Friday, October 12, 2012

Becoming Mrs. Mount

I am literally taking a quick breather- pant! pant! pant!- coming back from my rehearsal dinner and about to head down to the hotel bar...if the title wasn't enough of a clue, I am getting MARRIED tomorrow!!  So thrilled, honored, and completely buzzed off emotion (in case we are just tuning in, I am of the sober persuasion- have mine for me, by all means though!).

As much as I am itching to head down to see all of these incredible people who have traveled from, seriously, all over the country to be with me and Will, I just had to put pen to paper (kind of) to remind myself how deeply, profoundly happy I am in this moment.  It is a rare thing to find someone who makes your heart race- much less after 9 years solid- who feels as close as a brother, as intimate as the best friend you've known since preschool, and who can laugh at your horrible jokes and then kindly, discreetly tell you afterwards that maybe Aunt Elsie didn't need to know about the inappropriate lingerie shower that your mother's friends threw for you (true story).  It may be even more rare to find someone who comes with an amazing family.  My father-in-law elect made a speech tonight that left me and Will with tears streaming down our faces, then my mother made a speech that made us cry again, only happy tears.

I am brimming over with joy.

Also, I finished a 22 page midterm this morning for "Gender and Social Structure".  I just want it noted for the record that this work/life balance shit is covered folks.

Degi last time.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Home Sweet Hectic

It's been 47 days since I left Moscow, and I am caught in a weird time-warp limbo where one minute it feels like I came back yesterday, and the next it feels like my time in Moscow was a surreal spark of whirlwind days in the distant past, something remembered from a particularly vivid dream.  I stepped off the plane at Dulles and back into the tightly defined social space I inhabit at home, the margins of my life delineated by my roles as partner, friend, daughter, sister, employee, supervisor, scholar, pet owner, and homemaker (can we find a better term for this?? WTF do you call the person responsible for the upkeep of the home who also works outside the house?  Let me preempt your Betty Friedan related mumblings...Will did all of this and conducted a job search and worked a temp job whilst I was away improving my career).  In Moscow, my days were less tightly constrained; my obligations began and ended with my roles as 'scholar' and 'friend' and I reveled in the freedom...for most of the trip.

While I missed my partner and friends the entire time I was away from home, I also began to miss the structure imposed by my myriad (chosen) obligations towards the end of my time abroad.  Those obligations stem from the things that make my life so sweet and wonderful. In Moscow, I woke up each morning to my tiny Russian cell phone's alarm; at home, my dog's- rather polite and quiet- grumbling wakes me up.  The last thing I did before falling asleep each night in Moscow was look at the photo of my partner taped to the wall of my dorm room next to my pillow.  Here the last thing I am aware of before sleep overtakes my consciousness is my partner holding me (and occasionally of him shoving the dog out of the bed...furry interloper that she is).  My job fires my imagination, my time at the gym (or spent with Jillian Michaels and my DVD player) relaxes my body, cleaning our apartment yields a beautiful, restful home, walking my dog each morning means I watch the sun rise up over the Mason temple that is our backyard, driving to pick my partner up each night gives me alone time with my other boyfriend- Kai Ryssdal of NPR's Marketplace- and means that I get to hear about Will's day at work as I enjoy the view of the Washington Monument and Jefferson, Lincoln and Air Force Memorials as we drive back over the Potomac towards our home.  The obligations that frame my day also wrap around my identity, providing a cozy blanket of familiarity built through a combination of intentional decisions and serendipitous strokes of luck over the past fifteen or so years.

Lest I am giving you the impression that I view my life as all sunshine and Martha Stewart, let me be clear: This shit can be crazy overwhelming. Screw you Kelly Ripa and your "Be Even More Amazing" ad campaign: Sometimes I feel at risk of drowning in a sea of errands, meetings, emails to answer, and, are you serious??! the dog just threw up on the floor.  I do not, as my sister put it, "fart glitter and roses".

I hit that wall Monday two nights ago, driving home from Will's office having sat with NPR running off just the battery in the car.  10 minutes later, go to turn the car back on, car is dead.  Will was just coming off a 14 hour day at the office, and I was coming off 8 hours of my job, laced with 9 loads of laundry, cooking dinner, picking up house, dealing with dog diarrhea (sorry for the over share, but seriously, I imagine I am not the only one who's been here folks), and fielding calls from my mother about the head count for my bridal shower next weekend.  Waiting for 45 minutes for a tow truck was the icing on the domestic bullshit cake, and I just couldn't handle it anymore.  Driving past the high school on our street, a wave of melancholy and panic washed over me as I thought about the conversations we have been having about impending procreation attempts, and I moaned out load to Will "how do people do all of this crap with kids?"  My mind wandered over the Atlantic and all the way back to my dorm room off Studenchenskya, my sore body physically yearning for the stiffness of the board-and-pad-mattress-substitute in my Moscow bed and my brain aching for the lack of structure that allowed for chore free days of museums, day trips and sight filled meandering through the streets of Siberian towns. I feel asleep thinking of my roommate Tima, how much fun we had staying up until 4am all too frequently, contemplating the meaning of life and the antics of our neighbors, waking up in the morning and immediately picking up the conversation while goofing around trying to dry hair, apply make-up, and make beds in a 10'X16' room shared by three women.  

I miss my friends in Moscow more than I can say, and yes, I miss the wide open days sometimes too.  I write this sitting surrounded by work to-do lists, wilting flowers that need to be replaced on a trip to Trader Joe's, stacks of books for my course I am taking this summer, unopened mail, under-attended-to Russian language homework, the prescription I picked up yesterday, and dry cleaning that needs to be dropped off.  The dishwasher needs to be run, the laundry needs to be put away, and my hair is still piled on top of my head tucked under a towel. However, despite the mild chaos, I look past the clutter and see the dozen or so birthday/Mother's Day/thank you/congratulations cards displayed on our china cabinet, testimonies to milestones celebrated with loved ones, roles well filled, jobs well done.  Pictures taken over 8 years of shared history building a life with my partner line the shelves of bookcases, packed between words and ideas that inspire the professional work we both hold dear.  Our dog snoozes on the sofa we purchased from friends when they welcomed their first baby, a yellow leather reminder of the fact that life will evolve to make room for the new commitments we chose to take on- even ones that will crap in diapers rather than outdoors.

My life at home at the moment is less Carly Rae Jepsen "Call Me Maybe"and more Bon Jovi "Living on a Prayer".  The fun and flash of my time in Moscow was exciting and new, filled with possibilities and absent of obligations.  But it also lacked the sense of accomplishment and drive that accompanies the feeling of success garnered each day as Will and I tenaciously build our careers, our family, our future.  I am so appreciative to him for the gift he gave me by encouraging me to step away from my various to-dos of life at home and leap boldly into the unknown of a semester abroad.  I am even more appreciative to be back in step with my daily life, jam packed as it is.  The laundry and the bills and the conference calls and the term papers and the reimbursement paperwork and the Russian grammar textbook all represent different choices I have made, different obligations I have committed to, different hopes I have for the life I am building.  If the past is any indication, it will be better than beyond anything I can dream up now, despite whatever chaos accompanies it. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

How to see the best side of humanity: Some thoughts on traveling sans safety net

It's my last Saturday night in Russia for the foreseeable future, and one of my roommates and I took it upon ourselves to whoop up my last weekend and head outside of Moscow.  The snow is gone, and so are we.  Our third roommate headed to St. Petersburg for the weekend, and, not wanting to miss out on a little action away from home base, we thought it would be fun to have just one more Russian adventure before I depart.

We are in Suzdal, which, from the glimpses I have gained speeding through the main stretch of town at 100 km/hr at 10:20pm, is Russia's answer to Colonial least architecturally speaking (we'll see tomorrow morning if there are folks dressed up like days of yore- fingers crossed!). 

So why pull out of town my last weekend here?  I was wondering the same thing this afternoon as I pushed a fresh change of clothes into the now very well used travel pack that has schlepped from St Pete to Siberia and back again.  A long irritating search for the correct bus (unfruitful) eventually left us taking a non-sanctioned bus (think underground version of the DC-Chinatown to NY that leaves from 7th and G NW), and I asked myself the same question again.  I could be, right now, taking a pre-dancing evening snooze before putting on a fun skirt and having one last night dancing with mafia-esque creepy guys and hanging with the friends I have made in my dorm.

Cue three hours in stop and go traffic and drizzling rain on the "informal economy's" (read: operating outside of State regulations) answer to the sanctioned bus system.  This bumpy ride was followed by the sinking realization that Tema and I are too late pulling into Vladimir, the city through which we must pass to get a connecting bus to Suzdal, to get a bus that night.  Now we had a a little more of an adventure on our hands than we had hoped for.

Fifteen minutes later I had my answer as to why I had wanted to travel my very last weekend in Moscow (for the time being- I will be back!!): Adventure and the opportunity to see the best in others. A young couple on the bus overheard our predicament and gave us the number to a reliable cab company that could take us to Suzdal.  When our phone calls didn't pan out, they each took their own respective phones out and spent the next three minutes securing a cab from an alternative company.  Tema and I stood outside the darkened bus terminal in Vladimir, grinning at each other in the glare of the streetlights reflecting off the wet pavement.  We had been talking on the bus about "Russkya Dusha"- Russian spirit- how generous, genuinely truly hospitable, Russian people are.  Russkya Dusha to the rescue: The young couple's efforts yielded a Hyundai that swooped out of the misty night to carry us away to Suzdal.

My 'why are we doing this again' thoughts were obliterated within seconds after the cab pulled away from the darkened avtobusvoksal (bus terminal).  Hiking bag and purses tucked around us, Tema and I had laid our heads back against the seat and immediately had our eardrums assaulted by blaring bass of danceclub techno music.  Once again, we shared a goofball grin at each other, delighted by the bizarre twists the evening had taken.  Here we are, cold, slightly damp, slightly lost, and without any real idea of how to accomplish our next mission, but fate and helpful Russian hospitality had intervened to make all things possible.

Splashing to the hostel on The. Worst. Road. Ever. the cabbie got totally lost in the dark wetness of the Suzdalian countryside.  Lucky we are once again, because out meandering in the soggy night are a middle aged man and a teenage boy, who helpfully point our cabbie in the correct direction- back down the puddle filled and pothole pocked road we had first tried, but now we had a better idea of what we were looking for.  We pushed past the point where the cab had first turned around, sure we were lost, and eventually pulled up outside of Godzillas Hostel, a fantastic A-frame cabin shaped slice of heaven in the rural Russian countryside.

When our knocks on the front door yielded no answer, Tema and I were forced to tap on the window of the hostels' front room to get the attention of the woman happily typing away on a computer.  After scaring the shit out of the poor soul with our loud rapping, she alerted the head of the hostel that two half drowned ragamuffins had deposited themselves on the front porch.  Two minutes later we were checked in for two nights of relaxation and adventure, and our thoughts turned to the fact that we were ravenously hungry.  Lunch for me had been 10 hours earlier, and Tema had eaten only творог (Russia's answer to Greek yogurt) that morning before heading to class.  Alas, it was almost midnight in rural Russia, and there was no cafe open...even if there had been, there was no way that we would be able to slither up the flooded road to the civilization of the town center above- the road was all mud, and I had already burned a lot of karma points willing the tiny Hyundai cab to not get stuck in the mud on our adventure to the hostel.

There was no food to be had in town, and yours truly is really, really specific about eating three meals a day as part of my regimen to keep my ever-lurking eating disorder* at bay.  But Russkaya Dusha was once again on our side- the hostel director gave us a conspiratorial grin, and busted open her personal stash of yogurt and milk.  I had packed some cereal for the morning, and Tema had thrown two oranges into our bag that morning.  A festive dinner of cold cereal, milk, fruity yogurt and oranges ensued, and I climbed into my bunk bed with a full stomach and happy heart.

The doubts I had about leaving town my last weekend in Russia had been obliterated by the wonderful twists and turns the evening had taken. But more than the adventure that had unfolded, what I appreciated most about the evening- what could have only come as a result of traveling into the unknown-was that I had gotten to see the best in others when I was in a pinch.  In my day to day life I often (usually for the best!) have every minute and every possibility for disaster planned for.  Overcompensating for a few years of disastrous depression that left me with the sense that my most prominent character trait was "flaky", I have over-prepared for almost every professional and personal commitment I have had over the past five years.  This is undoubtedly a good thing, the foundation of much of my success.  However, the moments where I find myself under-prepared (I had packed some food, after all, but not a whole dinner) or when plans go awry (see: black market bus transport to Suzdal when official bus not operating), are the times where I have been the most surprisingly delighted by the generosity of others.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Journeying back towards my life at home.

I've promised myself that I wasn't allowed to blog until I finished my final papers for the semester...which are still in progress.  But I am so flooded with mixed feelings as I hurtle into the last ten days of my time abroad that I want to share at least some of it beyond the pages of my personal journal.

I just returned from nine days on the Trans-Siberian Railroad- an experience that I am still having trouble putting my mind around- 5,000 kilometers and nine days of traveling at breakneck pace (the Oregon Trail computer game would have put us at "grueling" and we would have all died of cholera) and we only went half-way across this nearly unfathomably massive behemoth of a country. I have much to write about in the coming months- expect many political, philosophical, sociological, gender related and goofy posts over the next ten weeks once I return to the U.S. and have time for a little existential navel gazing type writing time.

The thing that I most want to put down immediately, however, has little to do with the traveling I have done over the past three weeks- the past two in Siberia, and the one before it in the U.S. for a conference- and has everything to do with returning.  In the three weeks I was away from Moscow winter became spring, one semester changed to another, and the routine I had settled into during my first eight weeks here has abruptly shifted.  My days were mostly filled with practicing Russian in class and with a private tutor, and in both activities I had been accompanied by my friend Mathieu, forging a lovely friendship in the process built on a mutual love of politics and shared torturous attempts to fumble our way through learning a challenging language at lightning speed.  My time not in class was spent goofing around with my roommates, or with the friends I have made in my dorm and through my floormates' friends. Now my time is filled trying to cram in all of the things that I still feel like I want to see before I leave Moscow, and trying to ignore how much I am going to miss the friends I have made in the time I have lived here.

Moscow itself has changed too. The snow is gone, women on Arbat have traded fur coats for long flowing skirts and colorful wedge heels.  Couples are walking hand in hand, rather than cuddled up arm and arm to fight off the chill (or because the chill made a great excuse for public canoodling).  I can walk quickly on the sidewalk, unafraid of slipping on black ice lurking under the latest layer of snow.  There are even tulips blooming outside of our dorm; the day I left for the U.S. a fresh layer of seven inches of snow had graced the same path where the blossoms are now pushing up through the soft earth.  The seasons have switched, and my thoughts feel caught in transition as well.  My calendar two weeks from now is marked up with appointments for work and social engagements with my friends from home.  I am having a hard time straddling staying in the present with the future so quickly zooming towards me.

I had dinner with Mathieu this evening to catch up- after a shared 12 hours of class time plus six hours of metro time per week, he had become by default the person I spent the most time with here and, luckily for me, one of the people whom I have come to enjoy hanging out with the most.  Three weeks of political news to chew on and recounting of adventures in Siberia soon gave way to talking about what I am looking forward to in going home, and the thing that keeps occurring to me is that I am really looking forward to being 28 again.  Right now I am living in a dorm, surrounded by people on average six-eight years younger than me (or in the case of my dorm neighbors, 10 years- minus ten points to Anton for calling me a pedophile when I gave him a hug).  For these past three months, I have felt like I am 22 again.  At home, I have a partner, a dog, an extended family, long standing friendships that have spanned decades, a rent payment, job, and even a (very poorly tended) garden: Responsibility abounds.  For the first several weeks I was in Moscow, it felt exciting to be unhinged from the day to day routines that moor me to my life.  I could sleep late (no dog to walk, no job to get to), go to class early just to read something that interested me (no overwhelming reading load since I am only taking two classes and no research), and decide to take a weekend trip at the drop of a hat (no schedules to coordinate around extended family or partner).

This was fun for a little while, exhilarating to have so much free time to explore a new city and meet new people.  As the days have rolled into weeks have built into months though, I am longing more and more for the commitments that frame my daily life at home.  I like waking up at six to walk my dog, watching the sun rise up from behind the Masonic Temple in our Old Town Alexandria neighborhood. I love that my sister calls me and asks if I can watch my niece from time to time.  I relish picking my partner up from work in the evening, hearing about his day and the myriad adventures he has had in the twelve hours that elapsed between the time I dropped him off in the morning.  I miss wandering the grocery store with him, in search of my bland cereal that I like for breakfast and a can of pesto to go with dinner. 

Uploading pictures from my Trans-Siberian trek this afternoon on Facebook, I started browsing around the pages of my friends from home.  Babies and weddings all around; pictures of happy Easter dresses and first St. Patrick's day onesies, matchy-matchy bridesmaids dresses and smiling for the camera outside the church.  The idea of marriage and family for most of the friends I have made here are still years off- being surrounded by the collective distance from the trappings of familial settled-ness has made my own impending nuptials (yay!!!!) seem very distant as well.  I feel like I have been living in a suspended reality for the past three months, a little time travel bubble where suddenly I woke up and was 20 years old again- dorm room, curfew, and almost complete lack of responsibility.

The suspended reality has been a string of shining baubles of high points: Trips to the Bolshoi theater, drinks at the top of the Ritz Carlton overlooking the Red Square, traipsing through art galleries with my Social Geographies course, meandering the streets of Moscow while practicing Russian with my roommates.  My life at home is furnished by time consuming responsibilities that leave little room for the piles of museum, theater and train stubs I have amassed while living in Moscow.

The longer I am in this little bubble the more I am appreciating the responsibilities that frame my day to day life at home. The thing that gives meaning to all of the adventures, that makes the highs of traveling and the fun of free time so much more precious is the daily living that happens in between.  What I love about my life at home is not just the birthday parties and niece's first steps and graduation celebrations- it's also the trips to the grocery store, coughing through pollen laden evenings while jogging at night with my partner, and unplanned dinners out because I burned the salmon.  The one and only time I teared up from homesickness was not looking at photos of what I am missing at was while pawing through the moldy onions at the local grocery store, thinking about my partner and my long-standing weekly date to Whole Foods. 

So, as my emotions tack from bitter to sweet and back again over the next week, I am going to do my best to smile because my experiences here happened, rather than cry because they are drawing to a close.  I will attempt to remember that the things that have made my time here wonderful are the people I have met, not just the sights I have seen, and will try to let go of my panicking desire to see "just one more thing!" on my hit list of museums, etc.  And most of all, I will keep coming back to the thought that my life at home, responsibilities and all, is really the greatest adventure upon which I have ever embarked.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Unexpectedly head over heels.

I didn’t expect to fall in love with Moscow.  In fact, I didn’t know that I had, until I traveled to St. Petersburg this past weekend.  For the past eight weeks I have trudged through snow, slush, cold, wet, and sludge to get to class, grocery store, and private language tutor.  Each morning is a slow procession 100 steps down from my room to the closest shower and oft-broken washers servicing all 6 floors of students and staff. Post shower is the all out “full contact sport”- to quote one of my floormates- of the Moscow Metro system, shoving and pushing and crowding my way into the wagon and pressing myself against the assembled hoards of humanity all trying to get to our respective destinations without making eye contact or linguistic exchanges with one another. 

But…under the frantic humming that structures the daily routines of life in Moscow beats a deeper rhythm, one that I didn’t notice until after it had become ingrained in the pace of my steps up and down the stairs, to and from the metro, back and forth from class and the local grocery shop.  Moscow has a determination to it, a gritty tenacity that commands respect at the same time that it demands compliance.  You will push through the Metro doors, even if you are carrying 45 lbs. of groceries, even when the person ahead of you (always) fails to hold the (unreasonably heavy) door behind him/her.  You will push through because the people ahead of you have done so successfully, and the people coming behind you are counting on you to keep moving forward no matter the burden you are carrying.  If you slip on the icy sidewalk from the grocery store to the Metro- which you well might if you wear crappy fake Uggs from Costco like yours truly did her first weeks here- you can count that people will not slow their breakneck pace to wherever they are headed, but you can also count that while they rush on they will stoop down to scoop you up and set you on your feet so that you can continue to rush on as well.   They stoop to help because they are generous just as much as they stoop to help because the sidewalk is faster for everyone when no one is sprawled across it, fake Uggs akimbo, preventing others from proceeding on their way. 

These examples, I have come to think, are emblematic of the mindset, the ‘national consciousness’, as one of my friends has been calling it, of the people living in Moscow.  Everyone is pushing through, trying their best to manage in a city that is immense, at a pace that is exhausting.  The collective burden of everyday life is not lessened by the fact that those all around you are experiencing the same thing, but the cumulative energy sparked by witnessing others pressing on in the face of cold and slush and bureaucracy and broken appliances pushes me forward. 

The speed of life here is a paradox: the days fly by, hours consumed by what would take only minutes in the US; at the same time, I feel that my movement is so slow, weighed down by layers of fluff insulating my body and a carpet of snow slowing my steps.  My weekly trip to the grocery store- at max a thirty minute adventure at home- is a two hour excursion, encumbered by the need to apply three layers of clothing, descend 100 steps, walk five minutes to the Metro, travel two stations, walk ten minutes, and then repeat going back with groceries in hand; my twenty minute commute to campus at home is at minimum at one hour trek with two metro changes and a 15 minute walk to whichever faculty (department) building at which my class is being held that day.   Doing laundry at home is, at its worst, an annoying chore that involves one half flight of stairs and the occasional waiting for one of the other twelve building resident’s socks to finishing swirling in the suds.  Laundry here is nothing short of exhausting- at its best, there are a total of eight functional washers (of fourteen total) to share among six floors of 30 rooms with two or three people in each.  Do the math.  Add to this shortage the fact that I have a six flight walk each way to check if there is an available washer, and the process becomes a total timesuck (but great for my glutes!).  Once you actually wrangle a free washer and get your clothes to successfully complete the cycle (50/50 shot that the washer will continue working while you are using it), you then have to hang all of the clean wet clothes up, as Russia has not yet become acquainted with dryers (Kenmore and GE, you might want to jump on this…just saying, it’s, like, the largest country in the world and all).

After two months of acclimating to the daily contradictions that make up Moscow- sullen looking fellow sidewalk trudgers that wordlessly lend a hand with the suitcase you are lugging solo while completely avoiding eye contact, the helpful stranger who insists on walking you directly to the classroom you simply cannot find in the convoluted faculty building that seems designed specifically to seem unwelcoming- I find that, while I certainly don’t understand Moscow, I have developed a deep admiration for the city and its inhabitants.  I find myself inspired by their resigned tenacity to thrive despite the very real hardships of everyday life- not just the logistical challenges of navigating a subarctic megacity home to 30 million other people, but also the echoes of Soviet administration that remain, hindering any minor administrative mission, and the complicated systems of ‘informal payments’ that structure all financial and governmental transactions. 

Moscow, and those who dwell within her limits, refuses to make life easy: she does not cater to the whims of travelers and or the needs of those bold enough to attempt ex-pat life for the purposes of professional or personal obligations.  My initial feelings of overwhelm stemming from the lack of English signs, lack of welcoming shop keepers, and lack of amenities (see: dryer; elevator) has given way to a fierce admiration for the city’s frank honesty in portraying itself to be only that what it is, rather than make attempts to gloss over the rough contours of everyday life in the face of a globalizing population and calls for increased tourism.  You have to really want to get to know Moscow in order to do so.

I traveled to St. Petersburg two weekends ago to enjoy the “Venice of Russia” and enjoy a little break from the breakneck pace of Moscow.  Tumbling out of the St. Petersburg station Friday morning after being rocked to sleep on the night train, I was immediately greeted by signs in English and hopeful shopkeepers offering/shoving sale fliers in my hands, beckoning me to come in and buy random tourist crap from their respective stores.  Each picturesque street gave way to one even more charming, and boulevard after boulevard was marked with inspiring vistas of awe inspiring architecture.  The more I meandered, however, the more I missed Moscow.  Each sign in English, when read between the lines, declared “WE WANT YOUR BUSINESS”, and left me with the sense that, perhaps, St. Petersburg was also trying to say “WE WANT YOUR APPROVAL”.  The city itself had been built under the direction of Peter the Great as an attempt to herald Russia into a new era of improved relations with Europe, and walking through each charming side street I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps the city was still striving to garner favor with outsiders.

The sharp contrast between the ‘y’all come back now!’ zeitgeist of St. Petersburg and the more elusive- and more honest- feel of Moscow sparked an unexpected realization: I have fallen in love with Moscow.  Each and every second I have bitched about cat shit in our laundry room, slipped on ice while carrying a million tons of groceries back from Fili mall, slumped down the 100 stairs only to find that our dorm’s water was shut off for ever continuing repairs has yielded a deep respect for the people that navigate Moscow each day, and, bafflingly, has garnered an appreciation for the honesty of the city itself.  "Hell yes", says Moscow, "we have crippling administrative procedures, lack of politically correct infrastructure (good luck if you have a physical disability), and a total disregard for Western standards of customer service.  Rub you the wrong way? Though shit."

While the general vibe of Moscow did, indeed, rub me the wrong way for the first month I was here, leaving the city and being confronted by the silver platter service and friendly veneer of St. Petersburg made me realize how much I appreciate Moscow’s honesty.  I have come to love that I know just where I stand with my friends here, that I don’t have to think about if someone really likes me or just tolerates me to be polite.  I love that the shops haven’t made it easy for me; I was either going to learn Russian, or go hungry at McDonalds, damnit.

I love that I was forced to sink or swim. I don’t know that I wouldn’t have chosen to just float along had that been an option.  

Moscow reminds me of a quote from Aaron Sorkin's The American President, when Michael Douglas’s president character says “America is advanced citizenship.  You’ve got to earn it.”  Moscow is advanced ex-pat city living: No one is going to bend over backwards to welcome you, but once you realize that the people pushing all around you are actually pushing you forward, towards destinations and goals previously unimagined, you begin to appreciate the challenge.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Half-time Highlights

I can't believe how quickly my time here is flying...I blinked and suddenly I: a) can now speak conversational Russian; b) can sprint up six flights of stairs in about 45 seconds; and, c) have less time left in Russia then the time that has elapsed since I landed January 19.  PANIC!  Please, reset the clock! I wanna do it again!!

And what a great feeling to have, right? How many countless experiences have I had where I have looked back with regret, questioned my actions, my motivations, my interactions with others...not the case on this trip.  I boarded the plane with too much chaos in my life to create space for expectations, and the result of my lack of direction has been an open mind to try new things, meet new people, and sleep on a plywood board.  OK.  The last one may not seem to exciting, but it's actually way more comfortable than the Russian answer to American style spring mattresses.

Here's a quick overview of the best of the best things I have had a chance to do over the past seven weeks:

Getting to know the other George Mason students here on the FIPSE grant.  Love them all, dearly.

Tema and I cooking up Cincinnati Skyline Chili
Becoming friends with my two room mates, Masha and Tema.  They are amazing.  Their 3rd room mate, Anya, is currently studying on the FIPSE exchange at George Mason- they lost a roomie to GMU, and got one in return.  Meeting them, getting to cook, clean, hang out, chat, paint our nails, go walking, and gossip has absolutely been one of the best parts of this experience.

Getting to know the other international students.  Living with over 30 people from different countries from all around the globe has broadened my world view (and my culinary palate).

 Ice skating at Patriarch's Pond.

Ice skating fun!

Walking around Gorky Park.

GULAG Museum.

Fighting with the laundry machines.  Really.  After awhile it's just funny to have less functional washers than broken.

My Social Geography of Post-Soviet States class.  Amazing.  I will try to blog a bit about the lectures in detail.  Really, really helpful.

Ice hole swimming!!!!

Getting to walk around Moscow with my Russian friends and practice all of my vocabulary.

Learning Russian!

Practicing Russian and looking like a moron in public- a little humility is always good.

Above all else, just coming here and proving to myself that I can thrive in climates previously unimaginable- not just the weather, but away from my partner and family for so long- has been incredibly liberating.  The experience of coming here without a preset agenda, without any sort of goal beyond enjoying myself and challenging myself to grow has given me space to learn about others, and get to know myself better in the process.

So, so glad I came.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Post-election Snapshots

Police caravan passing the Kremlin the day after Putin's election.  Fifty reported arrests at protests around the city.  And no, that flag is not usually there. 
I have spent the past week talking about the recent presidential election with the students and professors I have gotten to know over the past six weeks.  In no particular order, here is a snapshot of feedback, thoughts and musings voiced by those with whom I have spoken/ unless indicated with "quotation marks" all statements are paraphrased:

It's not just that people are upset that the voting was rigged- mostly by carousel voting- it's that people are angry that there were no real alternatives.  The best alternative candidate, Grigory Yavlinsky, was disqualified by Putin's administration for suspected forgery of the two million signatures he had to gather in order to get on the ballot.  The feeling among my friends- whose participation ranged from being incredibly involved as election monitors to attending protests to not voting due to a feeling that to even participate would be to buy into a system that is inherently unjust-is that all of the other candidates are puppets, put up to create the illusion that there was a free election.

The night before the election one of my friends and I were walking along Red Square talking about the possible implications of the next day.  There were dozens of news crews setting up to have a shot of St. Basil's in the background, and were rigging their equipment up on this scaffolding that effectively blocked the view of all of the other cameras so as to create the perception that each station was the only one reporting from Red Square.  I asked my buddy if it was safe to take a photo- I never feel comfortable when there are so many police around- and he shrugged his shoulders and said, "sure, they're mostly there for the Americans anyway" (I will find this photo in my disorganized array of pictures sometime later this week).  His opinion was that the entire election, from the selection of candidates to the webcams that were streaming live from each polling place, was a sham meant to portray the illusion of a free state. 

The night of the election, my roommates and I, along with friends from our floor, were up until 5am rehashing the days' events.  The adrenaline was running so high in our room, the energy was palpable- you could practically feel the electrons in the room vibrating with the fervor of the day. One of them had served as an election monitor to (try to) ensure free and honest polling, and I had accompanied the other to watch her vote (without looking at the ballot, of course).  The process actually seemed much more peaceful than the experiences I have had in the States.  For starters, there is a 'day of silence' the day immediately prior to the election- no electioneering, no commercials, no rallies, no nothing.  I have electioneered for friends in local elections, as well as for presidential candidates.  Regardless of the relative size of the election, I remember the entire process fostering feelings of animosity towards the other candidate.  Standing in close range with folks who were pressing voters last minute to go for their candidate made me feel so uncomfortable, and also like I was in some sort of philosophical brawl for every last vote.  The feeling at the polling place here was much more serene- almost like a school festival.  The lack of signs and noise was replaced by people eating traditional Russian dishes in the ad hock cafeteria that was set up to serve individuals who had volunteered to work the polls.  Following a day spent in this environment, capped off with Putin publicly crying- an action counter to every cultural concept of masculinity and power- our room was abuzz with rapid fire Russian and frantic English translations to fill in yours truly on the implications of the day's events.

One friend said that the election equated to violence on the Russian people's rights.  I asked if this was because people had reportedly been threatened with losing their job or being offered a bribe to support Putin, but her opinion was that the violence perpetrated against people's democratic rights was because of the lack of viable political alternatives.

Paraphrasing her remarks: 'The problem is that the result was predetermined.  People are protesting not just a predetermined result, but also a "predetermined future" (her exact words and emphasis).

The protests have continued with somewhat waning enthusiasm.  From my limited engagement in the political scene, there seems to be a growing acceptance of the fact that the status quo, at least for the immediate future, is going to hold steady.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Up next in news that shocked absolutely no one: Vladimir Putin declared victory in the Russian presidential election this evening.  Since my arrival in late January, I have spoken casually with a few dozen people about the elections, and more in depth about the process with a few new friends with whom I am becoming close. 

Before I even left DC I was told- implored, really- by several people not to attend any political rallies, protests, etc, which have been going on for the past several months following the December legislative elections.  The protests in question have been played up in the media as “Pro-Putin” vs.“Anti-Putin”, but from what I have gleaned is that, as with most things, the story is more grey than this simplistic black and white (also the color of the ribbons the protestors wear, at their own peril I might add) delineations.  I should add that it’s not just the media boiling it down to this: a very well educated friend of mine and I were talking about US & Russian political differences, and he asked if I was a Democrat or a Republican, then prompted me to question him by saying, “You can ask me the same thing: Am I Pro-Putin or Anti-Putin”.

I can in no way portray myself as anything other than a very poorly informed student operating on the fringes of this issue, but from what I have gathered is that the demarcation is more “OK with how the system is/Don’t want to cause trouble/I might lose my job if I don’t publicly support Putin” vs. “Frustrated that government leadership so flagrantly falsified election results in December/Fed up with the current economic and governance structure that operates with large reliance on informal payments (also known as bribes) and graft/Fury at lack of free press and transparency”.  I in no way want to paint a picture that undermines people’s frustration with the current administration: certainly, there are people that are vehemently against Putin.  Most especially- from my reading of the most free press sources available in English within the country- this frustration is with his portrayal of questioning the system, specifically his continued leadership of said system, as being ‘dangerous’ for Russia’s stability and welfare.  

I don’t care who actually said it first: to me, dissent is the highest form of patriotism.  My country would not exist where it not for a very few, very brave individuals who made the decision to push for changes to a governance structure that no longer responded to their needs.  I treasure this heritage, and it gives me goosebumbs to read quotes of the leader of the largest country on the face of planet Earth stating that questioning one’s government is a threat to national well-being (I will find this specific article and post link soon- internet is running very slowly at the moment).  

The aspect of well-being I most value is my freedom to decide my own fate, which includes, by extension, freely choosing who leads my government and having a voice to shout out when I feel that those tasked with ensuring the well-being of my country are falling short of their tall orders.   Hence, from where I stand, the largest threat to national interests that I can see is successfully convincing citizens that it’s in their best interest to remain silent in the face of actions that demand calls for change. 

I actually see a lot of similarities between the current state of discourse in the U.S. and the situation playing out here, especially in regards to leaders and the media playing on people’s fears (go turn off Fox News, Dad).  More thoughts on this and the presidential election in the coming days.   

Until then, congratulations, Mr. President, er, Prime Minister, um, I mean, President…again.  

Monday, February 27, 2012

Some thoughts on friendship and extremes in temperature

Three years ago, two of my friends- without consulting one another- each bought me blankets for Christmas.  Tales of my intolerance for cold have yielded no small amount of teasing, earning me the nickname "gargoyle toes" from my partner (he's cute, I know) and the occasional stare from strangers when I don two coats at outdoor sports events.  Prior to cohabitation, my bachelorette pad could have doubled as a greenhouse (luckily for my energy bill, my partner has restored the carbon balance and now you can safely leave raw meat in our living room).

When I announced my impending Moscow adventure, the most common response I got was approximately 8 seconds of blank stare followed by a 'you're going where?'  The idea that I, whose sartorial expression often involves a down coat in any weather lower than 64 degrees, would voluntary pack myself off to Moscow during January of all months, was in simply beyond comprehension for most of my close friends.

Painted against this background, two of my jaunts over the past week have managed to shock even myself.  Some alternative health practices held within Russian culture prescribe rapid changes between very very hot and very very cold to stave off sickness during the winter months.  Wanting to experience as much of Russia as I possibly can, I decided to take the metaphorical plunge into Russian bathhouses- баня (pronounced ban-yah)- and the more literal plunge into a frozen lake.  
Баняи (баня plural= ban-yee) can be either public or private, ornate or resembling the interior of your eighth grade gym locker room.  My first баня experience fell into the latter category at the public баня two metro stops up from my dorm.  I went with two of the other George Mason students, and forwent the full баня enchilada as I had grocery shopping and other overly tiring BS to attend to (grocery shopping sans car in snow with vestiges of Soviet shortage mentality contributing to shitty customer service=bad news bears), opting solely for a massage to work out the lingering kinks from my trans-Atlantic flight and the effects of Russia's impression of a Western style spring mattress.  What looked like a tiny storefront from the sidewalk gave way to an enormous entrance lobby with reception desk, restaurant, and ticket window (касса) where one can purchase entrance to the баня, rent towels, bathrobes, and, notably, the sticks that one beats against one's skin to work out toxins after several rounds of sauna-frigid water-sauna-frigid water fun.  I left these wonders to my fellow Patriots, and followed the masseuse up to the top floor (elevators, I miss you) for the most wonderful deep-tissue-beat-the-crap-out-of-you massage I have ever had.  You can have your relaxing aroma therapy and whathaveyou.  Give me a painfully deep back rub that leaves me feeling like my muscles have been taught a lesson about bunching up in knots, thank you very much.  No frills, no music, no fancy candles- just a tacky dolphin beach towel and an atmosphere rivaling the interior of my eighth grade locker room and a fabulous massage.  Perfect.

After having my new Russian friend work out my knots and teach me a few handy new vocab words (back spasm= резервное спазм, pronounced rezervnoyo spazm, pain= боль, pronounced bol, with the l pronounced very softly), I followed him back down the stairs and on the way passed by two naked, beet red men, both in their mid-50s.  привет, comrades. Yeesh.  I had been given a heads up by a friend that people walked around au natural, but I didn't think I was going to encounter men- much less bright cherry red from the sauna men- in this condition on my way down the stairs in post-massage daze.

Having a better idea of what I might encounter when I went full out баня-ing, I was equal parts apprehensive and curious when a floormate booked a private баня for fifteen HSE students to enjoy for an afternoon.  With visions of beet red old men pushing at the corners of my mind, I shrugged my shoulders and jumped on the metro to join in the fun, pacified by the fact that we would have the joint to ourselves.  Once inside the баня, it became clear why the owner had asked our friend who made the reservation if he was coming with his girlfriend, or if we were a group of couples.  The walls and ceilings were shellacked with frescoes of naked women, cherubs playing harps, and blond couples locked in embrace.  Along with the sauna, pool with freezing water, shower, a lounge room with sofas, TV, and massage chair, and room with pool table and snack bar, the баня had two 'resting rooms' comprised mainly of enormous beds and satin sheets.  Oh.

We quickly bestowed the moniker "the Boinking баня" on our friendly neighborhood bathhouse, and commenced enjoying sweating in the sauna for 8-15 minutes and then jumping into the icy water.  Open pores, sweat out the remnants of McDonald's fixes, cheap beer, and too many late nights, dive into freezing pool, close pores, rinse and repeat.  Standing on the train platform waiting to head home, I had the most wonderful feeling of lightness- my arms, especially, felt almost hollow. Every inch of me felt warm and airy, and that night I slept soundly and nightmare free.

Building on the success of баня bonding, several of us Studencheskya (the name of our dorm) dwellers took up an invitation to go swimming in a frozen lake just outside of the city.  According to my dorm neighbor, this once was a common practice during the early years of the Soviet Union, when people were very health conscientious.  The extreme jolt to the system was thought to ward off sickness mid-winter, and promote general health.  Too bad you had to be mentally ill to try it.

Just kidding. 

After all, the thermometer had finally hit 0 degrees C, making it practically tropical outside. 

I had gone to bed a little too late the night before our jump, and sitting bleary eyed in the kitchen the next morning I decided to pass and dive back between the covers instead of under the ice.  Tucked warmly into my bed, I could almost hear my two favorite authors’- the venerable Davids Sedaris and Rakoff- voices narrating the experience I was choosing to forego:  “Just think, the lake I wouldn’t be caught dead in might actually be where I am found dead!”

Mustering up a rallying cry reminiscence of those abstinent only WhatWouldJesusDo teens from 1998- after all, What Would David Sedaris Do? - I crawled out from under my scratchy dorm issued blankets, pulled on my bikini, two layers of thermal long johns, George Mason sweatpants, snow boots, Columbia fleece pull over, and down parka, and made tracks for the lake of doom. 

Rocking back and forth half asleep on the metro, I kept trying to avoid thinking about what was about to happen.  Lake. Frozen. Ice needs to be broken to get in lake that is frozen.  Beth in lake that is frozen that ice needs to be broken to get into. Does not compute. 

Forty minutes, three metro line changes, five city blocks and three quarters of a mile walk through a park later, our little intrepid group of ice swimmers came upon the lake and were greeted by…another naked old man (might we be seeing a trend here?).  отлично (pronounced at-leech-na- awesome/excellent). 

Said naked old man- ballpark 70-80- started animatedly shouting at us in rapid fire Russian.  The six of us who speak crappy Russian (or, in my case, um, almost none) stared blankly while the three among us who are approaching fluency along with Anton, the native Russian student who had invited us for this excursion responded to the man’s distressed exclamations.  Whipping out my most commonly used phrase, “Что?” (pronounced schtow- what?), I looked expectantly at Anton.  Apparently the hole in the lake was for the express enjoyment of the members of a club which existed for the sole purpose of frozen lake jumping.  Our antics were encroaching on their turf…er, water. 

Great. Not only was I about to jump into freezing water, I was about to piss off an elderly frozenlakejumping enthusiast in the process. 
Preparing the Lake of Doom
After being assured by Anton that we were ok to proceed, the manly men of our group stripped down to their skivvies (we left the completely nude style to the angry gentleman) and slipped and slid their way down the frozen steps that led to the fated hole in the ice.  I caught sight of the angry naked man making the sign of the cross and kneeling on the bottom step before lowering himself into the water. I don’t recall the ‘jump into freezing water’ religious practice from my church days.  Perhaps this was a last confession prior to death by hypothermia.

March of the penguin men
I remember seeing a documentary sometime in elementary school (yay for substitute teacher day with its random films!) where penguins vie to push one another into holes in the ice to ‘test’ whether there are hungry predators lurking below in hopes of a penguiny snack from the heavens above.  Watching the men jostle each other down the final steps was somewhat akin to this process- each cheering the others on and elbowing one another good naturedly as they approached the hole, each making it clear that they were not afraid to jump in, but also appearing not too eager to be the first to go.

Shouts of “holy shit!” and equally charming curses in Russian rang out across the frozen park as one by one the guys took their turn jumping in and ducking quickly under the icy water.  Running back up the steps, they congratulated each other on their awesomeness while passing around hot rum laced with sugar.  “Again! We go again!” my friend Alexis shouted, and the guys clamored back down the steps, now bespeckled with blood from whomever had cut their toe on the first time down- everyone’s feet were numb so we couldn’t tell whose foot was cut. 
European unity: Frenchmen Alexis and Mathieu celebrate with German York

It turned out that the second dip was ill advised (yes, even more so than the first).  What had been exhilarating time one was just plain painful and cold round two.  Armed with this information, the three of us women peeled off layer after layer of winter wear and headed down the stairs to face the algid water awaiting us below. I was intent on wearing my George Mason shirt in- could there be a better way to thank the institution who had made this experience possible than to freeze to death decked in their insignia? - but as I hit the last steps a few of the men convinced me that being clad in frozen wet cotton would likely result in nogoodverybad outcomes.  Peeling off this last layer, bikini Beth cautiously hit the final step, clinging to the railing on the way down.  The only thing I could think of that would be worse than jumping into freezing water would be falling into freezing water.  I can just imagine the letter home to my mother: “We regret to inform you that your moron daughter hit her head on a frozen staircase while attempting to jump into a lake and was found clad only in a swimsuit in 32F weather.”

The longest step
The last step down was the worst.  The faster this was over the better- the only thing between me and a nap was a little frigid water- but lowering myself past the final stair as I shook off a friend’s flip-flops (which he had generously donated to the cause of me not cutting my bare feet) required me to push any semblance of logic out of my mind.  Clearly this was among the stupider things I have ever done, but it would also go down as among my more badass accomplishments as well. 

Hitting the water knocked my breath out.  It was so cold; it’s hard to describe it as anything other than painful.  God only knows how Leonardo DiCaprio’s character kept blabbering to Rose in Titanic.  I couldn’t think or breathe, much less come up with coherent speech.

Get me outta here!!!
I was back out of the water before 10 seconds had passed.  The few steps back up were covered by thick sheets of ice, and on the second step I started to slip back down the stairs.  My frozen hands couldn’t grasp the railing properly, and just as panic began to rise in my chest three sets of hands reached to pull me safely unto the landing.  A fourth set handed me the borrowed sandals and my towel, and I cheered on the other two women while heading up the staircase towards the glorious warmth of my sweatpants waiting above.

The badass girls club
By the time I reached my clothes at the top of the stairs, extraordinary warmth suffused my entire body; that contented happiness of falling asleep in front of the fireplace after Christmas dinner, where every cell of my body is warm from the inside out, my head empty of anything but appreciation for the glowing heat.  I understood why the men had gone back for round two- I felt wonderful. I choose to eschew the pain of a double dip, but cheered on the other girls clad only in my swimsuit, towel and borrowed flip-flops.  Once they made their way back up the steps we toasted our success, grabbed our clothes and headed to the squat house where our naked elderly pal had agreed to let us change.  The interior was covered in pictures of people who have taken the plunge over the years, beet red and smiling between chattering teeth.  A striped cat batted at my long johns, and I tried to focus on getting dressed rather than the smell of very, very ripe gym sock that pervaded the little room. 

That afternoon I took the most glorious nap I have ever enjoyed.  I emerged from my dreamless slumber warm and refreshed, so knocked out that I forgot for a second- just long enough to hit my head- that I was on the bottom bunk.  I stared up at the springs above my head and let my mind wander, thinking back over the days’ events.

In addition to giving me bragging rights, the icy adventure and баня bonding yielded a nice metaphor for the friendships I am building here and the ones I am missing from home. Friends are the people who encourage you to jump in when faced with challenges, who cheer you on and warm you up.  When you lose your footing and start to slip back into things that have caused you pain (like, say, a frozen lake), they reach for your hand and keep you from falling.  They help you sweat out the toxins in your life, and offer you companionship as you work through the process of letting go of the crap, be it toxic relationships in your life or junk in your pores.

The thing that scared me the most about studying abroad (yes, even more than the cold) was the prospect of being away from the relationships I treasure at home.  I have been abundantly blessed with friendships that have spanned decades, hardships, differences of opinion, weddings, divorces, babies, graduate school, career changes, and now continents.  In return for suspending my fears about the distance between me and those I love, I have gained more people in my life that make me laugh, challenge me to incorporate new points of view, encourage me to embrace the unknown, and, occasionally, to take leaps of faith that I won't freeze in new environments.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Author's note: Many of the photos below are extremely graphic.

I have suffered from nightmares since before I can remember.  My mom has told me that I used to wake up as a toddler with what my pediatrician diagnosed as “night terrors”.  I remember always being afraid to go to sleep. I am still not sure what set this off, or even if there is a catalytic event or root cause, whathaveyou- I just know that a) I was always scared in my bed at night; b) I woke up screaming not infrequently from the time I was a toddler until I got a dog and trained her as an emotional support animal based on my doctor’s recommendation at the age of twenty-five; c) that my parents got zero sleep while I was young (my ever sensitive father has pinned their divorce on my proclivity for nighttime hysterics...classy).  

While I can’t pin point a specific nexus for my nightmares, when I was slogging through style 'processing' the aftermath of my rape Dr. Phil style (read: having mild existential crisis realizing that from age 15-25 the majority of my actions- overeating, defensive attitude, self-defeating behaviors- had been an attempt to avoid confronting my feelings of powerlessness about the assault) my nightmares reached a fever pitch.  On and off for two years my partner had to endure me waking up alternatively screaming, sobbing, or so soaked in cold sweat that I would have to change PJs and sopping wet sheets between 2-4am.  With the help of our good friends at Pfizer and my dog this has greatly subsided. 

Now that the imagined terrors have, for the most part, subsided (I still have them from time to time, but have a better tool kit to deal with them now*), I apparently have mental bandwidth to entertain horrors that are more plausible.  

Jessica Stern, one of the world’s preeminent researchers on terrorism, has written extensively that one of the side effects of the aftermath of being sexually assaulted was an ability to disassociate herself emotionally in terrifying situations.  She attributes some of her ability tointerview terrorists and study the topic extensively to the fact that she can detach her intellectual processing abilities from her emotional responses.  For the ten years between being assaulted (date rape by my first boyfriend, for those of you who fall into the asinine ‘forcible rape’ distinction camp) and coming to grips with the emotional toll it took on me, I completely iced over my ability to feel.  This had many, many fun side effects- destructive overeating to the point of pre-diabetes and high blood pressure meds at age 19, lashing out horrifically at my mom and sister, hyper defensiveness in my personal relationships- but it also seems to have forged a distinct ability to detach myself in academic settings when studying particularly disturbing social phenomena.
I remember being completely calm and feeling numb, almost clinical, walking through Tuol Sleng, S-21, in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where Pol Pot’s regime processed an estimated 14,000 people- including children- who were put to death in the killing fields just outside of the city.   It was a purely fact finding exercise. Staring at skulls and photos of wives and children of government ministers who were killed in Pol Pot’s “pull the grass up by the roots” strategy to avoid the risk of having family members later avenge the killing of their husbands and fathers, I felt a detached calmness.  Being in the space where ministers and other ‘enemies of the state’ where held, in what had previously functioned as a public high school, I had no goose bumps, felt no shock.  I felt no nothing.  Flat line.   
Artistic depiction of Khmer Rouge soldiers 'pulling the grass up by the roots'.  In this case, perfecting their aim on moving targets using children for practice.
In case it's not clear what is happening in above's a close up.

Stalin's network of GULAG camps
 I recently visited the GULAG History Museum (GULAG is an acronym for the Soviet bureaucratic institution, Glavnoe Upravlenie ispravitel’no-trudovykh LAGerei- Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps) in downtown Moscow.  Couched between some of the highest end restaurants and shops in the city, caddy corner to a Louis Vuitton boutique, this tiny museum houses artifacts of a few of the estimated 20 million people that Stalin exiled to the outermost regions of Russia for crimes ranging from being a suspected threat to communism (including one war hero who had been awarded multiple medals of valor for his service during the Great Patriotic War- WWII- a year prior to his imprisonment) to stealing a bottle of vodka at 14 years old.

Comrade Stalin watching over a camp.
Men and teenaged boys were put to work building a network of railways that would link the northern regions of the country- ostensibly for the purpose of securing the northern border (from polar bears???)- actions many academics now theorize were intended to link the systems of GULAG prison camps scattered about the vast expanse of the country.

Women, often imprisoned along with their young children, were
Survivor's depiction of hearings.
shut into vast bread baking factories and manufacturing plants, frequently never to be united or know the fate of the husbands, fathers, brothers, nephews and friends who had been carted off under the pretense of protecting the state.  One man featured in a (very well produced) documentary presented by the museum was taken one year after he and his wife were married, six days after their son was born.  He was charged in the morning, and by the evening was 70 kilometers outside of Moscow. He has never seen his wife or son since.

Survivor's depiction of camp interior.
 Staring up at artwork made by former prisoners, peering through glass displays at baby shoes of a little girl who grew up in the camps from age two until adolescence, and walking through the replica of a camp bunker, the only response I could muster was to mutter “same story, different locale” to the friends who had joined my expedition to the museum.  I don’t know that this is actually due to an ability to detach when confronted with horrific information, or that I simply have lost the ability to be shocked by the fact that human beings can inflict such atrocities against their fellows after witnessing so much evidence.   

GULAG survivor's depiction of executions.

I distinctly remember taking out from the library each and every book I could find on snakes- the only animal that freaks me out- when I was in second grade.  If only I could know everything about them, then they wouldn’t be as scary.  My possibly morbid quest to engage academically with mass violence is motivated by a desire to demystify, and thus find an antidote, to the root causes of genocide and repression. Getting to the bottom of what catalyzes such actions- and keeps others from blowing the whistle on such actions- must yield a remedy to future horrors.


 Perhaps the answer is no.  Perhaps simply knowing about history is not enough to avoid repeating it again. It’s not like mass violence is not still happening, albeit perhaps in less efficient or organized forms, in parts of the world today. Despite museums, memorials, and education programs exist to plead “never again”, it seems that the world repeatedly stands by while the powerful smite those who present a threat to their stranglehold on authority. 
Memorial to victims of Pol Pot's S-21.
It’s something to lose sleep over.

*I am happy to share some of the resources I have found helpful.  Please feel free to email me if you are struggling with nightmares or PTSD related symptoms.