Showing posts with label Life in Russia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Life in Russia. Show all posts

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Russian happiness?

Happy endings are not popular here, as a cursory acquaintance with Russian literature will tell you. Seriously, try it - any Russian novel. No one yet has been able to name me a single book with a happy ending in the "normal" style - boy marries girl/kills dragon/makes fortune/saves world, with the important proviso that no main goody ends up dead. If you are ever kidnapped and forced at gunpoint to predict the plot of Russian films you might want to use the following plot-prediction method: What is the ultimate nightmarish scenario for these people? Is there a couple? - one of them will end up married to someone else and the other one will die. Is there anyone around who could possibly commit suicide? - they will.

Maybe that was a slight exaggeration (but only a slight one). But seriously, I don't think the term "happy ending" exists here. In conversation Russians seem to use the English phrase (and in a slightly scornful tone). As you can imagine, this causes havoc in Disney films. In Beauty and the Beast, for example, instead of the boy-who-used-to-be-a-tea-cup asking if Belle and the Beast will live "happily ever after", he asks if they will live "happily for a long time", which isn't at all the same thing. Since he appears to be about three, a "long time" could be six months before they are both guillotined in the revolution.

Do different countries have different ideas about what constitutes happiness, or any other emotion? Possibly because I am more frightened of death than anyone I have ever met, the mere mention of anyone I like dying ruins a story for me. Thus the traditional Russian fairytale ending, "they lived long and happily together and died on the same day" is a total write-off, because all I can envisage is the fear and misery of the ninety-year-old Prince Charming and Princess Pea-pod as they succumb to heart-attacks or cancer. Or, to take another example, do comedies have to be happy? Or even funny? The first play I ever saw in Moscow was The Seagull (Чайка - Chaika). Being a heathen, I didn't know the plot, but the play bill assured me it was a "comedy in four acts". So I was a bit surprised when Konstantin shot himself and Nina appeared to have gone insane after being abandoned by Trigorin and the death of her child. Hilarious. And lest anyone think it was just Chekhov who had a few strange ideas about happiness (and even some Russians have thought this a bit - Chekhov was furious about the first production of Three Sisters, because he thought it was happy and everyone else thought it was a tragedy), there were other writers who had similar ideas. Griboedov's "comedy" Woe from Wit (Горе от ума - Gore ot uma), for example, involves almost no comedic situations, and all of the characters end up miserable. Perhaps the difference is in the UK "comedy" mostly also implies "happy", but in Russia they are more into black comedy, i.e. the situation is just so appalling you have to laugh or you'll cry.

So what does this tell you about happiness? I think of happiness as bright and sparkling, but when I try to define it, I can't seem to get the words right. But I am pretty sure that whatever my definition would be, it is different from the prevailing view here. I am currently reading a book that tries to explain the Russian "soul" to foreigners (Какие мы русские? - А.В. Сергеева). The books talks about the connection between happiness and unhappiness (which appears to at least partly come from Orthodox Christianity). Happiness, in this reading, is more about peace than joy, and is a reward for having undergone suffering, which purifies your character. Joy is something ephemeral and not particularly important - the important thing is that life goes on regardless (unless you throw yourself under a train, of course). And maybe this is why Russians are scornful of "happy endings", because to them they are not only trite, but have also missed a deeper philosophical point about what happiness means. Thankfully, I am not a philosopher (because this is the quickest route to insanity), but I think this is a bit harsh - children's happiness is uncomplicated, but is considered by lots of people to be especially pure.

Anyway, this kind of thinking may itself cause a predilection towards unhappiness. According to the book, almost 50% of Russians consider themselves unhappy, compared with only 1% of English people (although I find this latter number very hard to believe). Life is obviously materially tougher in Russia than in England, but there are countries poorer than Russia which are significantly happier.

[In all seriousness, though, if you can think of any happy Russian novels, let me know. I lack all sophisticated artistic feeling, so I much prefer happy things, but I am beginning to think I have read most happy great works of literature in the world.]

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Policeman on a train

Generally speaking, Russian policeman (or militiamen, or whatever) are supposed to be scary. The first time I came to Russia, for work, the head of the office in Moscow told me that if I saw the police I should walk very quickly in the opposite direction. He even thought it necessary to give me his phone number in case I got into trouble. Clearly, Moscow was a dangerous place.

Except of course, the policemen I spoke to on that visit, after ignoring his advice (unintentionally - I just forgot), were very helpful, laughed at my feeble attempts at Russian and generally didn't try to steal all my money (or in fact any of my money). Still, if you read the guidebooks, they still tell you never to show a policeman your real passport (in case they take it off you), and to pretend to call your embassy if they start asking too many questions.

So when I got on the train to St Petersburg a week ago, and found myself in a compartment with two militia people, I wasn't very amused. The younger one (in his mid-20s) launched into a long speech about something or other, of which I understood absolutely nothing, and told him so. He smiled and said, "it's alright, you don't have to do anything", and then, since it was by now obvious that I was a foreigner, we started on the normal topics of conversation. After a while he inevitably asked me what I was doing in the country. Unfortunately my face unconsciously twists in some peculiar way whenever anyone asks me about real life, and he thought he had offended me. He held up his hands and said, "no, no, I'm not asking officially, I was just interested", and since I hadn't meant to evade the question in the first place, I of course explained. We talked some more about home and abroad, life etc etc, and I actually felt kind of sorry for him. He wasn't from anywhere near Moscow, and he got sent round the country to wherever, so he must have been miles away from everyone he knew. He told me that he had learnt English years ago in school, but he had never been able to practice it because no foreigners came to his home town. And then he plucked at his uniform and said, "and now foreigners won't approach me because of this". To which the only response is yes, that would do it. We carried on talking and eventually his boss said they had to go and do some work, and they both left the compartment.

After half an hour or so, the younger one came back and opened up his laptop. I was reading a book, but periodically I could hear American voices emanating from his computer, saying things like, "enemy forces sighted" and "fire". So when his boss reappeared and they both went out to do some more work, obviously I looked at his computer to see what the hell he was doing. And guess what it was? Some US video game where you go round shooting baddies - Call of Duty 2 or something.

It's somehow comforting to think that so many 20-something year old guys around the world are the same. No matter what their job, they really want to be playing video games and shooting bad guys.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Hummus is how much? The cost of living

Today I did my weekly food shop, got back, looked at the receipt and thought, holy crap! I just spent £4.50 on hummus! I don't know how it is possible that hummus is so expensive - maybe there was an unspecial offer. Before I came to Russia I assumed that food would be cheaper than in the UK, but this has not turned out to be the case. Specifically, anything I eat appears to be expensive.

Of course, I don't have to eat hummus. But it does take a while, when you move to a new country/new living situation, to work out what you are now going to live on. You have to go round the shops, pick up the food, examine it from all sides, and consider the all-important question, can I cook this in my current kitchen? For me, this has generally meant on one ring. Technically when I lived in New York I had an oven for a couple of years, but I was short of bookshelves at the time so I had to fill the oven with books, which made turning it on difficult. Currently I subsist almost entirely on risotto, which I can cook in one pan and requires a minimum of excess water. This is important because everything has to be done with bottled water so it is a huge waste of water to boil anything. At the end of the month I will have another problem, as my room mate is going back to Japan, taking her fridge with her. No more cereal for me.

In Russia there is a lack of several important (to me) food items, including tins. There is very little tinned food in the supermarkets near me, and instead they go in for dried food in a big way. This means no tinned soup, no tinned chickpeas or butter beans (well, they have imported tinned butter beans in Елисеевский (Yeliseyevsky), the Moscow equivalent of Harrods food hall, but at more than £1 per tin, it's just not worth it). I am too lazy to soak beans overnight, and dried soup is not as good as tinned soup. These aren't the only deficits: Russia, along with the entire non-UK world, is yet to discover the delights of salt and vinegar hula hoops, neither are they alive to the wonders of orange squash, although you can get the strange French mint squash in Ашан (Ashan - a French supermarket chain). One the other hand, they have better bread than we do, especially dark rye bread, which is hard to get hold of in the UK, and Armenian bread, which is a bit like a tortilla. There is also something called творог (tvorog), which is like cottage cheese only less liquid, which is wonderful stuff. The honey here is better, and they sell пряники (lebkuchen) all year round, which is an improvement on trying to eat a year's supply at Christmas, my usual custom. Plus they have a lot more types of cured meat. In terms of fruit and vegetables, you can get most things, just possibly not when you want them. Either that, or the supermarkets near me need to fire whoever does their buying. One week they will purchase an enormous quantity of red peppers, which will proceed to slowly rot over the next few weeks, without them getting any more in. Likewise with broccoli - sometimes loads, then none for a month. Prices for some fresh foods vary from week to week, sometimes by as much as 25%, for no discernible reason.

A few (currently) strangely expensive foods here (using Ocado as a comparison): hummus (£4.58 vs 99p for 200g), squash (£5.16 vs £3.20 for a litre, using lemon syrup as squash), cauliflower heads (£1.46 vs £1.05), broccoli heads (£1.32 vs £1.20), Activia yoghurt 4-pack (£2.10 vs £1.84), cottage cheese 340g (£1.65 vs 95p). Rye bread is much cheaper (50p vs £1.60 per loaf), as is risotto rice (£1.11 vs £2.24 for 900g), and orange juice (79p vs £1.20 for 1 litre). Overall I spend about the same amount on food here as I did in when I was a student in the UK.

The trouble with this is the difference in wages. The average (median) annual wage in Russia in 2011 was £4,200 ($6,875), vs £20,800 ($33,385) in the UK (2010) and £16,425 ($26,364) in the US (2010). Even assuming the median wage in Russia is actually higher due to the white/black income thing, food must take up a much higher percentage of a family's income than in the US/UK. As this article indicates, for 10% of the population it takes up 100% of their income, and 53% of the population only have enough money for food, utilities and clothing. Something like buying your own apartment is only possible for 1% of the population. To buy a one-bedroom flat in Moscow would require the average Muscovite (who already earns more than most Russians) to save 100% of their income for 12 years!

[Of course, in the UK unless you're really rich you have to pay tax on income, and in Russia, well, multiple people have told me no one in their right mind pays their taxes. Theoretically income tax is 13%, but you can get around this by having a difference between your white income and black income.Your white income is your official income on which you have to pay tax. The company you work for will often set this really really low, and then just pay you the rest (your black/grey income) on the side. However, if one day you suddenly need a much larger official income, for example if you want to get a visa to visit Europe or the States, your firm will just print you out a new piece of paper saying you now earn shed loads of money.]

As newspapers in the UK are constantly telling us, the most expensive thing in life is children. The Guardian reported this year that the cost for raising one child to adulthood is now £218,000, a number that cannot possibly be true, because it would mean most of the population would be unable to afford any children at all. [In fact, if you look at how they calculate these numbers it becomes clear that the people who write for the Guardian are quite odd, since this total includes more than £62,000 on childcare and babysitting and their list of "essentials" includes buying the child a car.] In Russia, however, it must be legitimately difficult for parents to afford to raise more than one child, given the high cost of essentials that are actually essential. This is why you get situations like the tour guide I had in Krasnoyarsk, who had an undergraduate degree in Physics, a PhD in Political Science and had to work three jobs to support his one son. He wasn't even doing this on his own - his wife also worked, as a lecturer in Mathematics at the university. These were highly educated, professional people - if they had to work this hard just to support one child, what hope does anyone else have? Maybe this is why Russia has such a big demographics problem.

Note on source for median wage: Rosstat (Russian source for statistics) didn't provide median, only mean from what I could see, so I averaged the mean wages for the 5th and 6th decile of workers. Not perfect obviously, but I think the underlying point still stands. I was surprised about the difference in median wage between the US and the UK as well, but I think this is correct. The mean US wage is of course higher than the mean UK wage, but wealth is more unevenly distributed. And the tax rate might be lower in the US, I can't remember, and this is wage not income, which might also make a difference. Exchange rates used as average over period. 

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Cold water and Moscow summers

In the eternal search for the perfect hot water pipe, the Moscow authorities are tireless. So unrelenting is their spirit, that rather than accept second-best they "repair" and "improve" the system every summer. Of course, this has the minor (to them) side effect of cutting off hot water to parts of Moscow for ten days at a time. This happens in rotation round the city, starting after the May holidays (so around May 11th or so), and continuing until August 31st. Naturally, no process runs absolutely smoothly, so when they have upgraded the water pipes for your area, it is almost inevitable that there will be some sort of mishap in the newly repaired part, which will result in the water being turned off again.

Today was the first day without hot water in my area. Notices went up yesterday, and I actually read them due to the masses of red underlining below the words. Normally I don't read notices because if I read everything that got stuck up in the общежитие (hostel), I would never get anything done.

So what are my choices? The first, obviously, is to suck it up and take cold showers. This is possible, although it should be noted that cold water in Moscow is not like normal cold water. It's a lot colder. However, if we keep the windows shut at night to make the room an unbearable sauna, I will probably want an ice-cold shower in the morning. I'll still have to psych myself up, have a countdown etc etc, but I have spent summers without hot water before. The second option, which is what a lot of people do, is to heat water in massive pots on the stove, and then throw it over yourself with a thing called a ковш (kovsh), which is like a ladle only bigger. This option is pretty much a non-starter for me. Firstly, I don't own a massive pot, and I don't think the electric rings in the shared kitchen could take the weight if I bought one. Secondly, everyone else on my floor would hate me for hogging the electric rings. And thirdly, at the moment the electric rings are broken anyway.

On the bright side, in three years we are promised that this will only happen for three days a summer, and a few years after that, not at all. A decade or so ago, everyone used to have to go a month without hot water, and it has gradually been coming down ever since. I know the systems were created in the 1950s, and I understand that they now need updating, but I don't understand why they don't just do the whole thing in one go instead of a little bit every year. Unless of course, they are not really doing any updating at all, but instead have some nefarious purpose. Which is totally fine, I just wish they would be honest about it.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Choosing the right tree for your city

Let's say someone has come along and bombed the city you live in to hell, and an insane dictator has tasked you with rebuilding it. Eager to not be shot in front of your children, you want to do a good job, so you decide for the sake of general greenery to plant a whole bunch of trees pretty much anywhere there is space. What kind of trees are you going to choose?

If your answer is, "why the hell does that matter? Just give me some trees that grow fast so I can keep my head", congratulations, you have saved your life, but condemned your grandchildren's generation to extreme attacks of hay fever. This is basically what the Moscow town planners did after WWII, and then results can be summed up in one word: пух (pookh). This stuff is currently descending on Moscow like a biblical plague. It can get through locked doors and windows. It defies all attempts to catch it, which makes people look like demented cats scrabbling at ghosts in the air. I have spent the last several weeks looking for a tree with a massive ball of cotton wool stuck on top of it, which is what I imagine the poplar trees that produce this stuff must look like. Apparently no one at the time when they were planted knew that this is what these trees do, which just goes to show what happens when you terrify biologists so much they are afraid to tell you the truth. Poplar trees, incidentally, along with birches, are incredibly popular with Russian writers. I am yet to read a work of literature entirely lacking in both.

In other pollen-related news, another type of tree planted in large numbers around Moscow made the newspapers a couple of weeks ago, when a massive cloud of its pollen approached the city. It apparently looked like a cloud of green smog, and some people thought it was either Armaggedon or from a fire in a chemical factory.

However, according to yet another set of reports (I spend way too much time reading the news), we only have to wait 20 years or so and all these trees will be dead, thus ending the пух's reign of terror. The Moscow authorities are so efficient at picking up dead leaves (and this is true, in the autumn there are marauding bands of men with rakes sweeping up everything in sight) that the trees are beginning to lack in essential nutrients provided by the composting effect of the dead leaves, and will start to die off in a few years. At which point maybe they can plant some cherry blossom trees like in Japan.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Russian buildings are falling down...

I love old buildings. If I ever manage to scrape together enough money to buy a house, I want it to be an old one, which I will then fill with old furniture and sit around drinking tea out of an old cup whilst listening to old music. So I find it fairly distressing that many of the older buildings in Moscow, and in Russia more generally, are in an appalling state of repair. As I've said before, it's not like they have that many to start off with. Yes, Russia would be the ideal place to have one of those annoying property shows where an obnoxious, over-privileged family moan about the difficulties of restoring a old house whilst complaining that there is nowhere to put the horses. If someone actually made a programme like that in Russia, I might even watch it.

Why are these buildings falling down? Russia is not a poor country, so if the government wanted to, they must have the money to repair them. Many of the buildings are right in the centre of cities, so apart from being historically valuable in themselves, they are sitting on incredibly valuable land. It's also interesting that the delapidated buildings are not evenly spread across the towns and cities I have visited. Last summer I started in Vladivostock and over the course of six weeks or so, made the trip to Moscow, stopping off in various places along the way. Vladivostock, Irkutsk, Tobolsk, Kazan and Moscow contained an awful lot of buildings in dire need of repair. Khabarovsk, Ulan Ude, Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterinburg and Nizhny Novgorod not so much. Maybe it would be possible to create a corruption or incompetence index for local governors based on the number of buildings falling down on their patch.

Vladivostock. Doesn't look too bad until you realise there is a plant growing out of the roof and the decoration around the windows is starting to fall off.
I didn't really take that many photos of buildings falling down in Vladivostock, partly because I didn't know that it was going to become a major theme of the journey, and partly because it seemed somehow rude when I had just arrived in the country. In hindsight, however, Vladivostock was a total disaster zone. The roads looked like an earthquake had just passed through - great chunks of tarmac were jutting out at different levels at the edges of the roads, buildings had been half torn down and then abandoned, and if you arrived by sea, like I did, your first view of the city was this:

Exactly. After having said all that, you probably won't believe that I really liked Vladivostock, but I did. It has so much potential, and I want to be the mayor.

Irkutsk. There were still people living in this building.
Irkutsk - "the Paris of Siberia" had large areas filled with beautiful old houses. Unfortunately, many of them looked pretty much exactly like this one, where the building has started sinking into the earth, and not just the window frames, but the actual walls had started to decay. Some houses had sunk so much it was no longer possible to open the doors on the ground floor. Even without this, the difficulty with Russia is that the climate is so extreme that buildings need constant upkeep. In Moscow, where the winter is milder than Siberia, they had to get busy repainting all the fences once the snow melted. A coat of paint only lasts a year. Unfortunately they chose to paint the ones near me in bright pink and violet stripes, but that's another story.

Tobolsk. Right at the bottom of the hill on which the Kremlin perches.


Tobolsk. The funny thing is the plaque on the corner says the building is an architectural monument.

A word of advice: don't go to Tobolsk. Yes, I know the guide book says that there is a beautiful old town there, but in fact it has been almost entirely demolished and replaced with empty apartment blocks, leaving only a few ruins half-sunk into the ground and covered with netting. There is a Kremlin, but you can get into just one of the buildings, and the only person in town is a mad old bone carver who carves things from the mammoth tusks he finds lying around the place. He used to work in a beautiful old building, but then it fell down and he had to move round the corner to one almost as decrepit, but not remotely beautiful. He is really friendly though, and he'll let you have a go at carving bones if you ask nicely.

Kazan. On the high street.

Also on Kazan high street.

Kazan high street is a bit of a disaster, no? These buildings have already reached the point of no return.
Aah, Kazan. A place that according to the guidebook is extremely rich due to its oil wealth, but when you get there you find that this somehow doesn't fit with the fact that half the buildings are falling down and the toilets in the cathedral where the Virgin of Kazan icon is held are just holes in a raised platform, with the waste falling straight onto the ground below. The last picture is of what used to be the grandest hotel in the city. How did they let it get into such a state?

Suzdal. This is a painting on the inside wall of a church, but it is so degraded you can't even made out what it is anymore.

A nunnery in Suzdal.
I've mentioned Suzdal before, and it really does have that trapped-in-time feeling. The churches are stunningly beautiful, the air is clean, the streets are quiet. It is basically paradise. Except for the fact that you get the impression that your grandchildren won't be able to see it like this. There is a fine line between slightly faded in a melancholic-for-past-glories kind of way, and just run down, and some buildings in Suzdal have gone straight over that line and not looked back. Part of the problem in Suzdal is that so many of the buildings are churches, and the Russian church must already have a list a mile long of buildings that need repairing. Judging by what I have read about the position of the Orthodox church under Communism, it must have been both financial and politically very difficult to do any repair work on churches in the USSR, so they are probably now playing 70-year catch-up.

And this is all before we even get to Moscow. All of the following pictures are within two blocks of the Kremlin. You can't see much in the photographs, but under the netting the buildings look pretty much like the picture of the hotel in Kazan - only the brick structure of the building is left without any of the beautiful mouldings.

This building is just behind Театральная (Teatralnaya) metro station. Right next to Red Square.

You might think the netting means they are repairing it, but judging from the amount of rubbish that has built up inside the netting, I don't think anyone goes in there much.

The church on the far left? That is on Red Square.

A block down from ГУМ (GUM - big shopping mall)

This is over the other side, nearer Christ the Saviour cathedral.
It's difficult to know whether things have got better or worse, as I wasn't in Russia in the 1990s. Possibly they are improving. My grad school WMD professor had, in a previous life, negotiated nuclear weapon reduction agreements with the USSR. He travelled frequently to Moscow in the 1980s and 1990s, and he said at that time chunks of masonry used to regularly fall off buildings. I think that is much rarer now.

Anyway, it's not as if other countries have always taken good care of their historic buildings. Just look at London, which over the years has employed some of the most criminally stupid town planners known to man. And if you read what Charles Dickens had to say in Pictures from Italy, his account of his travels in the country, you realise that a large number of the monuments he saw were falling down. He describes how a particular cathedral was "odorous with the rotting of Correggio's frescoes in the Cupola". I'm pretty sure that wouldn't be the case now. So maybe Russia is like Italy 150 years ago, and 150 years in the future, all of these places will be sparkling. It's just a pity for me that I won't be here to see them.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

How to find a Moscow address

On my first day in Moscow I was told to go five stops on the tram from where I lived to find the school. The trouble was, once you got off the tram it was impossible to find out the names of the streets, because most of them didn't have signs, and the numbering system appeared to have been put together by someone who couldn't count. Without a map or internet on my phone, I was reduced to asking random passers-by:

Me: Excuse me. You don't happen to know, by any chance, where no. 24/35 K-- street is, do you? (polite questions in Russian are generally phrased as negatives, so rather than "could you tell me" it would be "couldn't you tell me" etc)
Local: There are a lot of streets round here with that name, so really, it could be anywhere.
Me: Oh.

Actually, as is almost always the case, the girl I stopped was incredible nice, and stayed with me whilst we asked a series of other people, none of whom knew either. After I'd recruited four people to my cause, we eventually found someone who had heard of the school. Guess where it was? Right across the street from where I was standing, of course. Ho hum. Sometimes I forget that I am supposed to be smarter than the average bear.

The reason I got confused is that Moscow uses a different method of building numbering from the UK. There is a similar system in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), where I once spent three increasingly frustrating hours trying to find a hotel, despite the fact that there are only two roads in the entire city. The problem, of course, is that there aren't REALLY only two roads in Ulaanbaatar, it's just that there are only two roads on the map (because these are the ones with names). To use a Moscow example, the address of my school is 24/35 K-- street. It is on a street corner, so it has two numbers, one for each road. BUT there are five other buildings which are also 24/35 K-- street, and most of them have multiple entrances. Even within one entrance there are often multiple businesses. Obviously, not all six buildings can be on the corner of two roads - they together cover an area roughly the size of a city block. So there are small roads criss-crossing the interior of this block. These, however, are not counted as roads and are not named on maps.

This system has two results. Firstly, distances between numbers on streets are much longer than you think. If you are at no. 27 and you need number 37, this is likely to be quite a walk, not just five houses down. Secondly, if you want to find an address, you need to know the street name and number, the building number, which entrance you need, and then the number of the apartment or business. Basically an address will not do - you need a description of how to find the place. Or alternatively Google maps, which knows everything.

Anyway, I am off to Tokyo for a wedding tomorrow, so I won't be updating for a few days. Moscow weather has finally caught up with the rest of the world, decided to skip spring entirely and go straight into summer. A couple of weeks ago the temperature jumped 15 degrees in one night, and has been 20 degrees or so every day since. Since this is almost exactly the same as the temperature in Tokyo at the moment, this is ideal for me.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Etiquette and harrassment

It's tough being a Russian woman - especially if you work. Sexual harassment is more common here than it is in the UK (to put it mildly - in a 2008 survey, 100% of female professionals in Russia said they had been harassed by their bosses). Out of a group of eight or so women I discussed this with, all of them either had personally experienced it or had a close friend have to deal with it. And before anyone starts thinking that they are being unduly sensitive, we're not talking about some offhand comment that was taken the wrong way. One example: a woman went on a business trip and found out that her boss had booked the two of them into a double room together. Or another example: a woman's boss when drunk can't keep his hands to himself and makes obscene comments, even in front of his own wife. And unlike in the UK, suing is not an option. Well, technically it is an option, but only two women in the entire history of the country have won sexual harassment cases (not an exaggeration. Literally two - one in 1993 and one in 1997).

It's very strange, because in some ways, men here are more stereotypically gentlemanly than guys in either the UK or the US (the two places I have the most experience of). Men routinely stand up to offer their seats to women on the tram or the metro (which I have seen in London, but not as frequently), help old ladies carry their bags up stairs, and guys have frequently offered me their hand to help me get out of cars/trains. On the other hand, several men on the Transsiberian this past summer were extremely aggressive in, shall we say, pressing their suit, and on one occasion, a guy tried to illustrate the worthiness of him and his mates by informing me that they "don't even hit" their girlfriends. I mean, what can you say to that? Er, well done?

Although those men may well have been drunk and/or mad, overall gender roles are very traditional here. I have no idea if this has anything to do with the higher incidences of sexual harassment and domestic violence, but it is interesting. Men are expected to pay the bill in restaurants, bring a girl frequent presents, and give her a ride home after a date. One guy told me that if you don't like a girl you just give her the money for a taxi home - but I just can't imagine how this could possibly work in practice. Perhaps most bizarrely, some men here (mostly older ones) still bow and kiss a woman's hand, which I have never seen in my entire life in the UK. My understanding of how it works there is that the guy is supposed to OFFER to pay the bill, and then the girl says oh no, I couldn't possibly let you, and then the guy insists, and then they have a contest of politeness until one of them backs down, but in principle, either one of them is allowed to back down depending on how broke they feel. And as regards transport, you're on your own.

There isn't really a conclusion to any of this, it's just one of those interesting things about living in another country.

Source for statistics:

Friday, 30 March 2012

A guide to the Общежитие - part 2

ДАС (DAS) isn't really that bad when you get used to it, it was just a bit of a shock for me at first after having not been a student for a while. There were a few things that needed changing (like the fact that my mattress had several big holes in it with springs sticking out of them that poked me every time I moved in the night), but it does have advantages over, say, главное здание (the main building) - it may have cockroaches and no internet, but it doesn't have rats. We used to debate this for a long time - is internet worth rats?

The building is set up as follows. There are two buildings linked by a long entrance hall only a couple of stories high. Two guards are stationed at the entrance to check everyone coming in - they scrutinise your student card with the upmost attention, as if they hadn't seen you enter the building every day for the last six months. It's the same when you leave with a suitcase - you need special permission to do this, presumably in case you steal the kitchen sink. The thing is, it would literally have to be the kitchen sink because there is nothing else to steal.

Anyway, after you get past them, the entrance hall contains the столовая (stolovaya - cafeteria) where they serve food from 7am to 10pm every day, the читальный зал (chitalny zal - reading room/library), the entrance to the old swimming pool (now without water), and, bizarrely enough, up a flight of stairs, the entrance to the solarium (messages about skin cancer have yet to reach Russia).

The entrance hall. The fence-like thing is where you come in, the reading room is up the stairs at the back, and the dining hall is on the left.

The dining hall. The food is not bad and really cheap.
The читальный зал is unusual. Firstly it is unheated, which means you have to wear you coat at all times or risk being found frozen to the table the next morning. Secondly, all the books are at least thirty years old, and are mostly copies of various scientific journals, i.e. totally useless. Thirdly, there are no electric sockets in the place, but there is a giant teddy bear. I had a very circular conversation with the custodian about this. I kept asking her if there were any electric points in the room, and she kept repeating that this was a library, as though this self-evidently meant that electricity would be right out.

If you continue to the end of the entrance hall and into one of the корпусы (corpusy - blocks) you will get to the shop, which is basically a small convenience store, except with better prices, where everyone buys their water. You will also see the lifts, which you can take if you are tired of life. Personally, I think it would be less painless to play Russian roulette, but everyone is allowed to choose their own way of dying, I suppose. They never stop level with the floor, wobble alarmingly as they move, and you can hear the chains groaning as they pull you up the building. I wouldn't be surprised if one day they gave up entirely and the lift plummeted to the basement. And although a small part of me remains convinced that if you jump just before the lift hit the ground you would be ok, most of me knows this wouldn't work. Assuming you don't die, you may also end up stuck for hours if the doors fail to open, which they used to do not infrequently (they have been a lot better for the last couple of months). One of my friends came back late at night to find people shouting for help stuck between the 5th and 6th floors.

The lifts and stairs. NEVER step through the lift doors without checking first that the lift is actually there - sometimes it isn't and you will plunge to your death.
On each floor, there are a bunch of dorm rooms and two kitchens. The rooms are mostly two rooms containing two people each with a bathroom shared between them, but sometimes you are lucky (like me), and get two people in one room with a bathroom to themselves, and sometimes you are unlucky and get six people in a room all sharing one bathroom.

ДАС corridors may look like you are in a horror movie about a mental asylum, but this is, in fact, not true.
The kitchens each contain two sets of four electric rings and three sinks. There are actually several broken cookers behind a low wall, but these are rusted shut, and anyway, they are not plugged in. Baking cakes is right out, but on balance, this is a good thing.

Another unusual thing about ДАС is the fire alarms, which go off at least once a week as people have a stupid habit of smoking in their rooms. The fire alarm is first in Russian and then in a series of other languages. For the English version they found someone from the 1950s to tell you that, "there is a fire in the hostel. Please collect your documents and leave the building by the emergency exits. Do not use the lifts". However, if there is a fire in the night you will be burnt to a crisp, because the fire alarms only go off in the corridors, and are not loud enough to get through doors. The first time I heard the fire alarm, I thought that there might actually be a fire (I know, how stupid can you get?), so I went to the end of the corridor and tried to take the fire escape down to the ground floor. Big mistake. You can't get down to the ground that way - it only goes down to the second floor and then is blocked off. Plus, when I climbed back up to my floor I found the door had locked behind me, so I had to keep climbing up the fire escape until I found a door I could prise open with a biro.

The basic problem with ДАС is that it was built in 1971, and they haven't done anything to it since. Forty years ago it was apparently really a great place to live, and walking past the now-padlocked balconies on every floor, you can see this (kind-of). Now, however, I think the best thing to do would be to demolish the entire building with one of those giant cannon balls on a string and start again.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

A guide to the Общежитие - part 1

The общежитие is basically a Halls of Residence, and mine is called ДАС (Дом Аспиранта и Стажёра). There are several in МГУ, but none as bad as this one. I'm not just saying that - before I got here my Russian teacher in London told me the worst thing that could happen would be that I ended up in ДАС. So of course I emailed the school before I got here to ask where I would be living, and whether there was any possibility of choosing, but, as in everything, they were singularly uninformative, instead repeating the mantra, "just come to Moscow. Everything will be sorted out when you get here". I'm not quite sure why I fell for this. I must have temporarily taken leave of my senses.

ДАС on a good day. This is actually entirely the wrong kind of light for ДАС, which should only be photographed in drizzle under a steel grey sky in order to accurately capture the atmosphere of the place

More ДАС I'm afraid. But look - the snow is melting!
And so it was, that at 6am one dark, decidedly autumnal morning in late September I pulled up outside the building, right in front of a collection of those massive bins that populate New York alleys and exist solely for vampires, murderers and cats to jump out at you from behind. At this point, it did occur to me that this might be one of the bigger mistakes I have made in my life. What I could see of the building looked like it should be condemned. The driver took me into the totally deserted entry hall, where after some discussion, the guards let me through. I was then taken along a corridor, complete with paint peeling off the walls, and after banging on one particular door for some time, the driver abandoned me to the mercies of the old woman who opened it. She told me that the room I had been assigned was already full, but that this wouldn't be a problem, they would fit me in anyway, and packed me off with a slip of paper to find another old woman at the other end of the building six floors up. This woman, who should be given a part in the next film about the Bastille, or some medieval prison, had a cough which sounded like she had the plague, was mostly covered in an enormous shawl, and had the biggest collection of keys I have ever seen, all strung on a massive metal circle. I kept expecting her to cackle as she looked for, and then tried to prize off the requisite keys from the keyring.

We set off to find the room. Naturally when we got there the keys didn't work, so the old woman bashed on the door until it was opened by a half-asleep and totally bewildered girl who is now my room mate. Although there were two beds in the room, one was on its side against the wall with a desk in front of it, and the mattress had been moved to the other bed. The undaunted old lady broke the desk into pieces and dumped it in the hallway before departing, and I exchanged a few words with my new room mate before she went back to sleep and I lay awake on my bed, trying to calm myself by reciting poetry. Unfortunately, I soon ran through all the don't-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down, madness?-This-is-Sparta poems I know, and went onto Julius Caesar and the inevitability of death, which isn't the best for cheering yourself up.

Actually, I was very lucky to end up in the room I got, because as it later turned out, some people sleep six to a room, and have to do their homework on their knees sitting on their beds. I can imagine this for a few weeks, but for four years of a university course?

Monday, 26 March 2012

How does a Russian stove work?

This has been bugging me since I first got here, because I don't like not knowing how things work. I first saw a Russian stove in the Volkonsky's home in Irkutsk - it is a massive thing that goes right through the centre of the house, so that its corners stick out into multiple rooms.

So... I'm not the world's best photographer, but the big white thing is part of the stove.
The stove is designed to solve Russia's biggest problem, i.e. that it gets a bit nippy in winter. So how do you heat a building using the minimum amount of fuel and fuss? As you know, the problems with open fires are two fold; firstly, most of the heat goes out the chimney and is wasted; and secondly, feeding the fire is a full time job. A Russian stove gets around this by channeling the hot air through a labyrinth of brick passages in the stove. The heat is transferred to the bricks, effectively creating a heated wall in one part of the room. The bricks stay hot for a long time and radiate heat at a lower temperature than say, metal would, so you don't need to constantly feed the stove. In fact, you only need to fuel it twice a day. There is little smoke generated because the fire in the stove is so hot - hot enough the turn iron red. According to (yes, there is such a place, and it claims to be the most interesting page on the web), the stove has an effective range of 20 feet. The only downside is that you might kill yourself with carbon monoxide, so you first have to open all the dampers (little doors on the stove separate from the main door for fuel) to let enough air in to burn the wood down to coals with no blue flame showing, and only then shut them all and go about your normal business.

Of course, bricks take hours to heat up, so this type of heating is only suitable for climates where you are going to need to continually heat a space for a very long time. Like say, from November to April. 

Traditionally, there might be a bed above the stove called a лежанка (as in "приятно думать у лежанки"), and in peasant houses people used to take baths inside them, because they made their stoves big enough to fit a grown man inside. This is a bit too much like Hansel and Gretel for my taste, but maybe I am just paranoid.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

How old is old?

Russia is not the place to come if you are a single women above the age of twenty-five and are anything other than supremely comfortable with that. Or at least that's been my experience. Whilst travelling from Vladivostock to Moscow this summer, the most common question I was asked was about my age. The conversation usually went something like this:

Local: How old are you?
Me: Thirty
Local: Thirty??!!! What do your children think about you leaving them to go travelling?
Me: I don't have any children
Local: No children? What does your husband say about that?
Me: I'm not married

At this point, several people basically told me to get a move on, one man asked me, quite seriously, if I realised that no one would marry me now, and one woman recommended a particular shrine in Siberia to me, where women went to pray to God to send them a husband and children. The point of this is that ideas about age are slightly different here, partly because life expectancy is lower. In 2009 CNN reported that the chance of a 18-year-old man reaching retirement age in Russia was only 50%, vs. 90% in the West. In this context, leaving it till past thirty to get married and have children is leaving it a bit late.

Yesterday I had a conversation about mid-life crises with my english conversation class. I explained that this was something people might go through around the age of forty-five or so, to which one man pointed out to me that in Russia that was a bit late to be having a mid-life crisis, when you might well only live for another ten years (he was slightly on the pessimistic side here - life expectancy at birth is 62.8 for men and 74.7 for women. Still, the figure for men is more than fifteen years lower than the comparable figure for men in the UK).

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Paying for language school

Today I needed to pay for the next couple of months of language school. "Oh, ok," you say, "so you went into the school and paid by credit card", at which point I fall off my chair and roll around on the floor laughing. Hellllooooo?! [knocks on computer screen]. We are talking about a country where I need to get a form filled out and signed in order to take a suitcase out my apartment building. Let me explain to you the ways of paying for language school.

Task 1: Find the director of the school
You might think this would be easy, that he would be in his office, between the hours of, oh, say, ten and three in the afternoon, but in thinking this way you would be completely wrong. In fact, on any particular day, he might not come in at all, or he might spend the entire day in the cafeteria. When you have found him, you tell him that you want to extend your stay in Russia, and then he tells you approximately how much this is going to cost you in roubles.

Task 2: Collect the money
Since almost everything is done in cash here, you now need to assemble $1,500, using cash machines. This will almost certainly take up a couple of days, unless you feel like risking your debit card being stopped by the bank and causing you the mother of all hassles.

Task 3: Get first lot of forms
Now you have so much cash you can't close your wallet, go and find the director again. At this point he will then fill out and give you your first two forms and two copies of your contract, which you will need when you try to extend your stay in the общежитие (this is a whole other story).

Task 4: Swap one form for another
Take one of the forms, go downstairs to a different office, and swap it there for another form.

Task 5: Go to bank
Take both forms, and then take a tram for 20 minutes and find the bank. There is only one bank you can use, so don't bother trying anywhere else. When you get there, you will be required to stand in a queue for at least half and hour, at which point the lady behind the counter (it always is a lady) will take both of your forms, and use the information on them to fill out two more forms. She will also stamp your existing forms. She will then give you all four forms back, and you will need to stand in another queue in order to give someone else your massive wads of cash. This person may well then tell you that all the computers in the bank are currently broken so they can't take your money, at which point you must resist the urge to tear your hair out. Eventually they will start working again, at which point she will take the two forms the first lady gave you, stamp them, tear bits off, staple receipts to them, and give them back to you.

Task 6: Back to the director
Go back to the school, taking with you the four forms you have collected, and show them to the director. He will take two of the forms back, photocopy them, and give you the photocopies. He will then update your student card. Then take your two remaining forms to another room and give them to the people there, along with two passport photos of yourself, a copy of your contract, and your passport. They will in turn give you a piece of paper that you can show the police if they stop you, explaining that they [the school] have your passport.

Task 7: Wait ten days
After ten days, go back to the final room and collect your passport and a photocopy of your new visa indicating that you are going to be a student for another two months. Congratulations! Now you must go back to the общежитие and do the same thing there.

Total number of forms/ miscellaneous pieces of paper: 6. Affect on blood pressure: terrible. As to why this is all necessary, I have no idea. There must be a small mountain of paperwork on me scattered around Moscow, or there would be, if I wasn't convinced that as soon as I have left the room they just tip it all in the bin. But, as one librarian said, after my friend exploded on hearing how many forms she would need to fill out to get a library card, "bureaucracy makes life interesting."

Monday, 19 March 2012

Spring in Russia

Today the temperature went up to 4 degrees Celsius. Spring is here and the snow is beginning to melt, which means it is time to un-sellotape the windows in my room. In January when the temperature first went down to -20, my roommate and I duct-taped all round the windows. This didn't stop the cold air getting in, so we then tried to insulate all round the windows using foam sticks they sell here for that purpose. That didn't work either, so we papered over the worst-offending window with newspaper, again without much success, except to deepen the already permanent gloom in the place. Finally, facing a choice between light and warmth (I was already sleeping under 13 layers at this point, and it was still getting colder), we sellotaped the curtains together and to the wall. We unstuck the curtains sometime in February, and today, we opened the window for the first time since December. This may sound gross, but you have no idea how cold it gets here - it went down to -35, which is the coldest I have ever experienced. Anyway, all the Russians do it too (probably without the curtains bit), so it wasn't just us being pathetic.

The authorities here have been preparing for the melt as well. People have been breaking up the top layers of snow (presumably to increase the surface area), and for some reason they have also been slicing off the front part of the snow blocks that cover all the flower beds, so there is a gap between the snow and the metal railings that delineate the flower beds from the pavement. I have seen people do this so I know it is happening, but I am not sure why. Trying to allow air to get to the soil? Trying to ensure when everything melts it goes into the soil and not all over the pavement?

Sunday, 18 March 2012

British scientists discover...

This is something that came up in my English conversation group a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about "what women want" or something, and for some reason one of the students asked me if I knew any jokes about British scientists (I didn't). Apparently here in Russia there are lots of jokes about British scientists doing bizarre or pointless research. So if someone has done some research to show that alcohol makes you drunk or something similarly self-evident, they will say that it was probably done by a British scientist. I am not sure what to make of this, especially because it is not only in Russia - another student said there are lots of Czech jokes about British scientists as well. Not really complementary, but definitely interesting.

Is the basement infested with asbestos?

On the whole, I think it is. I looked online at some photos of asbestos cladding around pipes, and it looks like what is in the basement of the общежитие by the washing machine room. The pipes that have fibres flaking off them continuously. Since I have been walking by these pipes four times a week for the last six months, this is less than ideal. It also means I should probably do the rest of my washing by hand in my room. I tried this last week and it made me very grateful for washing machines - it takes an age, the soap is a pain to get out of the clothes, and then you have to wait two days for everything to dry. On the other hand, it is a lot better than lung cancer.

There is a possibility that the whole building is, in fact, made of asbestos.