28 June 2007

Defenders of Leningrad

Now that I'm home in Moscow, I thought I'd post some photos of my recent trip to St. Petersburg. While the "White Nights" photos will be coming shortly, I'll start with some shots of the Monument to the Defenders of Leningrad, one of the most moving war memorials I've found in the former USSR.

22 June 2007

Where I've been...

In case anyone was wondering about the reduced frequency of the blog lately, I've been playing tour guide to visitors for the last week. We're heading to St. Petersburg for a few days, which should hopefully produce some beautiful pictures and some good stories.

До скорого,

16 June 2007

Russian Banking Crisis

No, don't worry, they haven't devalued the ruble again. This one is about my own personal banking crisis of the last week.

It's been a good three months since my last major crisis - the visa debacle of March/April (part 1, part 2, part 3) . And as anyone who has spent time in Russia knows, three months is far too great an interval between personal crises. Thus, I was overdue for something.

But for some reason Russia wasn't cooperating - everything was going quite smoothly. Too smoothly. Doesn't she know she has a responsibility to fulfill? Doesn't she know that I have a responsibility to fulfill? Doesn't she know that I have a vast (ok, maybe that's overstating it) readership that derives the greatest of pleasures from my misfortunes?

And so, it was time to precipitate my own crisis. I don't do these things for myself, since they only bring me heartache, sleepless nights, and an even further receded hairline. I do these things for you, dear readers, so that when you log on during your lunch break in your cushy office you have something entertaining to accompany your turkey & avocado sandwich with baby spinach and herb aioli. I suffer for you, readers!

Actually to be honest, it was an accident, a stupid accident, and no matter how much I love my readers, I would have rather not gone through the experience. But rather than hide my own stupidity, I figure the least I can do is share this as a warning to fellow travelers and as a source of amusement for your turkey sandwich.

So here it is: I left my ATM card in the machine at one of the busiest train stations in Moscow. It was one of those damned machines that gives you your money before returning the card. Not that that's an excuse. My real excuse was that I was in a hurry to get cash for train tickets and ran out of there without grabbing my card or even thinking about it. The kicker is that it was a day and a half before I realized I had lost my card, and when I did the world before my eyes broke into a thousand shards of glass and I watched the pieces fall in slow motion to the ground.

Oh *&$#@. I'm screwed.

The friend whom I was on my way to meet reassured me: "Oh, that happened to us in Vietnam... We left the card in the machine just in time to watch it get sucked back in." Apparently as a security feature, ATMs ingest forgotten cards so that they don't go wandering off with the next customer...

"We called the bank," she said, and they told us that someone would be going out to the machine on Monday to get the card. When we told them we were leaving on Sunday, they said they'd send someone out on Friday and we could get the card at the airport on our way out!" A glimmer of hope from this story raised my spirits, though I had overlooked one minor detail: this was Russia I was dealing with.

I made a b-line for the station. Nobody had turned in the card to the police or the station manager, though I will say that the woman manning the security cameras was very friendly, even sifting through video footage to get clues. Alas, there were none to be had. Finally I returned to the accursed machine and found the customer service number.

After describing my problem with particular eloquence and fluency (apparently my Russian has improved drastically in the last few weeks, or maye it's just stimulated by panic), the woman on the other end of the line assured me that the machine had taken possession of my card and that it was located in the machine at that very moment.

"But unfortunately the machine will only be opened and serviced on the 15th of this month" (this was about a week away). Not looking forward to scratching by for a week on my emergency reserve, I asked if there were any way to expedite the process. After all, this is Russia, a major industrialized nation, not some little communist hangout in Southeast Asia!

She gave me a phone number of the Moscow branch office that would handle it and said I could inquire whether I could get my card sooner.

I called that day, a Saturday (which, unlike in America, is a working day for banks). No answer. I called on Sunday. No answer. I called on Monday. No answer. You see, Tuesday was a national holiday, which means that everyone took Monday off as well. So it wouldn't be until Wednesday that I could actually get through to them, by which time I would be in Yaroslavl for research.

At last Wednesday arrived, and standing on the banks of the Volga I called the number.

Call 1:
"I'm sorry, we don't have it here. Try calling this number, they should know when it will be available."

Call 2, new number:
"No, you need to call this number"

Call 3, new number:
[Disinterestedly and totally unconcerned by my plight]: "No, we don't have it. You should call back in another week to see if it comes in."

"I don't think you understand. I'm a foreigner and I need my card now, I need money. Is there anyone I can talk to about getting it sooner?"

She put me on hold and ten minutes later I hung up in frustration, having been ignored and abandoned.

I called the central customer service number again in despair. My card was somewhere in Moscow but nobody was willing to say when or where it would be liberated and repatriated. To their credit, the customer service people were exceptionally polite and helpful (based on the area code, I determined they're located in St. Petersburg, adding another reason for me to love that city and its residents).

"Yes, I understand everything. Let's check the records... Ah, it seems your card has already been retreived and is located at the central Moscow branch on X street for you to collect. Be sure to bring your passport, and call us if you have any other problems." At last, some light at the end of the tunnel!

Just to be safe, I called the branch and told them that they had my card.

"No, it's not here."

"What do you mean it's not there? I just spoke to your customer service office and they said it's been removed from the machine and taken to your office."

"Well, it's not here. Call back in a couple of days."

By this point I'm furious, as I'm sick of being brushed off by lethargic employees who have no desire to lift a finger beyond their little workspace. My anger and newfound Russian fluency come together all of a sudden in a sort of yin & yang moment and I let loose on the woman:

"Listen, I'm a foreigner and I'm leaving the country in three days." That was a lie, but being honest and nice wasn't getting me anywhere. "I just called your customer service department and they told me that the card has been retreived and that YOU have it at your office. And now you're telling me that you don't have it. So please, tell me, where's my card?"

"Sometimes it takes a couple of days for the technician to deliver the cards that have been left in machines."

Now I'm downright hostile. "Do you mean to tell me that my ATM card is wandering around Moscow right now in the pocket of some technician and that MAYBE it will show up in a couple of days? That's unacceptable. Listen, I need to know right now, WHERE'S MY CARD?"

I hear her call out to a coworker, "Hey, Masha, do you have a card for a last name X?.....You do?" A couple of seconds later, "Yes, it's here. You can come pick it up."

I was too releived and overjoyed to give the woman the tongue-lashing she deserved. If it had been with Masha all along, why didn't she bother to get up and ask her when I first called? At the same time, I felt a little guilty: I had been harsh, I had been brusque, and I had lied. These are all things I rarely do. But this latest incident just proved in my mind again that in this place that's sometimes the only way to get things done, the only way to get someone to take you seriously.

So while I was a little ashamed that I had become "like them," I was also more than a little proud of myself, as I had found the persistence to get the job done and finally had the language skills to back it up. Had this happened a few months ago, I'm sure I would have meekly called back in a few days, surviving on bad kotlety and mashed potatoes in the meantime because I couldn't afford better food.

And yes, the story has a happy ending. I could have put your fears to rest at the beginning, but what would be the fun in that? I went to the Moscow branch yesterday and liberated my card, where it was held in a box with literally hundreds of other abandoned ATM cards.

"I guess this sort of thing happens a lot," I said to the man rummaging through cards.

"Yes, people do this all the time."

Huh. For something that happens all the time, you'd think they'd be a little better equipped to handle these situations...

12 June 2007

Knock it off!

Returning once again to the theme of Moscow fashion, I've been particularly amused lately by the name-brand knockoffs that still appear on the streets. The most commonly seen knockoffs remain pirated athletic wear - adidas, puma, and the like - that can be found comfortably draped on every track-suited thick-necked man in town.

But wait, you say! This is the New Moscow! Isn't it possible that Russians have traded in the knockoffs of the 90s for the real thing now that they're rolling in oil money? No, it's not. Here's why: the real adidas is expensive. I just checked on the adidas website where I see that their cheapest track pants are $50 and the matching track top is $60. Now let's return to Moscow. If some Muscovite has $110 to burn on casual clothes, is he going to buy a track suit that looks just like the $20 Chinese knock-off that everyone else is wearing? No, he's going to spend it on something that's going to make him stand out and get the attention of the devushkas! Another way of putting this is that the people wearing the "adidas" track suits around Moscow don't exactly carry themselves like they dropped a hundred bucks on their outfit.

Oh, and the other sign that the track suit is a knockoff is the fact that the brand name may often be misspelled. So regardless of how he carries himself in his slick nylon suit, if it says "addidas" or (my favorite) "adibas," you know he's just faking it.

Recently it would seem that knockoff producers are setting their sights even higher: one can now find all sorts of Dolce & Gabbana wear all over the place. When I was in Tambov, I saw a young lady wearing a partially see-through top that was made out of rayon or something synthetic (I'll confess I don't know my fibers very well). It was the color of red and brown's unfortunate love child, and was made all the more hideous by what was painted on the front. There, running across the chest from shoulder to waist like a sash were the words "dolce & gabbana" repeated over and over again in gold paint. You heard me, gold paint. Had he been able to see this wretched creation, Signore Dolce would have died instantly from shock, while Signore Gabanna would have simply rocked back and forth in the corner muttering to himself as he softly beat his head against the wall.

Problems with logos extend beyond clothing as well. I once was face-to-face with a black leather briefcase that bore and attractive metal medallion resembling a clock on the side of the bag. The clock's numbers were written in Roman numerals, and I followed them around the circle without issue until I reached the number 9, which had been rendered as VIIII rather than the proper IX. Moscow may be the Third Rome, but she evidently didn't take to Rome's numbering system...

Sometimes if you're lucky knockoff goods will contain a catchy slogan to increase the item's appeal to consumers. In this regard, quality is apparently a highly valued attribute of knockoffs. I once saw a Reebok gym bag on the metro that had the following slogan painted on the side: "Feel the high quality of the materials." Indeed, I did want to feel the high quality of the materials after reading this reassuring slogan, though I feared that if I reached out and caressed the bag belonging to the heavyset man with a sparkly gold smile he might take it the wrong way. I kept my hands to myself.

Since then I've seen other articles extolling the virtues of the materials and workmanship that went into producing them: "sewn from the best cloths," "the quality is the number 1." Such statements make perfect logical sense. In the first place, it is understandable that one might be concerned about the quality of cheap knockoff items. Thus, consumers are reassured that though it's not really a name brand, its quality meets or even exceeds that of the real thing. After all, how can there be two number ones? If the bag I'm holding in my hands says "the quality is the number 1" then that means that mine is the best. I can buy with confidence.

Secondly, such slogans increase efficiency. Rather than having to test every zipper and button, poke around inside and out and waste time pawing through the bag, consumers can simply make an immediate purchase knowing that theirs is "the best."

Finally, displaying such articles in public through daily use demonstrates that the user is a discerning person with class and good taste. For only the best will do!

Sometimes the slogans appearing on garments impart superlative qualities to the wearers as well. I recently saw a young man on the Metro escalator wearing a striped polo-style shirt. On the back painted in large fancy script letters were the following words: "In the pursuit of excellence." I wanted to go up to that young man, slap him on the back, and congratulate him on his noble pursuit. Perhaps if all Russians pursued excellence as he did, this would be a better place. But I didn't approach him, as I thought he might take it the wrong way. Instead, I was satisfied with the thought that I, by following behind him on the escalator, was in the pursuit of the pursuit of excellence. That's almost as good, right?

Of course, sometimes the slogans just don't make any sense. Today on the Metro I saw a man wearing a rather odd shirt. It was made of a white linen-type material that looked like it had been tie-dyed with gray dye. And the bottom of the shirt and the ends of the sleeves were dyed a watery red, as if the guy had been wading in blood up to his waist. Dye or not, I wasn't going to be approaching him no matter how high the quality of the materials!

I saw the back of his shirt first. There, in gothic-style black letters it said, "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to." In fact, this is from a quote by Oscar Wilde, the entirety of which reads, "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months." Apparently the producers of the shirt were behind schedule, as they simply could not spare another six months...

By Wilde's standards this was a VERY fashionable (read: ugly) shirt, and I do hope the wearer takes Wilde's advice to heart and disposes of it within the six month window. And maybe he could throw away his sleek black little "murse" (man-purse) while he's at it.

As if that weren't enough, he eventually turned around to reveal the front of his shirt, which simply stated "Very Smart."

Somehow I doubt that...

08 June 2007

Wrong Address - Return to Sender

I've been a little irritated lately by the fact that there is a shortage of proper forms of address in Russia (or rather, there is a shortage of such things in Russian, regardless of where you're speaking it. I had the same problem when speaking Russian in California, for example).

Russian simply doesn't have very good or commonly used equivalents for Mr., Mrs., sir, ma'am, etc, and that makes life in Russia difficult for a polite person like me.

My current state of irritability was brought about by an episode last weekend at the megamart Auchan, Russia's version of Wal Mart. Actually, it's France's version of Wal Mart, as the Frenchies managed to beat the Emperor Walton's Evil Empire to Moscow. Napoleon would be so proud! Had it turned out otherwise, I can picture the following scene:

President Reagan: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wal (Mart)"

But that's beside the point. I had secured an invitation and a ride to this suburban mega consumer wonderland, as I thought it would be a good cultural experience - a chance to see the world of suburban middle class Moscow. In fact, it felt as if I had stepped right into middle America, except they don't sell live sturgeon in Arkansas. Nor have I ever seen foie gras for sale at Wal Mart, but I guess certain excentricities are to be expected when it comes to a French retailer.

Having wandered the aisles for an hour dragging my jaw on the floor the whole time and having nearly died laughing as I watched the Russians in the TV section enthralled by 50-cent's music video of "P.I.M.P" playing on every T.V., my good friend Nature called and I was compelled to answer the call.

Not finding a statue of Dostoevsky, I set off in search of the bathroom. I spotted it on the other side of the cash registers and did what one always does back home: I made a b-line for the bathroom, found the checkout aisle with the skinniest people, and proceded to squeeze through.

"Man (мужчина/muzhchina)....Man!" the cashier barked at me. Actually, it was more of a bored, whiney growl, as it's a three-syllable word in Russian and she took much delight in stretching out each syllable with more than a touch of condescention.

"You can't go through here."

Even the skinny people I was trying to pass had a look of shock and horror on their faces, which seemed to say, "how dare someone go through the checkout line without buying something! Our checkout line!"

"But I have to use the bathroom," I pleaded as I pointed to the door which was only a few steps away.

"You have to go down past the first cash register and through security first." [yes, there's security at Russo-Franco Wal Mart]

Now, when I said that this was Russia's version of Wal Mart, what I meant was this is three times the size of even the superest of Super Walmarts, as everything in Russia is, well, bigger. There are literally about 100 checkout stations at Auchan, and I was somewhere around 75. I set out on my epic journey to cashier number 1, briefly contemplating buying some snacks for the long trip to the bathroom that lay ahead of me. But then I would just be able to go through the checkout line and straight to the bathroom, rendering the snacks unnecessary. No, I would have to endure the trek without provisions or equipment.

A couple of weeks later I rounded cashier 1, passed through security, and hiked back up to the bathroom where I finally found peace. But I was still irritated at having been addressed so brusquely as "Man." I realized, of course, that it wasn't the woman's fault (though she could have just let me go through to the bathroom), but rather Russian language's fault. As I mentioned in the opening, there's just no good way to address someone politely in Russian.

Along with "man," you often hear people use "young man" (молодой человек/molodoi chelovek), which I suppose is better. But what do you do if the person isn't so young? After all, would I really address someone as "young man" who is a good 10-15 years older than me?

There's a similar problem when addressing women. The quite common address, "girl" (young woman, девушка/devushka) is really the only way to get the attention of the bored waitress who is half-heartedly flirting with the bartender and who couldn't care less about the fact that you have your soup but no spoon. It's taken me a long time to shout out "devushka" at a waitress, as it's always felt quite impolite. [Come to think of it, this is about the hundredth time I've talked about me being too polite on this blog. I'm beginning to realize that maybe I'm not too polite in general, just too polite for Russia]. In any case, I've finally gotten used to it, sort of, and will wield it when absolutely necessary.

But again, what do I say if the woman is clearly not a devushka anymore? After all, would you really call a 40-year old Russian a "young woman" anymore?

There are, of course a few other options. There is the somewhat archaic and underused господин/госпожа (gospodin/gospozha), which translate to Mr. and Mrs. But I haven't heard anyone use them except the 95-year old babushka next door who refers to me as "Gospodin R."

Then there is the even more archaic сударь/сударыня (sudar/sudarynia, sir/madam), which is utterly obsolete.

On top of these you have a bunch of bastardized cognates that get thrown around (especially in the presence of westerners), suich as сэр (sir) and мистер (mister). These I just find irritating, as I get easily annoyed by souvenir vendors on the Arbat shouting at me, "meester, meester, you buy, good price!"

And so, the problem remains: there is no standard polite way to address people in Russian.

I suppose a return to the Soviet-era practice of referring to people as "citizen" and "citizeness" might work, although since citizenship, immigration, and nationality are a touchy subject these days, maybe it's best to leave these ones in the closet.

No, it seems perfectly clear to me that there is only one viable way around this conundrum:

Bring back the comrade.

I say this in all seriousness. Sure, the word товарищ (tovarishch) carried some ideological and historical baggage at one time, but seriously, does anyone really believe that communism is going to return? And besides, if they brought back the red flag for the army and the old hymn for the state, why not the old "comrade" for the people? It's not like the Russian government is all that keen on de-Sovietization and grappling with its past, after all. So what harm would it do?

In fact, I think it would do a lot of good. First, you have a form of address that can be used directly: "Comrade, could you please bring the bill?" And yet the same word can also be used to refer to someone indirectly: "Allow me to introduce you to Comrade Ivanov."

Additionally, in the spirit of political correctness and gener equality, it breaks down gender barriers by being a gender-neutral form of address, appropriate for men and women. Thus, in one fell swoop we've got a word to cover Mr., Mrs., Ms., Sir, and Madam. And it also comes in handy during those embarassing moments when the gender of one's interlocutor is ambiguous. I have in mind the androgynous teenager with the long hair and delicate fingers on the metro as well as the he-she bear whose gender is unclear but whose appetite is not.

Let's also not forget that tovarishch is a real Russian word that real Russians already know. None of this silly importning of english cognates, which I find to be especially irritating. Russian is a rich language, why do you insist on cheap western imports (of words) for which Russian already has an alternative?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, maybe if everybody thought of everybody else as their "comrade," this would be a more pleasant and polite place. In short, it would be a more comradely place.

And so, I hereby propose that those of us who are in Russia or are using Russian on a regular basis begin the movement to return "comrade" to the daily lexicon for it can only bring joy, peace, love, and equality.

Who's with me, Comrades?

03 June 2007

Picturing the Collapse

Not long ago I mentioned a hapless soul who was brought to my blog searching for a "photo of the collapse of the Soviet Union," which raised the question of what that iconic photo might be, as the collapse itself really took place over the course of several months (even years). After digging around on the web and getting suggestions and submissions from others, here are several candidates that seem to best capture "the collapse." And additional submissions that I've missed are, of course, welcome!

First, on Lyndon's suggestion, we have a trio of photos depicting Chernobyl, the Soviet exodus from Afghanistan, and bread lines. In Lyndon's honor, the bread line photo was supposedly taken in Chisinau:

Next, recognizing the importance that nationalist mobilization and protests played in bringing down the Soviet system, we have a photo of the human chain across the Baltics in 1989, followed by one of the riots in Yerevan in 1988.

Next, there are the many notable images surrounding the August 1991 coup. The first is the memorable image of the coup plotters, visibly shaken (and shaking) appearing on television:

At the barricades in Moscow and St. Petersburg:

Then, of course, we have the famous photos of Yeltsin at the White House:

This one was sent to me by Andy at Siberian Light:

The triumphant toppling of Dzerzhinsky's statue in front of the Lubyanka (which, as it turns out, had a little help from a crane from the U.S. Embassy):

And of course, there are the the somewhat sad images of Gorbachev's return to Moscow:

Soon after it was apparent that there was a new man calling the shots in Moscow:

And eventually it was that man who met with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus in this villa at Belovezh to formally dissolve the Soviet Union:

...All of which led to the Soviet hammer and sickle being lowerd from the Kremlin for the last time on December 25, 1991:

I still don't think I could pick just one that truly encapsulates "the collapse," though I think the Baltic chain is my sentimental favorite.

And in honor of the democratic ideals of that time, I suppose we should have a little online poll: which image do you think best captures the collapse of the Soviet Union?

01 June 2007

A New Look

The good people over at Russophile.com were not only kind enough to post a link to my research observations, but also confirmed what I've long suspected: the previous layout of white text on a black background is a bit hard to read. I suppose I've just been in denial, as I'm quite fond of the red on black color scheme. Also, I don't really read my blog (I've found the author to be a bit long-winded at time, and I'm a busy person), so it hasn't bothered me much in the past.

But, for the sake of readers' eyes, we'll give this new color scheme a test drive. Still has a nice chilling "darkness" feel to it, and is hopefully easier to read. Any comments, opinions, or suggestions are, of course, welcome!