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.