Category Archives: Russia

National Heroism and the “New Cold War”

It took seven months of living in our Moscow apartment to finally figure out how the cable worked (it came pre-installed). And once we did, we figured out that 1) watching Adventure Time in Russian is even trippier than watching it in English, and 2) watching dubbed episodes of Storage Wars is a great way to practice recognizing numbers.  We’ve also been exposed more and more to Russian television, though we like the advertising more than the actual shows sometimes.

On March 9, Channel One marked the birthday of the deceased Yuri Gagarin with a rather lavishly produced and thoroughly engrossing biopic with visuals that were stunning enough to make up for the almost total (for us) incomprehensibility of what any of the actors playing Soviet engineers were saying on screen. A number of things about this film have stuck with me. First, the fact that most of Russia was basically in the nineteenth century at the time when Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961. When he falls back to earth (and a big part of that fall, by the way, was done in the manner of skydiving–no protective shuttle pod encasing him once he’d cleared the upper layers of the atmosphere), he falls into the middle of a field, where a farmer is leading his horse under a traditional harness. It’s a region not unlike the place where Gagarin grew up in the village of Klushino. One of the final images of the film is the remains of the spacecraft lying in a similar spot surrounded by a military barrier, the Space Age aesthetic of the Vostok a stark contrast to the timeless agrarian idyll surrounding it.

And then there were the shots of students pouring out of Moscow State University–students for whom the unparalleled suffering of WWII was still a living memory–and heading toward Red Square, where the film cuts between shots of the actors and actual newsreel footage. And as this sense of celebration and idealism builds to a climax, with young people shouting “В космосе!” the thought that kept going through my head was, “And on the other side of the world, America collectively shits its pants.” It’s not saying anything particularly new to observe that what for the Soviet Union was a moment of triumph not just for the USSR but for humanity was a moment of both terror an humiliation for the US. Because the Soviet Union got there first, and if the Soviet Union could put a man in space, it meant they could likely put a nuclear missile in Los Angeles or New York.

A while back, I posted pictures of a visit to the All-Russia Exhibition Center (ВДНХ) and the Monument to the Conquerors of Space that sits outside of it:


One of my Facebook friends asked me to remind him of the name of the guy who scared the crap out of his parents’ generation, and he was talking about Yuri Gagarin. And here’s the thing, in the film, Yuri Gagarin looked like this:


And the real Gagarin looked like this:


He was freaking adorable. In the US, Yuri Gagarin would be played by a young Tom Hanks (there were a number of parallels between this film and Apollo 13). And while the end of his life is an utter tragedy, what he accomplished was without question heroic. And what the Soviet Union did in putting him in space was both a centerpiece of nationalist propaganda and a triumph for humanity. That the narrative in the US tended to lean toward framing it as an act of military aggression is an artifact of the zero-sum stakes of the Cold War and mid-century ambivalence about technology’s erosion of boundaries that traditionally kept us at least feeling secure (a theme which is also subtly explored in this film).

As commentators increasingly point (irresponsibly, I would argue) toward the beginnings of a New Cold War, the stakes have once again become zero-sum, and the conversation is once again tainted by a pervasive sense of paranoia and a tendency to treat as naked, calculated aggression acts that are probably in reality far less rational, far more motivated by immediate local politics, and far more self-defeating than they are portrayed to be.

I need to back up for a second. People keep asking me questions about how I’ve experienced the Ukraine crisis in Moscow, and some family members have asked why I haven’t blogged about it. And the reasons why are as follows:

  1. Like pretty much everyone in the States, I’ve been following the Ukraine crisis via television and the internet. It’s impact on my day to day life has been negligible aside from the daily fluctuations of the ruble and occasional emails from the Embassy reminding Americans to stay away from public demonstrations.
  2. My opinions change almost daily.
  3. The American expat in Russia finds herself in a tough spot, ideologically speaking. Because on the one hand, you want to defend Russia against the more sensationalistic and divisive parts of the American media while at the same time not appearing to be a Putin apologist.

It’s that last one, naturally, that is the thorniest. Because to have a nuanced opinion on what’s going on means having to resist a lot of false equivalencies: comparisons to what is going on now and Hitler’s Anschluss are not helpful, but neither are comparisons to America’s incursion in Iraq (on the one hand, we didn’t annex Iraq–on the other, the Russian army has yet to fire a shot). And while the spin you see in American media is depressing, it is not the same thing as what the Kremlin-backed Russia Today is doing.

But if there is one equivalency that can at least be roughly sketched it’s that for all the very important ways in which they are different, Russia and the US love to frame themselves as heroes on the historic stage. For a good swath of the population here, the annexation of Crimea is not an act of aggression, it is an act of rescue. And yes, the words “greeted as liberators” have crossed my mind.

But even if I’m avowedly skeptical about that rhetoric, I’m also skeptical about any framing of the issue that positions the US as hero, particularly when it involves double standards and overt hypocrisy. While I most certainly prefer American-style democracy to whatever we’ve got going on over here, what the zero-sum game of the Cold Wars, old and new, enables is a narrative of American righteousness that stokes a similarly problematic nationalistic fervor and precludes any kind of honest self-reflection about the nature of American or Western privilege.

Here’s an example. Back during the Sochi Olympics, this image came across my Tumblr dashboard:


It was framed as an act of unparalleled courage. Said Scott Wooledge on Twitter, “Tourists attempting what Tilda Swinton did in #Russia are subject to 15 days in jail. #Courage.” On Tumblr, it was accompanied with the message, “Tilda Swinton risked her freedom to stand up for LGBT rights in Russia.”

But here is the thing, Tilda Swinton was almost certainly at no risk when she did this. Why? Because she is Tilda Swinton. And this was the middle of the Sochi Olympics. And Moscow officials are almost certainly not stupid enough to arrest an international movie star–who brought her own photographer with her–at the precise moment when Russia was trying to make a splash on the international stage. Yes, there is a certain kind of bravery to what Swinton did here, but whatever danger she was in was not the same as what the actual activists here–who get little to no notice from Western media unless they are two very specific former members of Pussy Riot–face on a daily basis.

The LGBT-rights situation in Russia, like the Ukraine crisis, has often been covered by Westerners in ways that are disgustingly self-serving, opportunistic, and ignorant. The conversation about the Swinton photo, I would argue, isn’t really about LGBT rights in Russia. It’s about the heroism of one Western (Scottish) actress. Note also that the above-quoted tweet says nothing about what actual Russians face for similar acts but what tourists in Russia face. LGBT Russians are nowhere in that image or the conversation around it. It’s an opportunity, rather, the celebrate how Westerners are both more free and more courageous.

Likewise, those demanding that the US intervene militarily in Ukraine seem less concerned with actual Ukrainians than bolstering an image of American strength that will somehow bring Russia to heel, as if the past twenty years of foreign policy have been all about breaking the resolve of Russia rather than integrating it into a productive international dialogue. Some would argue that that has in fact been the case.

For all of the talk about anti-American or anti-Western sentiment in Russia, I’ve experienced none of it so far. I don’t see Americans with cameras about their necks being taken aside in the metro and asked to show their papers. I do see that happening to people who look like they are from the North Caucasus. The Western expat–particularly the white one–enjoys privilege here but is not particularly special. Which is why I am troubled by any attempt by Westerners to make this “about them.” Like the attempt to put the first man in space, it kind of sort of is, but in a much bigger sense, it really isn’t. Russians, based on what I’ve seen, don’t spend a ton of time really thinking about Americans. Like most people, they spend most of the time thinking about themselves.

The Best Money I’ve Spent In/Before Russia: Soggy September Edition

For the benefit of anyone planning to come here for business and/or funtimes:

Insulated, waterproof North Face jacket with hood: according to the Moscow Times, this is the rainiest September in Moscow since they started keeping records. And during the day, the temperatures are in the 40s and 50s. Many Russians maintain the same standards in outerwear that they do in footwear, so if you need to aim for utility, it’s good to have something that looks pretty decent as well. Single regret: I should have gotten a dark color.

– Rubber Wellington boots from L.L. Bean: Drainage on the streets is poor, so it’s helpful to be able to splash through puddles without caring (ok, that’s an understatement – it’s ridiculously fun). The hems of my work pants are grateful. I keep my heels in my office. I’m glad I sprung for the insulated liners, but unfortunately they are in Germany with the rest of the belongings I shipped.

– The Oxford Russian-English Dictionary app: At $19.99, this is expensive for an app, but it’s a searchable bi-lingual dictionary in your pocket that also has lists of case endings and verb conjugations. It’s a no-brainer.

– The Moscow metro app: It’s free. It’s also the best metro system app I’ve ever seen.

– Turbo-scan app: Russia = asstons of paperwork. This app uses my phone’s camera to scan everything to pdf. It does multi-page scans, and the file compression is a lot better than most expensive scanners. It’s two bucks.

*Now is probably the time to mention that a smart-phone–if you can afford one–is a major asset here. I was able to get AT&T to unlock my iPhone 4. I might post a tutorial on it later.*

– Good bedding: Moscow is a big, loud, crazy city, so you need a space that feels like a sanctuary and where you can genuinely get some rest. Plus, I believe in investing in the place where I spend the most consecutive hours of any given day, so I got the best mattress pad, pillows, and comforter available at Ikea (which delivers same day or day after anywhere in Moscow for a nominal charge). This also speaks to another aspect of assimilation: if you are going to be in a different country semi-long term (say, a year or more), it’s worth it to invest in things that make your space genuinely feel like home, whether that’s nice sheets or cooking supplies or frames for family photos. You need to do things that psychologically reinforce the fact that you are here to stay and do your best to make it a place that you will want to stay.

– Electric tea kettle: Lucky for me, a coffee hater, Russians are tea fanatics. There are gourmet tea shops all over the place. An electric tea kettle is considered a standard appliance (whereas toasters and microwaves are not) and comes in every furnished apartment. I bought another one for the office.

– Brita pitcher: I can’t get a straight up or down answer on whether or not the tap water is safe to drink. Many say it’s fine, but a little Googling will quickly tell you that–like most substances on Earth–Moscow water will give you cancer. A couple of weeks ago, they were repaving the parking area outside my building and cut the hot water line (hot water is centrally provided, not heated on-site with a boiler). When it came back, it came back brown. It’s normal now (it was probably just sediment that got into the line), but it spooked me but good. I have never been a germaphobe and roll my eyes at people who panic about this sort of stuff in the US, but contamination phobias are apparently a normal part of culture shock. Most Muscovites only drink bottled, but I’ve also been told that you have no way of knowing where the bottled stuff actually comes from. The filter is more eco-friendly anyway.

– HMA (Hide My Ass) VPN subscription: For when I want to change my IP address for reasons. Like, let’s say, Netflix reasons.

The Past is With Us

The ceiling of the Taganskaya metro station depicting the Soviet flag on a blue background.

During my summer in Boston, I came across a couple of op-eds by Mary Baker Eddy on the goings-on in Russia at the close of the nineteenth century, and I realized for just how long Russia has served as a kind of foil for the United States. Even before the rise of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Cold War, even before we became rivals, Americans looked to Russia as the incarnation of old-world tyranny standing in stark contrast to America’s beacon of freedom. And in the highly self-serving op-eds that Putin and McCain each served up recently, we see that that this condition persists to a certain degree.

When Americans think about Moscow, I think the image they typically conjure up is the Moscow of the 90s in much the same way that people who have never left the South or the Midwest picture Times Square in the 80s when they think of New York City. It’s difficult to shake the stark imagery and Manichean drama of the Cold War when that defined our view of Russia for so long. But when I’m standing in a subway car surrounded by people swiping away at iPhones with ads for Audi dealerships on the wall, the only thing that really reminds me that I’m not in the US is the fact that the ad is in Cyrillic. So dramatic has the change in this city been in just a couple of decades that I’m repeatedly stunned by the fact that people exactly my age remember standing in lines with their mothers for bread and toilet paper. Russia is still a complicated place beset by inefficiency and corruption, but it has also made some stunningly rapid strides in the direction of what many Americans would call progress at least in terms of adopting Western consumer culture.

Stalin-era apartment buildings viewed from my office window.
Stalin-era apartment buildings viewed from my office window.

Vestiges of the Soviet era–and of an even older Russia–exist everywhere. There are the few remaining statues of Lenin, for example, and the utilitarian apartment buildings. But the remnants that stand out to me are the ones that more directly impact everyday life. You can tell, for example, that customer service is a recent concept here both because of it’s absence in some places and its almost aggressive presence in others. Russian service workers vacillate between the almost overwhelming enthusiasm of the Japanese and the hostile aloofness of the French. The employees at one grocery store chain all wear crisp green and white uniforms, and they take your fruits and vegetables from you and weigh them on the spot before you go to the checkout counter. Many gas stations are full-service, and if you decide to browse the selection of mugs in Starbucks, chances are a very cheerful employee will be right there to tell you all about them within seconds. Elsewhere, you will have to physically grab a customer service representative to get them to take your money. One time, after finishing a restaurant meal, I asked for my check and watched my waitress nod and then walk off to take a smoke break. Waitstaff–for whom a 10% tip is considered highly generous–routinely ignore you, which means you can sit and socialize for hours without feeling like anyone is trying to turn the table around but also means that you may sit there forever before you get your credit card back.

Of course, that’s if they take credit card. Cash is the standard here, even for very large transactions. Many cashiers will ask you to provide exact change, and a few will still get very irritated with you if you don’t have it, an attitude left over from a time when currency was scarce. In fact, my most hostile encounters with Russians have involved quibbles over change. The worst was at the food court of a mega-mall.

And then there is the paperwork. Every transaction that involves the Russian government requires everything besides a blood sample (actually, you need one of those to get a work visa) and a letter from your first-grade teacher. Things that seem like they should be simple turn out to be really complicated and vice versa. To get an apartment, you need to have a lot of cash in your hand and the ability to sign your name. There is no credit check or tax return requirement. The landlord just needs to like the look of you. (I just assume this means that they get to break your thumbs if you’re late on the rent). However, getting a bank account (getting a bank to allow you to GIVE THEM YOUR MONEY) requires two forms of ID, a notarized translation of your passport, verification of employment, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember. Right now, we are trying to get our belongings through Russian customs, which requires a letter from my employer (I need to prove I’m employed to bring my stuff in the country…why exactly?) and a notarized power of attorney to allow the moving company to pay the customs officials for me. To get this document notarized, I waited in a notary’s office for an hour and a half while it was passed around to three different people and while they found a translator who could make sure I understood what I was signing even though I prepared the document in the first place.

(Aside: I should note that bureaucratic nonsense is alive and well in the US as well and can appear just as irrational, judging by the letter I had to sign in order to prove that L. Ashley Squires and Laura Ashley Squires are the same person, a step that was apparently essential to the sale of my car in the state of Texas. Also, the US also puts foreigners through an unbelievable amount of bullshit, but this is my little complaint corner right now. The way to cope with it in either country is to be patient, have a sense of humor, and pray.)

But the secret of this Kafkaesque nightmare is that very little of it actually matters. All these papers you need are merely boxes that someone in some office needs to check, and it’s unlikely that they actually pay attention to what’s in them. But you need to do them correctly because one day someone might, and that will of course be at the moment when the consequences are the worst for you.

But elsewhere the lingering evidence of the Old Russia is simply puzzling and amusing. Occasionally, it’s delightfully so. The building I work in is a Soviet-era office building, one of those structures that was built quickly and has quickly fallen into disrepair. As is typical in Moscow, the public areas (lobbies, hallways, etc.) are dilapidated while offices and classrooms are fully renovated in the modern style. It still has a stolovaya, a cafeteria where lunch would have been provided to employees but where you can now buy a very inexpensive meal. At the entrance are two security guards who stop no one from walking in the building and a woman whose ostensible job is to issue passes that no one bothers to ask for anymore. She sits all day looking at an empty visitor notebook like a character from a Pynchon novel.

There used to be guards on every floor who would give you your office key and take it from you when you left for the day. This still exists but only on the nineteenth floor, which, incidentally, is where my office is. Every day, I ask for the key from a man who has probably been working there for 40 years and whose job it is to take it off a hook on the wall and hand it to me. When he’s not handing out keys, he watches internet videos. This is actually a Russian workplace custom that pre-dates the Soviet Union. In Dostoevskiy’s Crime and Punishment, there is a floor guard who fails to notice anything when Raskolnikov is murdering the landlady.

While it can occasionally feel like evidence of backwardness, this litany of customs and procedures and personnel that probably had a point that expired some time ago is really evidence of just how rapidly Russia has and is still changing. This country’s national literary tradition didn’t take off in earnest until Pushkin in the nineteenth century, and in just a couple of generations, it produced Tolstoy. And in less than a generation, it has gone from bread lines to Starbucks. This makes it often frustrating and even frightening, but it also makes it rich and exciting and dynamic. One of my Russian colleagues said that she left the US to return to Moscow because the stability and samey-ness of life in America just got boring, and I can see what she’s talking about. But truthfulness, this historical dynamism, this pursuit of chance at a breakneck pace and all the messiness that comes with it, is something that Russians and Americans share.


I am here.
I am here.

Life in Russia has two paces: geologic and gunfight on the top of a runaway stage coach careening toward the edge of the canyon. There is no in between. Things tend to either not be happening or to be happening all at once. Example: the professor who vacated the office that the other Writing Center Director and I are occupying left a whole bunch of boxes behind. Last week, he came and removed one box. On Tuesday, he removed…one more box. At this rate, he will be fully moved out sometime in mid-November. However, there are a bunch of Writing Center materials that needed to be moved out of the room where they were being stored so that a new research group could move in there. And feeling their pain, we decided to go ahead and move that stuff into our already full office, which meant putting the former occupants boxes in the hallway. Except the items we needed to move included a large bookcase that was about a centimeter too tall to fit through the doorway. And this was all happening minutes before I had a consultation scheduled in our office because the Writing Center room had to be commandeered by a class that had been kicked out of their seminar room for something else. So at one point, there were like 14 people in our office (you know, give or take) moving crap in and out and trying to decide whether or not to take the door frame apart, and I am watching the clock knowing that this student could be arriving any second along with the new consultant who is coming all the way over from Moscow State in order to observe.

Finding an apartment here was sort of like that, except the stakes were a little bit higher. In many ways, finding a place to live in Moscow presents all the same challenges as any other major world city. Real estate is ludicrously expensive. Properties move extremely fast. Apartments tend to be small. Landlords do not have to work very hard to find tenants. Quality and cleanliness vary widely. Things that are unusual: the renter pays the agent fee and the entire transaction is handled in cash (more on that later). Also, many apartments come furnished, which is nice because you don’t have to buy that stuff, but you do have to be able to live with the landlord’s particular taste. Some apartments are decorated in an ultra-modern style. While others are in the old Russian style that tends to include ornate Persian rugs, fussy looking furniture, and gaudy wallpaper (or even carpet) on the walls.

Within days of arriving in Moscow, I found an apartment that seemed to be perfect. It was in our price range, newly remodeled, sort of on the small side but in a convenient location. I wanted to jump on it, but it was late August, and the landlady went on vacation, as so many Europeans do. She was gone for two weeks and did not respond to phone calls or emails. So we waited, feeling sort of ok about it because the apartment wasn’t being shown to anyone else. Then, last Tuesday, after waiting 14 days, we found out that she had decided, spur of the moment, to sell the place rather than rent it. I got that text an hour before going to teach my first class.

So, I needed to find another solution, as the lease on my temporary place was going to run out in a few days, and I felt bad about trying to get it extended again. So, we went and looked at a few more apartments that night and found one in the exact same neighborhood that was arguably better (bigger, more light, though not as new). We had an appointment to sign the contract and get the keys 24 hours later. So, I packed and realized, to my horror, that Bank of America (I do not have a bank account in Russia yet) would only let me withdraw the equivalent of $900 per day.  I needed about $5000. Because Russians do everything in cash. Including taking first month’s rent and security deposit and all of that. It was difficult for me to explain just how weird this is for Americans.

So, I scrambled, trying to research alternatives while Ed went and talked to BoA in person in the US (it was mid-day there). I tried to Western Union the money to myself using my credit card, but it was declined, and Discover–no doubt seeing that someone with a Russian IP address was trying to wire a shitload of money to Russia–cut me off. And to make matters worse, as I was trying to make calls to financial institutions to assure them that this was all legit, I got to the end of my pre-paid cell phone plan and was cut off. So, in desperation, I emailed the person at NES who is always seems to have creative solutions, and within minutes she had a fix that involved me transferring money to another US account and someone coming to my office the next day to count out 160,000 rubles onto a table. I have never felt more like a gangster in my life, and it was sort of great.

(I also figured out how to top off my cell phone, which involves going to an ATM, typing in you phone number, and sticking some cash in the slot. It’s super easy, but no one told me this when I got the phone.)

So that is how I wound up in a lovely apartment in a lively, interesting part of Moscow just outside the Garden Ring, a couple of miles from Red Square, close to parks and good restaurants and the American Medical Center. I hope we never move again until it’s time to go back to the US, because this is not the kind of thing you want to have to do very often.

A Few of My Favorite Things

I’ve been here nearly four weeks, and I haven’t been blogging nearly enough. So, here’s a list of my favorite things about Moscow so far:

The metro. I’ve taken public transportation in Austin, New York, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle, and Moscow’s metro system absolutely crushes all of them. Despite the fact that it serves more passengers daily than the NYC and London subway systems combined, it somehow manages to be incredibly efficient. I’ve been stuck waiting for the correct Green line train on the Boston T for upwards of 25 minutes during Red Sox games only to have the next one arrive so packed that you cannot physically wedge another human being onto it. But Moscow trains arrive every two minutes and, while often crowded (rush hour is pretty much all of the time here), aren’t quite that uncomfortable. As a bonus, many of the metro stations are visually stunning works of art, and even the Brezhnev-era ones that look pretty ordinary are at least free of the stale urine and garbage smell that seems to permeate most American transit systems.

Blini and kasha. Russia has the whole breakfast thing figured out. Also, carbs and comfort food. Blini are crepes filled with anything from fruit to caviar and sold pretty much everywhere. And kasha is basically porridge or a hot grain cereal that can similarly be served with anything. I like it with berries and fresh mint. It’s the best thing ever on a cold, rainy day (of which we have had many despite the fact that it’s early September).

Coffee shops. Starbucks and Coffee Bean are definitely a thing here. In fact, the Starbucks right outside metro Serpukhovskaya is pretty great. It’s inside a really neat bookstore and has great seating (and some of the baristas speak English). But you can do as good or better with some of the local chains. Moscow has tons of coffee shops that are essentially full-service restaurants but where they will let you sit there and hang out as long as you want. In fact, you will have to work pretty hard to flag down your server if you want to get your check and get out of there quickly. My favorites so far are Кофе Хаус (transliteration of “Coffee House”) and Le Pain Quotidien.

Parks. There is green space everywhere here. You can find huge, sprawling parks with ancient buildings like Kolomenskoye or modern spaces like Gorky Park, which has cafes, concert venues, and (in winter) ice skating. (Gorky Park also has these giant water resistant pillows and lounge chairs where you can park all afternoon and read, though you’d better go on a weekday). But there are also great little neighborhood parks and tree-lined boulevards where you can escape the city just for a little bit. I also love that though my apartment is in a cluster of none-too-beautiful buildings, there are trees on two sides, which means that my bedroom  feels a little like a tree house.

Muscovites. People keep telling me that Russians aren’t very friendly. Most of them tend to be Russians who have spent time in the US. But for the most part, I’ve found the opposite to be true. Sure, no one really smiles at strangers, people on the metro avoid eye contact, and small talk is not encouraged, but even outside my circle of colleagues, I’ve found most people here to be gregarious and helpful. It’s just a culture that tends more toward introversion. Plus, the way syllable stress works in Russian means that the language sometimes sounds flat or even harsh to foreigners. You generally have to make a connection first, and then people get more expressive. 

The stolovaya. This is perhaps more of a novelty thing, but the building I work in is Soviet-era and quite old. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s still government-owned. Back during Communist times, all workplaces provides lunch for workers in these cafeterias. My building still has one of those, and you can get a very decent meal (I like the vegetable salad and бутерброд с сыром, essentially bread and cheese) for very cheap. The bottom floor has a canteen where you can get fresh fruit, chips, ice cream, or whatever. It’s hard to explain how this is different from your typical college cafeteria, but it just is ok. There are a few Moscow restaurant chains that have reinvented this concept. My favorite is Му-Му (“Moo-moo” – the logo is cow spots).

Points of ambivalence:

Standards of dress. Walking around in your perfectly coordinated Lululemon outfit is not a sign of status here, or of how much you care about your fitness (there is no fitness culture here). The first time I walked around in work-out clothes, I had an Arrested Development style, “I’ve made a huge mistake” moment. No one was rude to me or anything, but I felt like I was wearing a flashing neon sign that said “HASN’T CAUGHT ON.” It is rare that you see someone–especially on a workday–who doesn’t look impeccably groomed by US standards. No one wears flip flops. Or running shoes. I used to think I had quite a bit of game in the whole footwear department. This is because I come from the nation that brought Crocs into the world. I think they confiscate those at customs here. 

The pace. You will straight up get run over if you don’t watch yourself on the street (Muscovite drivers have as much regard for pedestrians as Texans do) or in the metro, but in general, no one in Russia is ever in as much of a hurry as I think they should be. This is especially true when trying to file paperwork or anything involving a bureaucracy. It’s not that people are lazy or incompetent, they just have a different way of setting priorities and a different regard for deadlines. What this means is that you have to be patient and pro-active (just go down and get the projector cable already because no one is going to bring it to you, even if you asked for it a week ago), but also means no one is going to micromanage your pace or expect you to have that thing they sent you turned around in 24 hours or get angry at you for not immediately answering that email they sent at 3 am. As one of my colleagues said, “This Caribbean lifestyle would be great if the weather were better.” 



Dealing with Culture Shock – Don’t Isolate

Many experts describe culture shock as a psycho-physical phenomenon that presents in 4-5 stages: Honeymoon, Negotiation/Depression, Adjustment, Mastery, and Re-entry. One of my colleagues, however, thinks of it as something more akin to bi-polarity with fluctuating periods of enchantment/excitement and frustration/homesickness. So far, my experience has been conforming mostly to that latter model. It’s been mostly positive, but there have been some intense bouts of acute stress and anxiety that have sent me reaching for the prescription bottle in the last three weeks. The pattern that colleague described supposedly plays out over long periods, but the fluctuations have felt more rapid to me, cycling from high to low in as little as hours. This past week was especially difficult due to apartment search drama, about which I may say more if I can find a way to make it interesting.

There are, of course, ways to cope with the fairly inevitable sense of disorientation that comes from adjusting to a new environment, be it a new country, job, or school (or in my case, all three). But one of the hardest pieces of advice to apply, I think, if you are an introvert or have a history of depression (or both) is to resist the urge to isolate. When it’s difficult to communicate, when the environment is intimidating and draining, the pull of solitude is incredibly powerful. At least it is for me. Solitude is my way of recuperating and restoring myself. At my healthiest, it is the best, most effective form of self-care that I can practice. So, it’s difficult sometimes to recognize when I shouldn’t be doing it.

Moving to a new country and getting situated in a new job is definitely not the time to turn inward. This is a mistake I made early on in graduate school and one I’m trying not to repeat now. Intimidated by people who seemed so much smarter than me and an academic environment so different from what I was accustomed to or expected, I pretty much never went out. And it meant that while I had some friends, I felt cut off from the social life of my department most of the time. When you repeatedly turn down invitations, people tend to stop asking you to go out drinking with them. And that–rather than classes–tends to be where a lot of people do their bonding.

This is why three Friday nights in a row I’ve done the unthinkable and gotten half in the bag with nearly complete strangers instead of succumbing to the desire to go take a bath and fall asleep watching Netflix. This is why tonight I forced myself to stay at a party and make small talk for longer than was comfortable. And to my surprise, I haven’t regretted those choices, even when it meant racing to catch the metro before it closed at 1:00 am. I think perhaps it will take someone with a similar temperament to mine to understand what a big deal this is, how unnatural it feels to cope with the stress of moving into a new apartment and adjusting to a new set of students and trying to manage the various and occasionally bewildering differences between the US and Russia by seeking people out rather than turning inward.

I have never and still do not see my strong tendency toward introversion as a liability or a defect. If anything, it fosters a sense of autonomy that makes certain parts of this transition easier. But navigating this whole process does also require me to draw on interpersonal resources that I, and many like me, am not accustomed to developing or utilizing.

Moscow – Days 2 and 3

Jet lag is not a joke, ya’ll. I’m sleeping at night, which is a plus, but it’s in four hour chunks from roughly 6 pm to 7 am. I can tell my body needs food, but absolutely nothing sounds good. And I have a headache all the time. Lucky for me, my employer has kept my social calendar very full, so I haven’t had a lot of time to feel sorry for myself.

On Saturday, the International Office hired an undergrad to teach me how to be an adult in Moscow. He showed me grocery and drug stores, gave me recommendations for not-too-expensive restaurants, and we discussed such essential diplomatic issues such as which English words sound sort of like Russian profanities and vice versa. We also went to get a SIM card for my phone, where I learned that in spite of all its egregious problems with civil liberties, Russia is a veritable land of the free when it comes to telecommunications services. There’s none of this signing over your life for two years in exchange for a discounted smartphone. You’re expected to pay full price for the phone itself (and a lot more for American models), but in exchange you get extremely cheap, fast, and flexible phone and data plans. You can change rates and/or carriers any time you want, and it costs like 20 bucks a month, as opposed to the 150 we’re paying in the United States. Of course, first, I had to get my three-year old iPhone released from AT&T’s proprietary stranglehold, which took three tries, even though our contract has been complete for over a year.

IMG_0649 IMG_0651 IMG_0659 IMG_0665 My twenty-year old guide said you can tell a Muscovite by whether or not they have been to the Tretyakov Gallery, a gallery entirely comprised of Russian art through the centuries. Moscow natives, as a rule, have never been. Like most major landmarks in big cities, it’s a tourist attraction. So, naturally, he took me there (said guide is from the sticks himself and had just taken an art history class and really wanted to go). It was, indeed, swarming with tourists, but there was also quite a lot of gorgeous art.

I like the religious art quite a bit, though looking at icon after icon from the medieval period can get rather monotonous. I think my favorites from the Tretyakov were the genre paintings from the nineteenth century, which are moody and dynamic and violent.

IMG_0725On Sunday, my guides were another faculty member and his wife, who are from Siberia and Belarus respectively but who both went to university in North Carolina. Moscow contains a surprising amount of green space. Virtually every neighborhood has some kind of park. Stas and Tanya took us to one of their favorites, Kolomenskoye, which contains several old churches and used to be the site of the summer palace of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, father of Peter the Great, before it burned to the ground. It probably didn’t help that the palace was built entirely of wood, as most buildings in Moscow were back in the day. Happily, at some point, they built a replica of of it (complete with a bathhouse), so you can see exactly how the tsars lived in the sixteenth century. Just outside, we had kvas (a mildly alcoholic fermented grain beveraged) and blini (Russian crepes).

IMG_0713Kolomenskoye is also in the middle of a honey festival, where you can walk into a tent and go to stand after stand and sample local honey and things made from local honey. Because I am a philistine, the only honey I’ve ever had is the stuff that comes out of the bear and that you buy at HEB, so this was something of a revelation. Artisanal honey is apparently like fine wine or beer. Even samples of the same type and preparation taste different depending on the farm.

In Moscow parks, they do not mind if you walk on the grass, and they also do not mind if you climb right up into the trees and pick the apples that are starting to turn ripe right about now. So we did that, though the easiest trees with the ripest apples had already been picked pretty clean. I think it’s been about 20 years since I last climbed a tree.


Daily Show Interview: Creators of Pussy Riot Documentary

Pussy Riot

I’m working on some bigger posts, but in the meantime, here is a great Daily Show interview with Mike Lerner and Maksim Pozdorovkin, creators of the HBO documentary film “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.” For an eight minute interview, it’s surprisingly probative, laying out the stakes of free speech questions in Russia during the Putin era.

(Due to iframe embed restrictions in wordpress, I have to provide a link.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Mike Lerner & Maxim Pozdorovkin
Daily Show Full Episodes Indecision Political Humor The Daily Show on Facebook

Adventures in Russian: The Anomic Aphasia Stage

Unlike certain parts of the world that have submitted to linguistic imperialism, Russia doesn’t have a particularly high concentration of English speakers or English signage, so in order to be able to function, we are learning Russian. And because we are nerds (and because we are cheap – Rosetta Stone is hella expensive), we are using a college textbook that comes with video materials featuring all the synthesizer music, terrible acting, and questionable camera work you have come to expect from educational media over the years.

Learning the Cyrillic alphabet is actually a pretty simple affair, since there are free websites all over the place that will help you out. Cyrillic is wonderfully phonetic, and while Russians regularly bulldoze over entire syllables in speech, it’s fairly easy to sound words out accurately once you have a feel for what you are doing. It takes a few hours of study, but once you start getting it, you can go on Russian websites and feel like you can see the Matrix. Russia has a lot of American brands and the language itself features quite a few borrow words, so you feel like a champ when you realize that this:

Пицца Хат

just says “Pizza Hut.”

The American empire is alive and well in Russia
The American empire is alive and well in Russia


Because the college term is over and public schools are still going, I have gotten all the way to Unit 7, while my husband is still in the middle of Unit 1. I give him a bit of a pass since this is actually his third language. (Too bad his second language–German–is useful in exactly none of the places we’ve lived in the past decade). What this means is that while I am learning the Imperative Voice to bark orders in the threatening manner characteristic of Russian characters in Harrison Ford films (“Close the window! Write a letter! Translate this homework assignment!” I bellow, doing my best Gary Oldman impression), Ed is still in what I like to call the anomic-aphasia stage of learning Russian. Instead of forming sentences, he is learning to point at objects and guess what they are. “Is she shirts?” he queries. “Nyet,” I say, “That is a teapot.”

A bearded baby with a perfect Russian accent.
A bearded baby with a perfect Russian accent.

The DVD that comes along with this program features a group of young people, one of whom is an American visiting Russia. I sincerely hope that Russians treat me precisely like the Russians in this video treat Kevin. Which is to say like a giant bearded baby.

When Kevin is greeted at the airport by Tanya and Sergei, Kevin counts his bags as he loads them onto the cart so that we might learn how to count to three as well. “Raz, dva,” says Kevin, and Sergei delightedly chimes in, “Tree!” Because Sergei is helpful.Kevin_LFR1

As they drive through a suspiciously traffic-less Moscow, Kevin and Tanya continue to point to objects and locations and name them. At some point, Sergei realizes that it’s time for us to learn to pluralize nouns and reflects eloquently on the fact that there are roughly as many banks in Moscow as there are Starbucks chain restaurants (a lot). “Eto bank. Eto bank. Banki, banki, banki,” he says, which is Russian for, “If the shaky Cypriot financial edifice ever collapses, we are f****d.”

Split screen!
Split screen!

Eventually, they arrive at the apartment Kevin is renting for the summer (we learn in the textbook that the family who owns this apartment is on vacation and Tanya’s sister Olya found it for him through a friend, which sounds reliable), and Tanya shows Kevin around. Kevin, who is still suffering from stroke and/or malaria

I totally feel you, guy.
I totally feel you, guy.

symptoms, mistakes the bathroom for the kitchen. Like you do. Then he decides that it’s time for us to learn a present tense verb, so he proceeds to point to every appliance and electronic device in the apartment and ask if it works. It is then that we discover that, as in English, the verb that tells you whether or not a piece of mechanical equipment is functioning is the same word you use to describe what you do all day provided you are employed, which has me weirdly depressed all of a sudden. “Telephone rabotayet?” Kevin asks. “Holodnik [refrigerator] rabotayet?” Later, he asks Tanya if she rabotayets, to which she replies that she is a student.


At one point, they stand awkwardly close to one another on the balcony overlooking Moscow, and some part of me starts shipping the two of them. But just as things start heating up, Tanya realizes it’s time to FO and leaves Kevin alone to fend for himself. Kevin starts looking through the photo album of the family who actually owns the apartment. Like a creep. Then there is a knock on the door, and Kevin finds said family standing in front of

These folks look thrilled.
These folks look thrilled.

him, not on vacation. Uh oh! (Side note: why does the family knock on the door of their own apartment before entering? Is this a custom in case jet-lagged American hipsters are squatting in your house? Russians seem very polite.)

Brand photos from here.

NES Rector Sergei Guriev Flees Russia

Sergei GurievI haven’t had the opportunity to meet this man personally, but he signed my offer letter and actually found my husband a possible teaching job at a Moscow IB school after I was hired. My colleagues speak enormously highly of him, and this news is a sobering reminder that academic freedom is something not to be taken for granted.

From the New York Times blog:

MOSCOW — A prominent, liberal-minded economist has fled Russia under pressure from government investigators, as the Kremlin’s yearlong crackdown moves beyond protesters and their leaders to elite power brokers who are suspected of supporting them.

The economist, Sergei Guriev, who wielded significant influence under the presidency of Dmitri A. Medvedev, has been questioned repeatedly in a case that stems from a report of which he was a co-author that criticized the treatment of Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned oil tycoon.

Mr. Guriev’s flight comes amid investigations that focus on Moscow insiders who, investigators believe, have offered support to the opposition movement.

Along with other faculty, I received an email this afternoon with assurances that this will not disrupt the NES’s operations and–at considerable cost considering that Guriev was a kind of visionary for the school–has bolstered the school’s international reputation and opened up new lines of funding.