pessimistic eye toward change. The elections were rife with repetition. Of the four opposition candidates, three of them had been running unsuccessfully for at least twelve years. Mikhail Prokhorov, the single new face, didn’t seem to get it, claiming a desire to end Russia’s world-famous corruption and unify with Europe and the Euro zone.

The saddest part of these elections is how clear it has become that Russia still does not understand how a democratic system functions. That Putin is even a candidate does not bode well for the country. He has amended the Constitutional limits on presidential power from two terms to two consecutive terms, and the people have overwhelmingly supported him in this with no regard for the system that ostensibly prohibits such concentration of power. After talking with people both for and against Putin, the only reason I can come up with to explain this is lack of comprehension, and lack of competition. State-run channels are dominated by the man, interrupted regularly but briefly by shots of Medvedev (for now) and Obama. In many respects, domestic news reports amount to little more than reviews of what Putin did today.

It comes as no problem that the ruling United Russia party is effectively without a platform, because other parties have completely failed to modernize, feeling the heat from those in power since the before the end of the Soviet Union. Europe may have its Social Democrats, but out here there are only the Communists, headed by the same Evgenii Zyuganov that wracked Yeltsin’s nerves with a second round of voting some five elections ago. Despite an entire lack of appeal, Zyuganov still won 17% of the vote this time, and Prokhorov, a man with no party whatsoever, took another 7%. This means that at least a third of the voting populace (another 10% voted for opposition candidates) is demanding a viable second point of view, but much like the demonstrations in Moscow, this energy has yet to find a real conduit into national politics.

What is more, at least 20% of Russian voters claim to not know who to vote for until the day of the vote, and most of these vote for the incumbent. Given a law that a candidate must win 50% plus one vote to be elected, it is clear that, despite all the fear, corruption, insecurity, and nebulous information surrounding Putin, he still won largely as a result of a “who else?” mentality and an overwhelming fear of the political unknown. Unfortunately, Russia remains a country where an electorate with no initiative and a trust in government little deeper than their television screens repeatedly votes for a man with no new ideas and a history of corruption and misgivings toward positive change.

These next few days might give some insight into what to expect from the new Putin presidency as protesters make their way into the streets once again. Will he crush the opposition with force, perhaps at the cost of his reputation, or will he allow the hostility to continue unhindered, opening up the possibility of further undermining his already-crumbling power structure of bribery and fear? And what of the protests? Will they die without the fuel of corrupt elections, or will they survive to actually make an impact on Russia’s political reality? Only time will tell, but I have a feeling that, six years from now, winning the presidency will be an uphill fight for any candidate, Putin included.