Monday, 23 April 2012

Tricking your brain into learning vocabulary

I like grammar. This may put me in the minority, but I think there's something fascinating about understanding how sentences work, and the ways you can twist and play with words and word order to emphasise different things. I love learning a new grammatical construct and then feeling that there is now a whole new group of thoughts I can express.

What I don't love is learning vocabulary - mainly because it can never, ever end. There are always more words to know, and as soon as you learn them, you will forget the old ones. I used to try and learn vocabulary in lists, but this is no good at all, because my brain outsmarts me and remembers the words in sequence rather than each one separately connected with a meaning. Thus I can tell you the Russian word for "prophetic", but only if you've just asked me to translate "to whine", because these words happened to come up in the same lesson at school. Clearly a non-starter.

Possibly the rest of the world has known this for years, but I came across a programme that temporarily gave me the lead in the arms race between me and my brain, by randomly asking me words from a list I have inputted. It then remembers which ones you got wrong and asks you them more frequently in the future compared with the words you got right. It also automatically assumes you will forget words after some time, so it repeats everything every month or so. In case anyone else would find it useful, it is called ProVoc, and you can download it for free here.

Of course, in the medium term my brain found a way of getting round this. It now appears to operate on a group basis instead of sequentially. So it now knows the word for "prophetic" only if we have been previously discussing words from the Chekov story Дама с собачкой (Dama s Sabachkoi - Woman with small dog).

Sunday, 22 April 2012

I have a spare cold war bunker to sell you...

What do you buy when your country starts selling off everything it owns, and it owns everything? This was a decision that various now-oligarchs had to make in the 1990s, and it turns out the correct answer was oil, metal or media companies. Everyone with the correct answer - pass go and collect a billion pounds (also the eternal hatred of most of your compatriots, but don't worry - you can always move to London).

Some people, however, made more...unusual, perhaps imaginative choices. For instance, at least one person decided that what they had always wanted was a bunker or two designed to withstand a nuclear attack. Preferably in a good location...ooh, and wouldn't it be nice if it had some fake marble pillars? "Fear not", said the government, "we have just the thing". A short while later, probably after slamming his head repeatedly into a wall for not going with aluminium smelting firms, said owner had to decide what to do with his 50-year-old metal tunnels under the ground. And the answer was....wait for it...a bar.

The best place for a party...a nuclear bunker with the shiniest red sofas money can buy
Unfortunately, that left him with another 7000 square metres of bunker to use. Having almost certainly bankrupted himself on red sofas, the cheapest thing was to leave the rest exactly as it was and then charge tourists for seeing it in the "original" state...and so the "Milestones of the Soviet Era" tour was born.

Actually, I'm both being unfair and conflating two separate bunkers, so I will now stop. The tour I went on spent five hours exploring two sets of bunkers - one built in the 1930s as a place for Stalin to escape to if the Germans entered Moscow, and one built in the 1950s to ensure continuity of government and telecommunications in the event of an American nuclear attack. Since they were both in Moscow, I couldn't help thinking that the former was fairly useless - if the Germans entered Moscow, surely the obvious thing would be to leave Moscow completely and retreat eastwards, not just across town.

According to the tour guide, whose had a bit of a thing for Stalin's "leadership", the whole of the Moscow metro was built as a cover for the construction of a series of underground command points, bomb shelters and storage facilities that began in 1933 when Hitler came to power. [Part of the preparations was a factory that could go from making pasta to making gunpowder in fifteen minutes, which I think is utterly brilliant]. A plan to build a massive 120,000-seater stadium and sports complex near Измайловский (Izmailovsky), a former imperial hunting lodge, was used to distract from the immense amount of work needed to build a back-up central command post there. Ultimately the bunker was finished, but work on the stadium was abandoned in 1939 and never restarted. It is now one of those bizarre places filled with small kebab shops that make everyone wonder who on earth would come all this way for a kebab. [Answer based on what I saw: no one] Underneath the stadium is a series of tunnels and rooms, including parking spaces and fuel for 150 tanks. What they actually let you see is the main conference room (the first room you come into) and the two rooms on either side of it - Stalin's study and his dining room, and then a couple of rooms now used for conferences/ as a cafe.

Unfinished stadium used as cover for the building of the bunker. Complete with guns on the field to shoot the losers.

Main conference room in the bunker with fake marble pillars (actually I think these are rather good - I still want to learn Venetian plastering).

The conference room has a special dome over the circular table so that Stalin's voice, which was naturally very quiet, would be amplified without him needing to strain himself. Facing away from the entrance, to the left was Stalin's study, which contained a desk, couch, map of the front, strange multi-player chess-like gaming-table and pictures of Lenin, Marx and Engels (the latter two look almost identical).

Stalin's desk in his office. There is a map of the front behind him, and Lenin's picture keeping an eye on him to his right.

It looks like something Gandalf would play, but it was actually it was one of Stalin's favourite games.

To the right was the dining room, which Stalin had decorated to look like a Georgian tavern, because he liked those. He also apparently liked artistic representations of himself, because pictures and sculptures of him were everywhere. I like busts on pillars, but personally I would have chosen my favourite Roman emperor (Julian II). However, there's no accounting for taste, especially Stalin's, who appears not to not have had any at all, judging from the monstrosity of a statue in one of the adjoining rooms. If you can look at the picture and not think, "what the hell is that?", there is something wrong with you. I may be being too harsh though - the heads may have been added later by the guide, who, as I said, was a fan.

Stalin: A man fond of Georgian taverns...and his own head

Irrefutable proof that having near-unlimited dictatorial power does not bring you taste

The bunker was linked to the Kremlin in Moscow by a 10 mile underground road. The plan was that Stalin would come here from the centre of town, and then either stay and work here (this is what actually happened in December 1941 when the Germans were bearing down on Moscow), or, if this was too dangerous, he had one of three options. Plan A was to fly out from the airfield next door. Plan B, in the case of bad weather, was to leave on the secret underground railway to the East. Plan C, in case of bad weather and the train breaking down, was to fight the Germans to the death using his 150 tanks. Not a bad set of plans.

The other set of bunkers, which is located near Таганская metro station (Taganskaya) was built in the 1950s when the possibility of the US launching a nuclear strike on Moscow seemed like a real threat. From an unassuming entrance off a quiet street, you then pass through a 50cm thick, 6-ton door before descending 60m (18 storeys) to the tunnel system. The depth of the bunker hit everyone at the same time, around the -10 storey mark on the staircase we were walking down, as the group suddenly realised that we would have to WALK UP the same way to get out. There was grim silence from that point on.

The tunnels and rooms are mostly empty, because in the 1980s the government decided to repair and update all the technology in them, and this was still going on when the funding dried up in 1990. At this point the whole project was mothballed until they sold off the bunkers, but there are a couple of rooms that have been reconstructed - including one with a reproduction nuclear-missile-launching interface, where you can go through the motions of pushing the red button and then watch an American city being blown into smithereens on a large screen above you. I'm not sure whether this is meant to be fun or not. As I am really pretty fond of America, I found it moderately disturbing.


The most depressing working environment ever

Work on repairing and updating the tunnels was called off in 1990 half-way through the process
This is where they ran into the seven dwarves coming from the opposite direction
Pretending to launch nuclear missiles against the US...what larks!

Now you see why the place needed updating

Desk of telecommunications operator. The machine on the right is for morse code, complete with little tapping thing.

We eventually emerged from more tunnels into the bar, where we were served a traditional meal of beef, buckwheat, tea and vodka. It was pretty good, but getting back to ground level was even better. Being in a bunker, even for a few hours, makes me realise how much I like grass and trees and the sound of birds, and how quickly I would go insane if I were trapped underground. And not just because I have seen The Descent.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Update: Why Putin is a crab

So I am now in a position to be able to tell you why Putin is a crab. He gave a press conference a while back during which he stated that he had been working "как раб" (like a slave), but several journalists, either accidentally or otherwise, misheard him. They thought he said he had been working "как краб" (like a crab), and reported his words as such. Cue internet proliferation of pictures with Putin's head superimposed on the body of a crab.

Diction is very important for politicians.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Google and what people want to know

If the futility of life is starting to get you down, and you feel yourself sympathising with Pechorin more than is strictly healthy, I suggest you look to Google to restore your affection for the human race. I like to type in "why" to Google, because it then suggests the most popular continuations of this question. These questions form the current preoccupations of humanity (or those parts of humanity with access to a computer). And then I like to do this in different languages to see if it makes a difference:
 
Country
Why…?
Why am I…?
US
…is the sky blue?
…so tired?
UK
…is the sky blue?
…always tired?
Russia
…is the sky blue?
…an idiot?
Germany
…is a blonde standing at Hamburg port?
…so happy?
Spain
…because?
…a Christian?/ sad?
Italy
…is Picnik closing?
…a vegetarian?
France
…is the sky blue?
…single?
Australia
…pay more?
…so tired?

These are the most popular questions. Spain gets two answers because of the two verbs "to be" (assuming my limited memory of Spanish is correct). Picnik is a photo-sharing website, and I think the German question about a blonde is part of a joke.

I'm sure you could do this for hours, but I don't know any more languages. I tried doing this with Google translate for some countries, but you never know with Google translate. Either their translation is off or the Greeks are googling why Greece was given the opportunity to rise up against their government and attain the 5th dimension, whatever that means. Although I suppose rising up against the government possibly IS what the Greeks are googling.

The reason for the sky being blue appears to interest a lot of people - this question was at No. 1 in US, UK, Russia and France, No. 2 in Spain and Australia, and No. 3 in Germany and Italy. It was the only question all countries had in common, although variations of "why am I so tired?" were also quite common, appearing at Nos 1 and 4 in the US, 1 and 2 in the UK, No. 2 in Spain and Italy, and No. 4 in Germany. The French and the Russians apparently get enough sleep. 

Anyway, the point of all this is that you see how much you have in common with the rest of the human race, i.e. most of them are exhausted as well. The Spanish are depressed - "why am I so sad" appeared at numbers 1 and 3, and the French are lonely - "why am I single" appeared at number 1 and "why am I alone" at number 2. And the Russians are all voting for Putin...well, maybe. "Why am I voting for Putin" was actually higher than "why am I an idiot", but I ruled this out because, judging by the results, I think it is a statement rather than a question, i.e. it should be read as "why I am voting for Putin". The second most popular question beginning with "why?" in Russian was literally "Why is Putin a crab?" but since this doesn't make any sense, there must be something I am missing. It's not zodiac signs, but it must be something.

Oleg Menshikov (Олег Меньшиков)

Last Tuesday I went to the theatre to see my favourite Russian actor, Олег Меньшиков (Oleg Menshikov). It wasn't a play, more of a monologue of him talking about what music has meant to him throughout his life, accompanied by a band playing his favourite pieces. I didn't understand a single word he said, because his usual talking speed seems to be about fifty times that of a normal person, but the music was nice, and it was interesting to see him in person rather than on TV.

I can't think of who the equivalent of Oleg Menshikov is in the UK or US, possibly because I am appalling bad at anything to do with modern life. When I moved back to the UK in 2009 I kept seeing all these headlines about someone called Cheryl Cole, a person I had never previously heard of, and after a month I was so annoyed that I actually had to google her. But it's also possible that no equivalent to Oleg Menshikov exists, and this is because (trying not to sound like a teenage fan here), he is really, really talented. He speaks French and English as well as Russian, he dances, he sings and he plays the guitar and the piano and God knows what else. And when I say he plays the piano, he doesn't just play it a bit, he REALLY plays the piano. I think he must have a clause in every film contract he signs that he gets to play the piano, just to show off how good he is.

One of my favourite of his films is called Восток Запад (East West), in which he stars with another actor called Sergei Bodrov Jr (now sadly deceased). Sergei Bodrov Jr had a PhD in Art History. He wrote his thesis on "Architecture in the Venetian Renaissance Painting". So there are several (well, at least two) super-intelligent and cultured Russian actors. It's people like this that make you feel like a failure as a human being.

Back to the theatre. The female spectators outnumbered the men by about 30:1, and at the end of the performance so many people went up to the front to give him flowers, that he couldn't carry them all, and had to go and put them down and come back on stage and carry on collecting bouquets. He had to do this three times. Three times! That is what you call popularity. But what does he do with all the flowers?

Sunday, 15 April 2012

On the edges of the midnight Easter service

Happy Russian/Orthodox Easter! Orthodox communities, unlike Catholics and Protestants, use the old Julian calendar to calculate moveable feast dates such as Easter, in order to comply with Canon Seven of the Holy Apostles and various other decrees that state Easter should never coincide with Jewish Passover, which it does sometimes in the Gregorian calendar used in the West. This means that Orthodox Easter is anything from 1-5 weeks after Catholic/Protestant Easter. [Somewhat confusingly, fixed feast days are calculated according to either the new (Gregorian) or old (Julian) calendar, depending on the country - hence Christmas in Greece is on the 25th of December (Gregorian), whereas in Russia it is on the 7th of January (Julian), despite the fact that both are Orthodox countries. Still, it is simpler than pre-1918, when the whole of Russia was permanently thirteen days behind the rest of the world for everything.]

Easter is the most important festival in the Russian Orthodox church, so I decided to go to the midnight service at the church next to my общежитие, to see what happened. I was warned beforehand to try and stay close the door so that I could escape if I wanted to, because although no one seemed to know exactly how long the service might last for, the general view was that it could go on all night. In the end I stayed for 2.5 hours and then left, because the whole thing seemed to be going in circles, both literally and figuratively (the same music and chants kept coming up again and again, and the priests and associated people kept rushing round and round the edges of the church carrying staffs and incense whilst crying "Христос воскресе" - Kristos voskrese - Christ is risen). This is not meant to be offensive - I am sure it all had a theological purpose, but since I didn't know what that was, it seemed to me a bit repetitive. Plus the whole thing was in Old Slavonic and not Russian, so I couldn't understand anything. Nevertheless, the service was beautiful, and I been humming the chants from it all day. [And just so you know, it wasn't rude to leave early - Orthodox services are more informal than in the Catholic or Protestant churches, with people entering and leaving as they like throughout the whole service. I checked this both with locals and with books about Orthodox Christianity, and both sets of sources said it was fine to leave early.]

My impressions of the service are naturally going to be very shallow, because I don't really know anything about Christian rites. To start off with, at the gates to the church compound were a collection of people asking to alms, and most people gave them money before fighting their way into the church to buy candles, and then fighting their way out again and trying to find someone with a lighter. Inside the church there was some sort of ceremony going on, complete with chanting, and then at midnight the church bells all rang and the priest, deacons and other related people came down from the altar carrying icons, staffs and such-like, and everyone piled out of the church after them. We all then processed around the church, during which time the priest chanted something, and people periodically joined in, presumably in a call-and-response thing. The procession was very beautiful in the dark, what with everyone carrying candles, and a lot of people had lined up on the fire escapes of the next-door общежитие to take pictures. When we got back to the church, the service continued, but to be honest, it was impossible to see what was happening, there were so many people. Outside the church a small boy kept yelling out "Христос воскресе" (Christ is risen), to which everyone else shouted back "Воистину воскресе" (Truly, He is risen), but I don't think this was part of the service, since the boy in question had a rather bored tone, and in between these declarations spent his time swinging round a metal pole in the courtyard.

There are three main dangers inherent in this kind of service - being crushed, fainting, and being set on fire. The first happens because the service was incredibly popular, and the church wasn't that big. There were probably 500-600 people trying to get into a space really only big enough for 200 or so. A lot of people stood outside in the courtyard in front of the church, but enough people were trying to get into, or out of the church, that at times I could hardly breathe for being squashed between the wall and the crowd. I don't know how popular services are normally, but judging by how happy the priests looked last night, the attendance on non-feast days may be lower.

Related to this crowding is the second problem of fainting. Since there are no seats in Orthodox churches, everyone has to stand, and when the churches are very crowded, the place can get uncomfortably hot and airless. This would be less of a problem if the services were short, but unfortunately Russian services are notoriously lengthy. When Paul of Aleppo arrived in Russian in the 17th century, he wrote in his diary, "And now we are entered on our travail and anguish...God help us for the length of their prayers and chants and Masses". And bear in mind he was still Orthodox, just from Syria. How well people cope with these conditions is a matter of opinion. According to a book I read, one of the amazing things about Orthodox services is that old women and children manage to stand for hours on end without any sign of fatigue, but I think this is a bit optimistic - three people fainted during the Christmas service my room mate went to in January, and last night there was an ambulance waiting outside the church I attended.

To be fair, the ambulance could also have been there in case of the third danger - being set on fire. Candles are a big part of Orthodox services, and 90% of the people at the service were carrying some sort of naked flame - mostly small taper candles stuck through pieces of paper to catch the drips, but occasionally oil lamps, and in the case of one old woman, who was clearly not going to be outdone by anyone, a torch. And no, we're no talking the electric kind, but the Indiana Jones kind. So you have a lot of people carrying naked flames within a small area, and periodically bowing to the altar...you can see how this could end badly, even though people were generally very careful about shielding their candles. Perhaps unavoidably, the fur hood of the girl standing next to me was set on fire, but it got swatted out pretty quickly, and only the smell of burnt hair was left to mingle with the incense from the thuribles (although the girl was very unimpressed with the man responsible for the offending candle). The moral of this story is that you shouldn't wear anything flammable to church - concentrating on the service is that much harder when you're trying to remember what medical insurance you have, and debating whether you could get your headscarf off quickly enough to avoid serious burns if it went up in flames.

Obviously on a much grander scale, and it jumps around a lot in time, but here is some video of the service in Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, attended by Putin and Medvedev. The thing they're all shouting at around 3mins is "Воистину воскресе" - truly He is risen, at 5mins 30secs the Patriarch is giving Medvedev and Putin Easter eggs (but not chocolate ones, which don't exist here), and at 8mins 15secs the XB on the red decoration stands for Христос воскресе - Christ is risen. I didn't take my camera to the service I went to because I thought it would be disrespectful, but I actually think it was more beautiful there, possibly because it was for ordinary people rather than VIPs and TV cameras.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The best Russian western

I don't think many people truly dislike westerns. There's something incredibly appealing about the independence of the people in them, and who hasn't dreamed of (literally) riding off into the sunset? I even took horse riding lessons so that if I ever get the chance to do so, I will be able to take it (although I'm not actually very good, so if the horse starts galloping I will probably be too worried about hanging on for dear life to notice that I am fulfilling a life-long dream). Of course, there aren't many (any?) British westerns, and you might think that there wouldn't be any Russian ones either, but this would be WRONG.

What many people think of as the best Russian western (sometimes called an eastern, ho ho ho) was made way back in 1969, and is called Белое Солнце Пустыни (Bieloe Solntze Pusteeni - White Sun of the Desert). It tells the story of a Red Army soldier Comrade Sukhov who, having been discharged from fighting the Whites in the civil war, is making his way home from the deserts of Central Asia to the green fields of Russia. Or trying to, at least, because he keeps having to stop to dig up people who have been buried to their necks in the sand and left to die. He befriends the fourth person he digs up, Sayeed, and together they get roped into helping out a Red Army cavalry unit...

The film is considered a classic of Soviet cinema, and is often watched by cosmonauts before they blast into space, which isn't something you can say about most films. I really liked it, especially the character of the customs officer, who was played by a famous Ukrainian-Russian-Armenian actor called Pavel Luspekayev, in his final role before he died of peripheral vascular disease. Apparently he's everyone's favourite character in the movie, so at least I'm in good company (although technically, I suppose, also bad company). A lot of the best lines, however, go to Sukhov, and some of these have become so famous they have entered everyday speech, including what to say when you don't want to hear any objections ("Вопросы есть? Вопросов нет!" - are there any questions? No there aren't), a pathetic catch-all excuse ("Да гранаты у него не той системы" - his grenades are the wrong type - although Sukhov doesn't say this himself - pathetic excuses are not his style), and what to say when you are given the choice between death and torture ("лучше, конечно, помучиться" - torture is better, of course). You never know when such phrases will come in handy.

Obviously being set in a different culture at a different time means there are some major differences between US westerns and this film. For a start, whereas in westerns you often get the girl who from the outset is condemned to die because she once dated the main baddie, here you get the harem of the main baddie, all of whom wear burqas (actually apparently yashmaks, but it's still a full-body cloak), which does put a slightly different spin on things.

This link is to the entire film, complete with English subtitles for non-Russian speakers. Or if you can't be bothered with all that, here is a "trailer" that covers the whole plot without using any words.


The Moscow Metro

The Moscow metro is the most beautiful underground system I have ever seen (which actually isn't saying much, but just pretend it is). You can tell how impressive people find it because many of the videos about it on YouTube are set to soaring, dramatic music (think 2001 Space Odyssey type stuff). I don't know if YouTube music is generally an accurate guide to reality, but in this case it definitely is.

Every station is unique, and they encompass a wide range of different artistic styles. That's the most pretentious I'm going to sound, because I know precisely nothing about art. But the point is that there really is art in the stations - a couple of years ago when the BBC made a programme about the history of Russian art, the presenter lay down on the floor of the Moscow metro to look at the mosaics in the ceiling. In general, to my untrained eyes, they have a lot of differently shaped light fittings, and a lot of mosaics and stained glass. For some reason they remind me of ancient Rome, possibly because I can't separate mosaics from Rome in my head, and possibly because Rome was another place where people lived in very cramped and none-too-nice apartments, but had some incredible public spaces.

So here, without further ado, is the a video of some of the stations. Whoever made it missed out most of the stations in the interests of time (both your time watching it, and, I imagine, his/her time traipsing round all the stations at the crack of dawn to get pictures when hardly anyone is there), but it gives you an idea:



I know what you're thinking - how do they keep the floors so shiny? The answer is, unsurprisingly, lots of polishing - very often you will see people sweeping or polishing the floors with those little machines that look like lawnmowers you sit on. And if you don't see them they will run you over, so it's best to keep a look out.

This isn't everything. Not content with beating the rest of the world in the beauty stakes, the Russians have also beaten everyone else in the how-frequently-trains-arrive stakes, and the price stakes. You know those displays on the Underground in London that tell you how long until the next train arrives (the ones that seem to think one minute lasts for five)? Well they don't need them here because you never have to wait that long for a train. The longest I have ever waited was three minutes. And the cost for my unlimited monthly pass? Around £7.50 (less than $12). Compare that with £78.40 for a student monthly Oyster pass. Considering Moscow is supposed to be one of the most expensive cities in the world (and the price of food here really is extortionate), I have no idea how they manage it.

[A lot of people seem to think this is still too much to pay. If you don't feel like paying, you can walk through the ticket gates, which will play a short tune that is also used by ice-cream vans in the UK, and then shut themselves. However, since the barrier is only knee high, you can jump over it no problem. If you are unlucky, the lady whose job it is to stop people doing this will blow a whistle, but movement is absolutely out of the question.] 

The only problem with the metro is getting down to it. For this, you need to open two sets of doors. You can see how the design process went - it's cold here and the stations are heated: we need doors. Ninety-nine percent of people are incapable of shutting doors: the doors must shut automatically. Every second the doors stay open we lose warmth and have to pay more for heating: the doors must shut as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, they tried to reduce t, the time the doors stay open, to zero, and to do this used some very heavy doors on some very tightly-wound springs. The result is a death trap. People here nearly always hold open the door for the next person, because if they don't it will smack the poor guy in the face as it accelerates backwards. You could knock someone out like this. If you are behind a very rude person who doesn't hold the door open, on no account try to catch the door - your arm may be wrenched out of its socket. Instead you need to treat it like obstacle course. Wait for it to swing back, run through afterwards. By now the rude person will have gone through the next set of doors. Wait for these to swing back too, and run through. If the door is shut and you need to open it, it is best to take a couple of steps back and ram it with your shoulder, as though you are trying to break down a door in a film. Standing next to it and pushing will just make you look like a fool. So, perhaps not ideal, but since the designers were right about people never shutting doors, it's difficult to see what else they could have done.

The authorities are still expanding the Metro - recently they announced five new stations to be opened by 2015, which would bring the total to 190. It is the world's second most-heavily-used rapid transit system after the Tokyo subway, carrying an average of 6.6 million people a day (2009 figure), versus around 2.9 million a day for the London Underground (2009) and 4.4 million in New York (2010). Plus it has a 99.96% timetable fulfillment, which is really throwing down the gauntlet, considering that in 2006 the average Metropolitan line commuter wasted 3 days, 10 hours and 25 minutes due to delays. Furthermore, if you are going to be delayed, wouldn't you rather be delayed in somewhere that looks like a palace?

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: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/2470310/Sexual-harrassment-okay-as-it-ensures-humans-breed-Russian-judge-rules.html

Monday, 2 April 2012

Russian Winnie the Pooh

I have never actually seen or read the US/UK version of Winnie the Pooh (Винни Пух), because, in general, I like neither stuffed animals nor idiots, and Winnie the Pooh seemed to be a nightmarish combination of the two, a primitive version of Jar Jar Binks. However, we watched the Russian version in class, and I may have been totally wrong about the whole thing, because I think this version is fantastic. It is VERY famous in Russia - everyone has seen it and people can quote from it at length (I tested this on several people and it is true).

The interesting thing is that Pooh looks totally different from the way he does in the Disney film - he looks a lot more like a real bear, complete with claws - maybe because here, they have real bears, so they know what they look like. He is still supposed to be a toy though, and is stuffed with sawdust, which would make for one very hard toy. I wouldn't want some child to playfully hit me round the head with what is, essentially, a block of wood. There are a few other differences: Piglet is called Pitachok, because his head looks like an old 5-kopek piece, and Eeyore is called Eea, because this is the sound donkeys make in Russian [a comparison of animal noises in different languages is very interesting, and I keep meaning to try and compile a list. I spent a whole lunchtime comparing animal noises with a Pole, a Japanese girl and an Italian, and they appear to be different in every language, sometimes to the point where you have no idea what kind of animal someone is impersonating].

For this, you don't even need to sign up for the fabulous В Контакте, because it is all on You Tube. There are three episodes, but the third one is by far the best. Here is a version with English subtitles (the Russian is pretty fast at times).

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73uIn56G1YE&feature=related
Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtVVRuy1T9c&feature=relmfu

Of course, it's not perfect. They do the stupid thing where they all laugh together at the end, something I have always found intensely irritating (Thundercats was a particularly egregious offender, I seem to recall). Almost as annoying as jolly peasants (another one of my pet hates).

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.

Kitchen
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 russianstove.com (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.

A Hollywood producer in Moscow

On Friday I went to a talk by a Hollywood producer who has lived in Moscow for the past ten years. He was what people used to call "a singular gentleman", but (or perhaps because of this?) he had some interesting stories to tell about his experiences working with and for the super-rich in Russia.

A brief outline of his life: He grew up poor in Beverly Hills, jealous of the lifestyle of his more privileged friends, and started work straight out of high school. Over the next twenty years he started various businesses, always with the aim of finding something that would make him rich. Unfortunately, nothing he turned his hand to was successful for more than a couple of years, and he ended up coming to Moscow in the late 90s with the idea of being a link between Hollywood and the Russian film industry. The financial crisis in '98 put a bit of dampener on things, but eventually he got himself hired to bring an American movie star to the Moscow Film Festival. Since then he has made a living arranging for film stars and singers to attend the birthday parties/film festivals/business openings (delete as appropriate) of wealthy Russians, with the occasional sideline into helping out rich people from other countries. Basically, if you have a lot of money, live within the borders of the old Soviet Union, and want to meet a movie star, this is the guy you call.

He has brought more eighty "stars" to Russia and related countries over the last ten years. Most of them wanted to visit Moscow strip clubs and also Red Square, to experience the illicit thrill of standing at the heart of [former] enemy country and reminisce about how they watched tanks rolls across it when they were children. He has arranged parties for members of the Gaddafi family, the wife of the President on Azerbaijan, various Russian bankers and oligarchs (who appear to have really long birthday parties - all the parties described were multi-day events - does everyone really go for the entire time?), and, perhaps strangest of all, he arranged for Ramzan Kadyrov to meet Jean Claude Van Damme and Hilary Swank. He joked that this last one didn't make him very popular with the human rights people. Ho ho ho. Those pesky human rights people.

Anyway, these are a few snippets of advice from his talk:

1. If you life is threatened, ring up your Chechen mates
Whilst arranging one event, some Russian gangsters tried to shake him down. They told him that if he didn't give them half the money he was being paid he would never leave Russia alive. So he phoned up one of his Chechen friends, who lent him a couple of his people to take with him to the park where he was supposed to hand over the money. When they arrived and the Russians were told whose people he had with him, they apologised, said the whole thing had been a mistake and that of course they didn't want his money. The Chechens said they thought it must have been a mistake, but just to make sure everyone understood the situation, they told the Russians that if anything happened to this guy [the producer] they would hunt them down and kill them all.

2. If you want to get to know people (and if you don't, you should), open a restaurant
The only reason anyone opens restaurants is to meet people. It is the best way to make contacts quickly, and it means you can hang out and people will come to you, instead of you needing to traipse around the whole city. Of course, this does mean that your interests are not aligned with those of the people putting up the money for the restaurant, but hey, more fool them.

3. Speaking Russian is totally unnecessary
He claimed to negotiate business deals with people in Russian, without speaking a word of the language, and only finding out after the fact what he had agreed to. This cannot possibly be true. People here are smart and would take him apart in about five seconds.

4. To avoid having to pay bribes, make friends with the Head of the FSB
Actually, I thought this was inspired. He was asked whether he paid bribes, and he said he had never paid a bribe in Russia (which he had to say, really, being a US citizen). The way he avoided it was by making friends with the Head of the FSB, and having a photograph of him and various Chechen people on the wall of his office. Then, whenever anyone came to see him, he would find a way to bring these friendships into the conversation, and hey presto, no one dared ask him for any money.

The main problem with what he said was that you had to stop after every sentence and consider whether you believed him or not. If you're a salesman, especially if what you are selling is your network, it pays to exaggerate what you have done and who you have met. Probably half of what he said never happened. But even so, this man's world is so far removed from anything I have ever, or will ever, encounter, that it seems incredible that both his life and mine are taking place in the same city. Moscow is an interesting place.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Большой Театр

I have been to the Bolshoi twice recently - once to see Ruslan and Ludmilla, and once to see Boris Godunov. I don't know what it looked like before the restoration, but now it is stunningly beautiful. As the BBC reported at the time, the renovation cost half a billion pounds, and took six years. They cleaned everything using vodka and squirrel tails (huh?), and replaced the frescos and gold leaf. I am not generally a fan of too much gold - I think it can look very heavy and over the top, but the effect in the Bolshoi is not like that - the place is light and sparkling.


The tickets are also a fraction of the price you pay in Covent Garden. The most expensive grade of tickets, barring I suppose what I guess used to be the royal box, cost around £100 if you buy them on the website of the Bolshoi itself (which most foreigners don't - they use tour companies instead and hence pay much more). In Covent Garden you would be paying double that on a normal night. The main problem is getting your hands on tickets, which can sell out months in advance. When the theatre reopened in October last year there was a big fuss made about tickets for the earliest shows, because ticket touters paid homeless people to stand in line all night so they could be the first to get hold of tickets.

So if you are ever in Moscow, I definitely recommend going to see something here. The sets were gorgeous, the music was amazing, and the audience appreciative (well, for Boris Godunov anyway. Ruslan and Ludmilla was a done in a modern setting complete complete with naked people wandering around the stage for no apparent reason, and so was a bit odd). Plus the subtitles are in English, so you can understand what is going on.

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.

The joys of В Контакте

Russians don't really use Facebook that much, instead they have В Контакте. I have no idea if this is better for keeping in touch with your friends, but it is a lot more useful for learning languages. On В Контакте you can watch films, TV shows, music videos etc etc, in Russian, for free. This is probably illegal but people seem quite relaxed about copyright here. Currently I am watching the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast in Russian whilst trying to read Lermontov. The songs are pretty distracting, because since I know all the words in English (and why not?), I keep trying to predict how they will translate them whilst trying to keep the rhymes (like "large" and "barge" when Gaston is singing about how many eggs he eats).

But the best thing so far about В Контакте is a Russian soap opera set at the beginning of the 19th century called Бедная Настя. It's weirdly addictive, a bit like Sunset Beach (with similar production values and believability of story lines). I think it was made for the hard-of-thinking, because everyone speaks really slowly, so I can actually understand what they are saying. Plus, like Sunset Beach, nothing ever happens. You can skip four or five episodes and the same people will still be in the same room talking about the same thing, which means lots of repetition of vocabulary. One girl spent three episodes complaining about being locked in her room, trying to pick the lock with a variety of knitting needles, combs, hair pins etc, before it occurred to her that she could just climb out the window. Another scene involved a serf theatre rehearsing Romeo and Juliet in Russian, with the барин yelling at some poor serf girl about how could she not know the balcony scene - EVERYONE knows the balcony scene. I can't think of any British soap operas where people quote Shakespeare (although to be fair, this may be because I don't watch any British soap operas). Yes, so Бедная Настя is fantastic, even if they do dance to pop music at their balls.


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.

Maslenitsa!


This was three weeks ago, but I’ve only just managed to borrow a cable to transfer my photos from my camera to my computer. Maslenitsa is a week long religious and folk festival before the start of Orthodox lent. It may have originally been a festival to celebrate the Sun and the end of winter. Nowadays it is the last week in which Christians are allowed to eat milk, cheese and other dairy products before Lent, so people make pancakes all week long.

I went with my roommate to Suzdal, a town on the Golden Ring. Suzdal is the Russian version of Lacock, in that it has been protected from development and hence is used in all period dramas, with the locals often roped in as extras.

We got there on the Friday night, after an epic journey from Moscow bus station that took us 6 hours and involved passing three car crashes, all to cover the same distance as from London to Nottingham. I suppose this is why the oligarchs have helicopters. On the Saturday morning though, the horrendous journey seemed worth it. Suzdal was covered in snow, and not the way Moscow is where it looks like someone has spray painted the snow deep brown, but snow like in movies, which somehow never gets dirty or slushy.

Nativity of the Virgin Cathedral

Believe it or not there a river in this picture


We traipsed down to the open air architecture museum, where the day began with a parade that involved some people in traditional costume and other people dressed as geese, followed by Round 1 in the Goose Fighting competition. Unfortunately, these geese were lovers not fighters, so it took a lot of coaxing from their keepers before they started biting each other. As I understand it, technically it is supposed to go to First Blood, but the audience got bored way before that and started yelling, so the organisers ended the fight and determined the winner based on points (I have no idea how that works). 

Next came climbing up a pole to grab a prize stuck at the top. Presumably for reasons of increased grip, most participants seemed to think this was best done wearing as few clothes as possible. I should note that it was pretty cold, probably twelve below zero or something, with a biting wind, and it snowed pretty much non-stop. If you made it to the top, apart from the adoration of the crowd, you got a roast goose. 

How to get hypothermia in pursuit of a goose
 
Throughout the day there was traditional music and dancing, sledging, rides in horse-drawn sleighs, a game which involved hitting your opponent with a pillow until they fell off a log, and a never-ending tug-of-war. There were no teams, passers by just piled in on whichever side looked like losing, and then left when they had had enough, to be replaced immediately by others. And whenever it all got too cold, you could buy hot pancakes and tea, spiced wine or sbiten, a honey-based drink. Alternatively you could go and sit in the wooden church, which was warm (this option was very popular).

Trying to knock your friend off a log with a pillow

Jingle bells

Not sure why there was a sword fight but hey...

Massive snowball fight which resulted in the total destruction of the snowhouse (this was the aim)

The following day was pretty much the same but in a different location, and ended at around 4pm with the burning of the baba, a figure of a woman who personifies winter.  After that, everyone rapidly disappeared, and we were left with another mammoth journey back to Moscow, during which we left one person behind after stopping for a toilet break in the middle of nowhere.  Travelling in Russia is not without risk.

Goodbye, Winter!