31 May 2007

Notes from the Field

I'm sitting inside a run-down bus station in a little village about 2 hours outside of Lipetsk, which is itself about 10 hours from Moscow by train. The sun is struggling to force its way through the dirty windows of the terminal, but despite the shade provided by the thick layer of grime on the glass, the stifling heat penetrates just the same. It's somewhere around 96 degrees, I think.

The bus to Lipetsk is already 20 minutes late, and I'm worried about making my train back to Moscow. Never did I think I would long for Moscow so intensely, but after a week in and out of provincial towns and villages (all without hot water), Moscow is like an oasis on the horizon, rising out of the parched earth. But only if the bus shows up.

The red tiled floor of the bus station is wet, as an old woman has been mopping the floor for the last hour or so. Actually, my week in the provinces has taught me that people here look a lot older than they really are. So she's probably in her mid-50s. Every once in a while she shuffles back over to her bucket of muddy water to wring out the towel before wrapping it back around the broom. Thus is her "mop."

The bus station has that pleasant smell of water and dirt mixing, almost like when it rains. It's the smell I remember from my childhood when I had to clean the garage and after moving out all the bikes, tools, and other junk, got to hose it all down - the only fun part about garage cleaning day. Except now in the bus station, the water is quickly evaporating, taking with it the freshly-washed smell. In its place, the stations usual odor returns, something akin to a public restroom though thankfully not quite as intense. But it confirms my suspicion that perhaps in their more inebriated moments some Russians do use it as such.

Sitting across from me is quite literally the ugliest woman I've ever seen in my life. The only reason I'm sharing this with you is because it's not an exaggeration - this is the really the most unattractive woman I've ever seen, and so I feel like this is an important event in my life worthy of sharing. I'm not trying to be mean, just telling the facts. I guess "she-bear" is probably the most succinct way to describe her. I avoid making eye contact for fear that she-bear will bite my head off.

Naturally, I wonder to myself, "how in God's name did I end up in this place???"

Well, I'll tell you how, in hopes of gaining if not your respect and admiration for the rigors of social science, then at least maybe some pity. Pity for the long series of poor life choices that brought me to this bus station, beginning with the idea that graduate school would be a good thing. It's times like these when I wonder why I didn't go to law school...

First, I gathered lots and lots of data on each of Russia's 89 administrative regions. All sorts of economic, political, and social indicators for each region. While I complained about the tedious nature of this at the time, the thought of sitting in front of a computer in my room in Moscow sifting through statistical yearbooks now sounds like heaven on earth.

Once I had all my relevant data, I ran it through a series of calculations to produce pairs of regions that are identical except for one key variable. Thus, Tambov and Lipetsk oblasts have virtually identical economic growth rates, unemployment rates, higher education levels, urbanization levels, and ethnic compositions. Even their most recent regional elections were equally competitive. The only difference is that Lipetsk has a GDP per capita that is nearly twice that of Tambov. So, if we believe that wealth is an important factor shaping an individual's political beliefs, then in this pair of regions we would expect that difference to be apparent.

So now I have two regions, but then what? Since we want both urban and rural people represented, we start with the regional capitol. One voting district in the city is randomly selected, followed by a street within that district randomly selected. From there, we begin knocking on doors at the first house/apartment on that street. If they answer the door and agree to take the survey, we're in luck. If not, we move four apartments ahead and try again. If a person does agree, the fun doesn't stop there. Then we ask to speak to the person who most recently had a birthday - they're the lucky winner who gets to spend 30 minutes answering questions about politics in the muggy heat of the hallway (few people invite us into their apartments).

The process is basically the same for the rural areas - a rayon (district) is randomly selected, followed by a town randomly selected within that rayon, then a specific settlement within that town. And instead of having the luxury of going up stairwells knocking on doors of apartments, we trudge along in the heat going from house to house. Oh, and in the villages we have to watch out for dogs which don't seem to appreciate social scientists very much. I don't blame them, really.

Now, what's the point of all of these silly random headaches? I guess the proper answer, the one that my professors would want me to tell you, is that it's good social scientific methodology. By randomly selecting at every stage, we avoid introducing any voluntary or involuntary bias into who we select to talk to. Thus, while it might be tempting to select that apartment building over there because it doesn't look so scary and run down, it probably means there are wealthier people living there. And rich people think differently than poor people, so like it or not, you've just biased your sample.

Of course, the real reason I'm going to all this trouble is self-defense. It's so that when I stand up in front of my peers to present my work (or worse, in front of a hiring committee), nobody can accuse me of selection bias. One less fatal arrow shot my way, though it's still quite a pain in the ass. I also wonder whether it really matters if you've been shot by 21 poisonous darts rather than 20. In other words, there will be plenty of other fatal flaws in my work, I'm sure. But not selection bias!

Now, I'm sure most of you could care less about social scientific research design. And those of you that do care are probably my classmates whose brains have been turned to mush thanks to the infinite wisdom of KKV already. But to reward any of you who are silly enough to still be reading this, here are a few general observations I've drawn from my 20 interviews in Tambov and Lipetsk. Mind you, this is a small sample - 10 rural and 10 urban respondents, and while there's not selection bias, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's representative of all of Russia. But I would bet that I've talked to 20 more "regular Russians" about these political issues than most pundits in Moscow, not to mention outside of Russia. So in the very least, just know that these opinions are out there among the Russians...

1) Many respondents understand the pluses and minuses of democracy and authoritarianism. They know that under authoritarianism people can't select their leaders and can't criticize the regime. But they also believe that under authoritarianism things are more orderly, the state fulfills its functions better, and the economy is more stable. And so while they know that there are bad things about authoritarian government, many people seem to believe that the "positives" still outweigh the negatives.

2) At the same time, many respondents don't have a consistent set of beliefs about democracy and authoritarianism. Thus, they answer that "having a strong leader who doesn't have to worry about things like elections or parliament" would be a good thing. But for the very next question they also say that "having a democratic political system" would be a good thing. Thus, for many people these things are not mutually exclusive. This would suggest that either they don't really understand what democracy means, or that they're working with a very different definition of democracy than we do.

3) On that note, if you ask them to talk about problems that come along with democracy, they start talking about low pensions, unpaid wages, unemployment, high prices, and crime. Notice that none of these things really have anything to do with democracy per se. They are not components of the classical definition of liberal democracy. But this is what democracy means to Russians because this is what they had in the 1990s when they had supposed "democracy." This doesn't necessarily mean that Russians don't want the classic "goods" of democracy - free speech, elections, freedom of assembly, free press, etc. - but it does mean that any political elites trying to carry the mantle of democracy will have a hard time convincing people to follow them. Democracy and democrats have a bad name in Russia.

4) But how much do Russians really want the classic "goods" of democracy? When asked what the most important problems facing Russia today are, nobody - nobody - said anything about loss of freedom of speech, the loss of a free press, the strengthening of the state, the erosion of political competition. Again, it was all about pensions, unemployment, wages, and prices. Nor did people believe that protecting liberal rights are among the most important functions to be fulfilled by the state.

5) Regardless of what the want or don't want, the respondents with whom we spoke are extremely passive when it comes to politics. While nearly everyone could give examples of policies made by the state in the last 15 years that they were unhappy about, the vast majority of respondents expressed their dissatisfaction by talking about it with friends and family. Nothing more. A few people said they had or might be inclined to sign a petition in the future, but hardly anyone said that they would be likely to attend a demonstration, for example.

What does this mean for Russia's political development? It seems clear that the state has systematically be reducing the number of independent poles of political power - the media, the duma, political parties, the courts, the governors have all had their wings clipped by the Kremlin. It seems that the only force remaining that might be able to exercise political power in opposition to the state are citizens themselves by taking to the streets in large numbers. But as the many demonstrations in Russia in the last few months have shown, even this method is being severely restricted by the state. But beyond the state's actions discouraging mass protest action, my interviews demonstrated that most people are simply apathetic to political action and are unlikely to take to the streets anytime soon. So those of you waiting for a new revolution shouldn't hold your breath....

6) A series of questions were asked whereby respondents had to rate whether some of Russia's neighboring countries are more democratic or more authoritarian. Not surprisingly, their answers didn't really reflect the true democraticness of the countries under question, but rather reflected subjective opinions about what they thought of those countries. Thus, Estonia and Ukraine were most often labeled as fairly authoritarian countries, whereas Belarus is downright democratic. After all, "that Lukashenko is a good muzhik!"

7) People were asked to rate the political system in the Soviet Union under Brezhnev. Not surprisingly, they rated it fairly positively. However, when asked whether such a political system would suit Russia today, most answered that it would not, stating that "that was a different time, and things have changed now." I found this surprising, as most superficial surveys you read about in the news assume that because people rate the Brezhnev era highly they must want things to be like they were in "the good old days." Many people did mention problems with the Brezhnev era - empty shelves being the most frequent answer - but, like it or not, now they have a new system with new problems. So they'll get by.

So, there are some tentative observations. I'll again repeat the warning that this is a small sample and isn't necessarily representative of all of Russia. There will be another 20 interviews coming from Yaroslavl and Nizhny Novgorod, but even at 40 it won't be representative. The main attraction will come later this fall when we conduct a representative nationwide survey of 1,500 Russians. Then I might be able to say something definitive, though you'll probably have to wait for the dissertation to get the juiciest material. But like those waiting for the revolution, I wouldn't hold your breath - it might be a while...

23 May 2007

Off to find Russia

It turns out that I'm in Russia to do more than blog about funky food and collect Lenin busts. I almost forgot about that dissertation I'm supposed to be doing research for...

And so, I'm getting out of Moscow tonight to start doing surveys/interviews with "real Russians" in the provinces of Tambov and Lipetsk. It's a long and boring social scientific story about how I came to choose those oblasts, so I'll spare you the pain.

In any case, I'm hoping I'll have some good stories and pictures for the blog when I come back online in about a week. I have a feeling I'll get some good material: for example, I'm doing a homestay in Tambov with an older woman who reportedly makes moonshine and sells it from her house. Should bring in some colorful characters!

22 May 2007

What were you looking for?

Siberian Light, one of the top Russia blogs out there (for good reason), recently posted a link to a new set of rankings of the English-language Russia blogosphere which has promted a debate over whether it's appropriate to make a blog's site traffic data publicly available. (In case you're wondering, yours truly ranks 31st. I like to think that's respectable, but there are lots of things I like to think that aren't entirely true).

I choose not to make my site data public because I think it infringes on the privacy of my readers. But what I do like to do is look at my stats privately which is quite amusing. One of my favorite past-times is looking at the Google searches that brought people to my blog.

It helps that my blog shares a title with a work of far greater literary genius, Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. In fact, putting in that reference right there probably just bought me another 10 hits a day. And so, high school and college students trying to find "symbolic meaning of darkness at noon" often have the misfortune of stumbling onto my blog where they're more likely to find the symbolism of a well-cured pickle.

The other one that has come up recently with surprising frequency is a search for "Lenins n Things." I can only imagine they're really looking for the store, "Linens n Things," and that it's a typo or they can't spell. But why would you click on a link that's clearly not advertising sheets, towels, or kitchenware if that's what you're looking for? Maybe they really are looking for Lenins n things. Goodness knows I've got a lot of Lenins. And things.

Finally, my favorite which just popped up tonight (and prompted this post) was a search for "picture of the fall of the Soviet Union." I had to chuckle at this, as it implies that there was a precise moment when the Soviet Union "fell," much like the Berlin Wall fell, and that maybe there was a lucky photographer who captured that split-second moment with his camera. I suspect the searcher might be a 10th grader writing a history report who needs to do a bit more reading to realize that the fall of the Soviet Union is better measured in weeks, months, even years.

Nonetheless, it brings up an intriguing question for you Russianists reading this: if you could pick a single photo (or maybe a couple) that somehow capture "the fall of the Soviet Union," which would it be? Yeltsin on the tank? Yeltsin confronting Gorby at the podium? The final lowering of the hammer & sickle over the Kremlin?

If anyone has any nominations, send them to me (an actual photo is best, but if all you've got is a description of a photo you once saw, that's OK) and I'll put them all up.

Email: rubashov17 [at] gmail [dot] com

21 May 2007

Marriage, the Universal Language

I witnessed an exchange today between my host parents that confirms the fact that marriage is marriage the world around:

Host Mom: Enters apartment after a very long day's work. Looks at the box laying on the floor and asks, "What's this?"

Host Dad: "That's a weed whacker." [I confess, I don't know the word for "weed whacker" in Russian, but I understood the other word in the two-word sentence (это) and I knew what the box was for, so I used my well-honed skills of contextual translation.]

[In fact, an hour earlier Host Dad had been giddily putting it together, even taking it for a test run in his bedroom. I was watching when he accidentally weed-whacked the bed skirt. Oops, just hope Host Mom doesn't see that...]

Host Mom: "What do we need that for?"

Host Dad: "For the dacha."

Host Mom: "But we don't need it. How much did you pay?"

Kind of reminds me the time I brought home the deli slicer...

20 May 2007

My Broken Slav-O-Meter

It used to be pretty easy for me to tell the Russians apart from the non-Russians on the Metro and in the streets of Moscow. Seven years ago when I first studied in Moscow, I figure I could identify foreigners (of which I was one) with accuracy somewhere around 95-98 percent. Of course, I never actually stepped up to someone and asked them, "excuse me, are you a foreigner?" so I guess I don't really know my success rate. But I like to think I was pretty good.

Now, the Russians who are reading this blog are probably not impressed. I'm sure they can identify foreigners with 99.999 percent accuracy, and they do most days. How did that waitress know to pull out the English menu before I even opened my mouth? I think it's easier to identify a handful of "the others" when the majority are "the selves," than vice versa. Or, to put that into an intelligible sentence, it's easier for Russians in Russia to identify foreigners than it is for Americans in Russia to identify foreigners (or Russians, for that matter). In a country that was trained for 70 years to view foreigners with skepticism, it's no wonder they're good at rooting us out.

Given this fact (which is really just a guess rather than a fact), I was pretty proud of my high accuracy rate (which was really just a guess rather than a rate). And besides, what else is there to do on the Metro for entertainment besides try to figure out who's Russian and who's a foreigner. It's not like I'm going to pull out my copy of Dostoevsky in English and start reading - then the other bored American in the wagon will be able to pick me out. Even worse, the babushka sitting across from me will start staring at me with alternating looks of intense suspicion and utter revulsion. No, the book stays in the bag. Besides, nobody reads Dostoevsky on the Metro, no matter what the language.

It's best to work by process of elimination. In other words, it's easiest to establish that someone is a Russian using a variety of indicators or "tells." If the person is coded as "Russian" along a sufficient number of indicators, he or she is set aside and the next subject is analyzed. If the individual cannot be coded as Russian along any of the indicators, then he or she is concluded to be "foreign."

Granted, it's not as scientific as it sounds (but what social science is?). Some indicators - fur coats dyed purple with gold trim, for example - are sufficient conditions for declaring Russianness. Others, like squared-toed shoes on men, are simply "probable" indicators, which in conjunction with other indicators might jointly indicate Russianness. Of course, the art lies in those difficult calls where there are just a couple of "probables" but no definite indicators.

I usually start by looking at a person's shoes. I used to sell men's shoes at a department store during summers in high school, which is probably why I'm biased towards shoes as the first indicator. Russian men tend to wear black dress shoes with squared toes. If it's a European-style squared toe, you might have to move to another indicator. If the toe extends out 2-3 inches beyond where a normal shoe would end, getting pointy and even maybe curling up like an elf bootie before squaring off, he's probably a Russian. Oh, and if they're white slip-ons, that's a pretty sure sign too. In the event that it's a European-looking shoe, check for the black dress shoe/blue jeans combination, as that's generally a sufficient identifier.

Among women the shoe trick is usually quite reliable for the simple reason that few American women would subject themselves to the torture of wearing high-heels all the time. All I can say is I'm glad I'm not a Russian woman (and not just because of the uncomfortable shoes...). Additionally, the "super pointy toe that's about 4 inches too long" helps identify Russian women.

At this point I should mention that really we're dealing with the younger generation here. The older Russians on the Metro are, well, unmistakably Russian. It's at the fringes, in the younger generation, where the real identification work is to be done.

If the shoes don't give away the answer, then it's time to move on to another indicator. Next I'll usually move to another reliable one, hair style. Apparently the mullet, whether for men or women, is quite fashionable in Moscow these days. Alas, if you've got one, there's no way you're from America unless you're 1) from the deep South or 2) being really ironic. Similarly, the abundance of bangs, severely cut in a straight line across the forehead of young women, is usually a sign of a likely Russian.

If shoes plus hair haven't given you your answer yet, it's time to move on to clothing. In this category it's easiest if you know what's in fashion or at least acceptable in your own country. Outfits that don't fit into either group are indicators that the wearer is operating under a different set of fashion norms. Examples include: fur, fur, fur. Whereas it's only for the very wealthy in the U.S., even ordinary Muscovites are covered in it in the winter. I even saw a fox shawl that still had the head attached, poor fella! Also, lots of sparkly gold things attached to a matching skirt and jacket with patches of revealing lace. Among young men, the "adiddas" track suit (note the extraneous "d") and the aforementioned blue jeans/dress shoe combo are pretty good indicators.

Here we're starting to run out of options. Facial structure is occasionally helpful, as there is a classic Slavic look. But many Russians don't really have the look, nor is it impossible for foreigners to have it too. Maybe take a look around for accessories: does the person have a book bag or a fancy Jansport backpack? Is he reading a book? What language is it in (actually, you should have noticed this long ago, shame on you for being inattentive!). Is she smiling on the Metro (definitely not a Russian, unless it's a girl who's giggling because her boyfriend has her hands all over her). Are he and she locked in an epic battle, each apparently trying to suck the other's face off? Public making-out (which is really too gentle a term for what goes on) should probably be declared a national pasttime.

If all else fails, you can hope that he or she has a friend there. Is the friend unmistakably Russian? Better yet, are they speaking fluent Russian to each other? (again, if you missed this from the beginning and have been wasting your time until now, you need to refine your observation skills).

If, after all this, the individual cannot be coded as "Russian," chances are he or she is a foreigner.

But that was 7 years ago. The thing is, it seems my Slav-O-Meter, my ability to tell (with 95-98 percent accuracy, I think) Russkiis from innostrantsy isn't working very well lately. I'm having a much harder time telling Russians from foreigners these days.

It's not that the foreigners are cleverly blending in now, adopting pointy shoes and gaudy coats as camouflage in Moscow's subterranean jungle. No, the foreigners are still foreigners. Rather, it seems that the jungle is starting to resemble the invaders. That is to say, the Russians are starting to look more and more like westerners, which really throws a wrench in my system.

Sure, a good portion of young Russians still are characteristically Russian in appearance. But it's getting harder to tell, as some of them have undergone complete and convincing transformations. Black dress shoes and pointy heels have been replaced by Reebok and Adidas (one "d") athletic shoes, sparkly sweaters replaced with hooded sweatshirts. Columbia parkas are taking the blace of furs and black leather coats, while brightly colored backpacks are slung over shoulders. While mullets, tragically, are still the rage, at least there are gelled and spiked dos interspersed among the guys these days.

This has all been a bit disconcerting for me. On several occasions, I've been convinced that a young woman across from me was an American, probably a student studying abroad like I once did. She even has a friend, also clearly an American by the looks of things. Maye I should go introduce myself and fidn out what they're studying. Yep, there they are, two Americans...that speak flawless Russian. Well, so much for the system. Glad I didn't make a fool of myself.

I was about to give up hope of recalibrating my system when the most magical event happened: it hit 80 degrees in Moscow last week. Apparently heat is the great Russifyer, as all those Russians who were cleverly disguising themselves as westerners showed their true colors once summer struck hard. Out came the see-through shirts that reveal everything down to the lace pattern of her bra. Unfortunately, my first sighting of such a shirt was a rather doughy woman who's been hitting the smetana a little too hard it seems. I thought this pudgy princess couldn't be topped until I saw a woman wearing a similar transparent shirt the next day, only she was about 8 months pregnant. Where pants and skirts once resided there are now little strips of fabric too small to really be called skirts. More like "rts," since they're only half-skirts (fortunately most "rts" wearers do have the assets to back up their fashion statements...) And it seems that shirts have been replaced with silky napkins stolen from the Chinese restaurant, delicately laced to one's body with a couple of strings.

Nor has the revealing power of summer been limited to Russian women. Among men there has been a sudden proliferation of the ubiquitous sleeveless t-shirt, allowing the wearer to show off his pasty white guns. And as he clings to the bar above his head on the Metro, it allows us to remember that Russians have yet to become obsessive about deodorant like Americans. You can imagine what July on the Metro smells like...

And so, while it has traditionally been the Russian winter that has destroyed the foreign invaders, now it seems that the Russian summer can take some credit for allowing the Russian people to throw off their foreign chains (by which I mean sweatshirts) and be who they really are: Russians, through and through.

16 May 2007

Good News/Bad News

Bad news: the hot water hasn't worked for two days. I like showers. I bathed using the teapot and sink today. Tomorrow I may have to use a friend's shower.

Good news: I got my hair cut yesterday which included shampoo, etc., so it was OK that I didn't take a shower yesterday.

Bad news: I forgot to tell the stylist not to touch the few remaining hairs on top, which she cut very short (I inherited my father's hair genes, and the male pattern baldness is, well, patterning). Now it's kind of fuzzy up there and I feel naked.

Good news: I sprung for a 30-min back massage at the haircut place. It felt SO good, even if it was a Russian man with his hands all over me.

Bad news: the most intimate physical contact I've had with anyone in a month is a Russian man, and I had to pay for it.

Good news: I got two fabulous Lenin sculptures this weekend, along with a licensed copy of Pirates of the Caribbean 2.

Bad news: the DVD is a legit copy with a region 2 (Europe/MIddle East) code, so I can't watch it on my computer. So much for buying legal DVDs instead of pirated ones (which can be watched anywhere in the world)

Good news: Hmm...

Bad news: I've run out of good news.

Good news: I've also run out of bad news.

14 May 2007

Separated at Birth

Who knew that Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov is also the head of a major private equity firm?

In fact, that's former U.S. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, chair of Cerberus Capital Management, which just bought Chrysler.

Here's a photo of the real Zyuganov for comparison:

A striking resemblance, no? For a moment I thought Comrade Zyuganov had quite the change of heart!

10 May 2007

Victory Day in Moscow

For those of you who follow Russia and the former Soviet Union, it seems silly for me to tell you that yesterday, May 9, was Victory Day celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany. But for those of you who don't obsess over Russia like us, you may not have noticed the recent anniversary. This phenomenon - the fact that in the United States we hardly commemorate the end of WWII (whether VE or VJ day) - is worth a separate post and maybe someday I'll write it. But for now I'll focus on Russia's commemoration of this monumental event.

Those of you who do happen to celebrate VE Day (Victory in Europe) might be a bit confused, as that holiday is marked on May 8 in the West. I've heard at least four reasons why the Soviet Union celebrates on May 9, a day after the rest of us:

1) The Soviets insisted on a separate German-Soviet surrender to Marshal Zhukov which took place on May 9 in Karlshorst, a district of Berlin. Thus, the holiday was celebrated on May 9.

2) Germany surrendered unconditionally to the allies on May 7, 1945 in Reims, France. The terms of the surrender specified that all active operations were to end at 23:01 Central European Time on May 8. Because of the time difference, it was already May 9 in Moscow when the surrender took effect.

3) Related to the above, Western journalists broke the news of Germany's celebration prematurely, leading to the earlier than expected celebration on May 8. The Soviets, however, decided to stick with the previously agreed upon celebration date.

4) This one is my favorite, if a bit far-fetched: Weary of 5 years of brutal war, the Soviet Union chose to celebrate the first day of peace (May 9) rather than the last day of war (May 8). Right.

I suppose there are elements of truth to all of these stories, but I have neither the energy nor the will to untagle them. Maybe the historians in the audience want to do some research...

In any case, May 9 it is, and May 9 it was yesterday. My story actually begins a few days ago when I went over to Red Square to get some pictures of the setup since it would inaccessible on the big day:

Here's another historical footnote: orange and black have become the symbolic colors (along with a bit of good ol' Soviet red) for Victory Day. In the last week, orange and black striped ribbons have been seen everwhere - tied to car antennas, wrapped around light posts, and on peoples' lapels. Readers might not know the symbolism of the ribbons. Originally, the orange and black ribbon was associated with the Order of St. George, Tsarist Russia's highest military honor:

In a nod to the nationalist revival that helped propel the Soviet Union toward victory, the same ribbon was chosen for the Medal for Victory over Germany, first issued on May 9, 1945 and issued to all military personnel and civilians employed by the armed forces. The medal portrays Stalin's profile. Ironically, the words above Stalin's image, "Our Cause is Just," are the famous concluding lines to Molotov's speech to the nation announcing the German invasion on June 22, 1941. Ironic because Stalin was in too great a state of shock to address the nation himself...

The fact that the official parade on Victory Day is so inaccessible to the public was quite frustrating to me. I wanted to see soldiers marching with my own eyes, not watch it on TV. Sure, it wouldn't be like the notorious parades of the Soviet era with tanks and missile launchers, but it would still be impressive to see the formations.

Alas, it was not to be. I got up early and headed to the Tverskaya metro station and walked down toward Red Square, hoping to get close enough to see something. Anything. This was as close as I could get (and this was using the zoom on my camera at its highest setting):

From where we were (I was joined at the barricades by at least a couple hundred others wanting to see the action) we saw absolutely nothing until the fighter jets flew over us in formation marking the end of the parade. Oh well. If I'm ever in Moscow again on May 9, my plan is to get a room at the National Hotel, the building on the right side of the street in the picture.

Still, the decorations that we could see were impressive, including the dressing up of the Central Telegraph building:

I hopped back on the metro and returned up to the Pushkin Square area and decided to pop up above ground to see if there was anything interesting going on. I was not disappointed, as I landed right in the midst of everyone's favorite marchers, the communists:

Fortunately (and somewhat surprisingly) this was the only Stalin portrait I saw all day, strapped to the front of a microbus. I don't know how the driver saw where he was going:

Not sure which is more out of place - the sunglasses or the cell phone:

But marching communists is soooo last week, so I headed down to Gorky Park to see what was going on there. At the entrance a little old veteran was proudly posing with the men and women who lined up to have their photos taken with him. At one point he boasted that his helmet weighed 4 kilograms as he plopped it on his head (in case you're wondering, I'm not the one in the photo, I don't know that guy):

One of the most wonderful Victory Day traditions involves veterans dressing up in their uniforms and putting on all their medals to gather with family, friends, comrades, and strangers in places like Gorky Park. People come to the park with flowers and hand them to the veterans, congratulating them and thanking them for the victory. By the end of the day the veterans and their wives are loaded down with armfuls of flowers, an endearing sign of the respect and admiration the country pays them.

Dancing to old favorites with loved ones and young women dressed in period costumes:

Some veterans joined with friends and family for picnics (with plenty of vodka):

While others gathered around to sing wartime songs...

People lined up to be served kasha from a WWII era mess wagon:

While this group of veterans gathered to be led in song by a man who seems to have stepped right off the used car lot in Houston, Texas:

This man was standing to give a toast when I entered the park and he was still standing (this time leading his gathered family in song) when I left 2 hours later. No small feat considering the weight of all those medals on his chest!

After Gorky Park I headed out to Victory Park where the largest gathering and celebration took place. As you can tell from these photos, there were thousands upon thousands of people there:

Here you could do all your essential shopping in one stop: patriotic flag, kite, and wacky orange wig:

Beautiful tulips everywhere:

In fact, there was a riot cop guarding every flower bed at the park, just in case the tulips decided to hold an unsanctioned protest rally (tulip revolution anyone?)

But seriously, can't this country hold any public event without riot police?

More veterans...

At least one day out of the year it's not OK to play on the war memorials, as evidenced by this police officer chasing a kid off the monument:

Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Definitely worth a visit if you've never been there, and even if you have:

The sign forbidding skateboarding on and around the memorial:

And one of the kids doing it anyway, on Victory Day no less!

Tsereteli's "Tragedy of Nations," this time fortunately without the bikers.

I met the gentleman pictured below as I was leaving the park. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Congratulations, happy Victory Day. May I take your photo?"
Him: "Where are you from, what's your nationality?"
Me: "I'm American. Our countries were allies, of course, during the war."

He proceeded to tell me about meeting Americans when U.S. and Soviet forces met at the Elbe, along with stories about the other major operations he took part in, including the taking of Warsaw and Berlin. He asked me if it was true that Americans don't understand that the Soviet Union "won the war." Not wanting to belittle the contribution of the other Allied nations, I replied diplomatically that yes, it's true that Americans don't realize and appreciate the price paid by Russia in the war. But they should...

Finally he asked me why I wanted to take his picture. I told him that I wanted to be able to remember this day and our conversation.

"But what will you give me to remember you by?" he asked.
"Um," I paused, trying to think of something, as I really had nothing of meaning to give him. Because who wants my business card?

Finally he broke the silence: "Do you drink beer?" I apologized and told him that I didn't. "Well, then how about a few rubles for a beer for an old soldier?" I gave him 100 rubles along with a big smile and a hearty handshake. As I was leaving he told me, "I've always thought that America was our friend. It should be that way, our countries should always be friends." How right he is...

Later that evening I went down to the riverbank opposite the Kremlin to watch the fireworks (unfortunately Red Square was still closed to the public).

At first the show started out slowly with a few sparkling fountains jutting into the sky. An comically indignant drunk guy nearby expressed his opinion to the man occupying the fortress across the river using increasingly diminuative forms of address:

"Vladimir Vladimirovich, you can do better than this, can't you?"

A little while later, "Volodya, come on! Is that all you can do?"

Finally, "Vova, PLEASE!"

Eventually he got his way and we were treated to a spectacular show in the skies over Red Square:

And so with that, I wish you all a happy Victory Day!

For additional photos from the day, click here

07 May 2007

Honor Thy Bronze

A couple of evenings ago I went out to Moscow's Victory Park, the vast complex opened in 1995 to commemorate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. While some find the place aesthetically unappetizing, I find it to be both moving and a peaceful place to walk at sunset when the tall bronze obelisk casts an endless shadow across the land.

The weight of history is palpable during the long walk toward the memorial. One by one I pass the engraved stones, each one marking a year of that terrible war: 1941...1942...1943...1944...1945. All in all the walk takes at least 10 minutes at an appropriately reverent pace. That's how large the complex is.

The effect is intensified when darkness falls and the fountains lining the park are lit in red, as if the blood of the tens of millions who died in the war has sprung forth from the soil of the motherland they died defending.

I am immersed in silent reflection as I walk through the park at dusk, trying to grasp the immense weight of this event in Russian and world history. I'm startled by a sudden noise benind me: CLACK CLACK CLACK THUD!

It is the sound of the ubiquitous skateboarders, rollerbladers, and bike riders as they practice their tricks in, around, among, and on the memorial park. In a vast complex of marble steps, railings, benches, and other intriguing surfaces in stone and bronze, the opportunities for tricks are equally immense. They go careening off steps, their boards clattering noisily when they hit the ground. They race along the marble edge of the fountains to see how much air they can get when they reach the end. And they weave in and out of the columns under the museum seeing how fast they can take the slolam.

Indeed, Victory Park has become a mecca for these wheeled teenagers, a veritable playground for boarders, bikers, and skaters. Which is why Victory Park is starting to lose its weighty esseence for me. It's hard to be moved by a war memorial when kids are using it as a piece of entertainment equipment.

The worst example I saw, the most painful and shameful, took place several weeks ago when I was at the park. Behind the museum is a massive bronze installation by the sculptor that Muscovites love to hate, Zurab Tsereteli. This monument to the victims of the Holocaust is titled "Tragedy of the Nations" and depicts emaciated figures either melting into or rising out of the earth, their personal belongings scattered in piles around them. In fact, unlike many of Tsereteli's works, this one is quite inspired.

The monument is layed out in a large semicircle, one side of which are the massive human figures, the other side a curved bronze wall, curling over the marble base as if it were a wave about to break. As I approached the monument, I saw a young guy on a trick bike racing along the curve of the bronze wall to gain speed before launching off the marble steps leading to the monument.

That's right, you heard me: a kid doing bike tricks off a Holocaust memorial.

Originally this post was going to be about the tragedy of memory lost. The tragedy of the old generations dying off and the younger generations never knowing, remembering, or appreciating the massive price paid in human lives to defeat one of the greatest threats to humanity in history. It was going to be a post about how, despite the horrors committed at home by the Soviet state before, during, and after the war, this was something that Russians should remember and honor eternally for their sacrifice was immense. And it was going to be a post about how the memorial to that sacrifice deserves more respect and better treatment than serving as a skating park for a bunch of punks.

And I suppose that that is still part of the motivation for me writing this. But as I was walking through Victory Park to the clatter of flipped skateboards, my thoughts kept returning to another bronze war memorial that's been in the spotlight recently.

I'm referring, of course, to the Bronze Soldier memorial built by the Soviets in the center of Tallinn, Estonia and recently relocated to a cemetery on the outskirts of town. Many of you reading this are familiar with the controversial decision and the uproar it has caused. For those of you who have not followed the story, the Estonian government's decision has sparked outrage among the Russian population living in Estonia as well as among Russians in Russia and the Russian government itself.

Of course, there are two sides to every story. The Estonian population sees the monument as a symbol of the 50-year occupation of their country by Soviet forces that began at the start of the war. The Russian population holds the monument as a sacred memorial to the sacrifices made by brave soldiers in defeating fascism. The results have been disturbing: rioting and looting in Tallinn, demonstrations in Russia protesting the "fascist" actions of the Estonian government, attacks on the Estonian embassy and ambassador in Moscow, and calls in the Federation Council to sever diplomatic ties with Estonia in protest to the relocation of the Bronze Soldier.

With the memory of the Bronze Soldier fresh in my mind, I couldn't but help wonder why a country that becomes so enraged when another country relocates a war memorial doesn't seem to mind when its own war memorial is disrespected every day by teens on skateboards. At best it seems like hypocrisy. At worst it looks like cynicism as nationalist elements in Russia utilize these events to advance their political goals.

Of course, there are many important distinctions that need to be made here. First, the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn was built over the remains of war dead, whereas Victory Park was never the scene of any military action and thus lacks the degree of holiness imparted by the dead. But, the Estonian government seems to be making every effort to treat the remains with care in relocating them to the cemetery.

Second, I realize that the people doing tricks at Victory Park are not the same people protesting the events in Tallinn. But if the Нашисты are indignant enough to demonstrate at the Estonian embassy for days on end, then whey aren't they out at Victory Park guarding the honor of their own war memorial? I find bikers on Holocaust memorials offensive. Don't they? Shouldn't they be out there patrolling the grounds and trying to impose a little order in memory of those who died for the motherland? Or, if they believe in the rights of individuals to do what they want in public parks, shouldn't they also understand the right of sovereign nations to make their own decisions?

In the very least they should know to honor their own bronze before raising arms over the bronze of others.

04 May 2007

Lenins 'N Things

Most of you by this point are aware of my somewhat unusual hobby of collecting busts and statues of Lenin. If this is news to you, then you haven't been paying very close attention, have you? It's OK, I don't blame you. Or, if you're a newcomer and need to catch up, you can read all about my hobby HERE

Nonetheless, as promised (and at the constant prodding of Comrade Tornadochka), I've finally put up a photo gallery with all the Lenins. Enjoy if you dare. Here's my favorite one:

While we're on the subject of Russian leaders, I was visiting with the 95 year-old woman who lives next door a couple nights ago. I decided to ask her a provocative question:

"Vera Ivanovna, tell me who, in your opinion, is the best leader Russia has ever had. It can be a Tsar, a Soviet leader, a contemporary leader. Who's the best?"

Of course, I was fishing for the expected answer: longing for the good ol' days, maybe she'd answer Brezhnev. Or maybe she's a true "order and stability" comrade and would answer Stalin. But then again, maybe a liberal streak in her would answer with Khrushchev. Or maybe she would reach farther back into the pantheon of Russian Tsars to select someone like Alexander II (who freed the serfs) or Peter the Great.

That's what I expected. Her answer, however, was quite unexpected:

"You know, we really haven't had any good leaders to speak of."

And that was that.

01 May 2007

May Day Part 2: The Rest

After leaving the Comrades at Sverdlov (temporarily renamed Teatralnaya) Square, I headed up the empty street to the Lubyanka, where they're preparing decorations for the May 9 (Victory Day) celebrations.

There I encountered rally held by the "Patriots of Russia" Party, a minor left-wing party formed when its leader, Gennady Semigin split from the Communist Party.

Though they may have been born out of the communists, the Patriots of Russia have an eye on the younger generation, having a rock band perform patriotic-themed songs at the rally. While all age groups were represented, it was a younger crowd than the Communists down the street, and even the babushkas present were tapping their toes to the music.

From there I hopped on the metro and headed over to Pushkin Square, where there was sure to be some action. I was not disappointed, as I popped out right in front of LDPR's rally. I'm not sure blue is Pushkin's color, though. The banner says, "LDPR - We're for the poor! We're for Russians!"

This was a much younger crowd and a larger one than I had just seen at Lubyanka.

They went wild when LDPR leader and political renegade Vladimir Zhirinovsky gave his speech:

But they went even wilder (not joking) when they passed out Zhirinovsky's own line of ice cream (also not joking):

Like the Patriots, LDPR is targeting a younger crowd, resulting in the appearance of a guy rapping about how great Russians are, using the word for ethnic Russians (русский), not the word for citizens of the Russian Federation (российский). Not a big surprise, as the LDPR is on the ultranationalist end of the spectrum.

Not impressed with his rapping skills or his message, I ditched the rapper and worked my way back to the street where I got some photos of Zhirinovsky leaving.

He sped off down the street in his classic Soviet-era ZIL limousine. It has to be some sort of political statement, as his retinue followed in a much nicer modern (western-made) limo.

Then I headed across Tverskaya Ulitsa where there was a very small rally held by the Eurasia Youth Union, the youth wing of the minor Eurasia Party.

Their rally was focused on protesting the recent move by the Estonian government to remove the Soviet-era WWII memorial ("The Bronze Soldier") from central Tallinn, relocating it to a cemetery on the outskirts of the city. The move has infuriated Russians living in Estonia and produced an outcry from Russia as well. The upper house of the Russian parliament recently passed a nonbinding measure calling for the suspension of diplomatic relations with Estonia in response. Even worse has been the street protests, violence, and looting in Tallinn as a result.

Their speeches were heavily nationalistic, calling for action against the Estonian government and the Estonian embassy. And somehow the Americans are responsible for this, though I couldn't quite follow their line of reasoning. In any case, there were quite a few unsavory looking characters among their numbers, many with face masks on like this guy:

The banner on the left says, "The Russians are Coming," and the one on the right - "Arise, Dean Man!." Thanks to Lyndon at Scraps of Moscow for his assistance on the translation.

Not sure what to do with this one, which says Танкин на таллинн. It's close to (but not quite) the word for "tank," in which case it would be something like "Tanks to Tallinn." But I may be way off on this one, as танкин doesn't appear in my dictionary. Almost as disturbing is the small child in front of the sign holding a flag.

The second best line of the day was a chant that the guy with the microphone started: "Glory to the Imperial Behemoth!" The funny thing is that in Russian the word "behemoth" (бегемот) is also the word for "hippopotamus." So it sounded like "Glory to the Imperial Hippo!"

After a while I got tired of listening to their chants and speeches and was feeling a bit hungry. So, I paid homage to the real "Imperial Hippo" and had a Big Mac.

Having spent the day with the Communists, the nationalists, more nationalists, and even more nationalists, I figured McDonald's would make a sufficiently ironic end to my story. Needless to say, I'm Lovin' It!

See the rest of the day's photos here.