Monday, May 20, 2013

Until Next Time St. Pete

Me, Raymond, and Olivia in front of the Russian Museum
As my last days in Russia slowly dwindled down, I looked back on my experience, appreciating this Russia for what I’ve learned, how I’ve changed as a person, and what I’ve been blessed to see in this country. In a final ditch attempt to wind up my experience and say До Свидания (dasvidanya- Russia for farewell) to Russia, my friends and I took a boat tour on the canals of St. Petersburg, gaining a whole new perspective of the city. And now I know why another name for St. Petersburg is the “Venice of the North.” There are three major canals and a river (the Neva) that wind their way through the brightly colored buildings of the city, but I had no idea that there were other smaller and less obvious branches of the canals that connected the four major waterways. It was the perfect way to relax before finals began. We casually floated by worn down palaces and marveled as we passed by a large blue and gold domed church that I had never seen before. It was such a peaceful and relaxing method of transportation in St. Petersburg- seeing for the last time the Church of Spilled Blood, Mikhailovsky Castle, Nickolsky Cathedral, and the Mariinsky Theater by cruise while sipping on wine was the perfect way to end my journey abroad in Russia. After my canal tour, my experience was all but over. I finished my exams, celebrated the end of the semester with friends and professors, packed my bags, and had one last dinner with my host family. I spent my last few hours in St. Pete with Olivia and Ray eating ice cream as we walked among the gardens of the Field of Mars and the Summer Field. Just before we left for the St. Pete airport at 3:00 am, we sat in front of the Tsar’s Winter Palace coming full circle. We had begun our semester four months ago by traveling to this famous local and now we ended our semester here once again. 

As we boarded our 5:00 am plane to Munich, I couldn’t help but think about how fortunate I have been to live in this city for four months. I have met some pretty incredible people, learned to live without readily available drinking water, and have been humbled by my ineptitude to make even the simplest transactions in Russian. The city itself is splendid and the culture fascinating. For me, many of the highlights of my experience involved interacting with the Russians themselves. Yes at times I became very frustrated with our cultures differences (I am mostly thinking about the times when store clerks refused to give change for bills as small as 200 rubles- the equivalent of 6 US dollars). But most of the time, I was vastly intrigued by the history, beauty, and complexity of a nation who has withstood significant periods of political and social turmoil. Even though I will forever have Catherine’s Winter Palace, the interior of the Church of Spilled Blood, and the Moscow Kremlin imprinted on my memory, I will also never forget the simple daily interactions of my life in Russia. Drinking tea around a samovar (ancient Russian version of a kettle), discussing international affairs with my host family while watching the Russian news, and learning about US-Russian foreign relations from a Russian perspective. These are the memories that have enhanced my cultural understanding and have challenged me to strive to understand major themes and events that guide the typical Russian perspective. In turn, my exhilarating experience in Russia has given me more patience, humbled me, but has also taught me to be more appreciative. I have always been and always will be an American Patriot, but  my time in Russia has opened my eyes to what defines American freedom. 

In order to better explain how lucky I am to be an American, I would now like to includes some of the tidbits about Russia that I thought were better to share after I left the country. First regards the news. Every days my host grandmother and I watched the news together during dinner. And let’s just say both her and I knew that not everything on the news could be trusted. For instance, at the beginning of the semester there was a massive scandal in Russia surrounding the death of a boy named Max Shatto in America. Max Shatto had been a young Russian boy adopted by an American family in Texas. Even before the autopsy in America had been released, Russian news organizations were claiming that Max had been beaten and poisoned. Either the Russian Intelligence Agency knew something no one else knew or the news was attempting to rile up anti-American national sentiment in order to gain support for their new law prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian orphans. My guess is the latter option...

Speaking of the Russian Intelligence Agency (FSB), I had the remarkable opportunity while in Moscow to go take a look at the headquarters of this post-KGB organization. The FSB headquarters are housed in an old prison, and not just any old prison: Lubyanka. Lubyanka was the Soviet era prison where thousands of prisoners waited before being shipped off to Siberia during Stalin’s era. In my opinion, it is very fitting that the modern day version of the Russian KGB now resides in the location where thousands of prisoners were tortured or sent to their Siberian dooms during Stalin’s regime. We of course did not dare to take pictures of the building, but it was very interesting to see four or five men smoking casually standing around the plaza smoking a cigarette. hmm, I wonder who they were? I’m thinking FSB agents keeping a check on street traffic. 

And then there were the moments during my study abroad program where my jaw literally dropped due to shock. One of these moments occurred during my political science course as we learned about the Russian judicial system and a case surrounding the Feminist Rock group band “Pussy Riot.” Several of the members of this group had been on trial for hooliganism. They had been arrested after performing anti- Putin (down with the dictator)rock music during a religious service in the largest Cathedral in Russia. Their arrest didn’t surprise me as much as their trial did. Before their trial began, the members of the band were set on display in a see-through prison cell. Jury members and the press walked by them as the members sat objectified by their piers. Can they really being innocent until proven guilty if they are seen immediately before the trial behind bars. This was Soviet era Show Case Trials at their finest. The “trial” took place and two of the women were sent to Siberia where they preform needle work to this day. Siberian work camps during the 21st century? Yes, this still occurs. At moments like this, I am not sure if the Russian Federation really is a new country or simply a newly modified version of the Soviet Union.

It is crystal clear to me that I live in a very special place- America. We are provided opportunities to advance in society and work hard in order to accomplish our wildest career goals. (Unlike in Russia were the sons and daughters of diplomats study abroad in Europe and are automatically given a coveted seat in the bureaucracy). As an American, I have the right to receive a fair trial. So yes, I love America, but that doesn’t mean that I still didn’t love Russia. The country is beautiful, the people are fascinating. Some of the aspects of Russia that I listed above both frightened and fascinated me. It helps me understand why Russia is still considered a semi-authoritarian nation to many. However, the beauty of Russia overruled all. Russia may not be as free as America and its culture may be entirely unique onto itself, but Russia’s cities, landscape, history, and people will always remain unforgettable to me. I know that St. Petersburg will hold a special place in my heart forever. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

An Overwhelming Connection to the Past

Veterans Parade on Victory Day- День Победы
As Americans, we learn the history of World War II, appreciate the sacrifice our soldiers made to securing our freedom, and feel pride in our country’s contribution to the war efforts. This  connection to WWII though reaches an entirely different emotional level for Russia. Known as the Great Patriotic War to Russians, the significance of this WWII hits very close to home for Russians. An estimated 25 millions Russians died during the war, at least one million of these deaths occurred in St. Petersburg during the Leningrad Siege. Every elderly person in the city knows someone who died during the war. Because of this, living with my host grandmother has made me feel especially more connected to WWII in general. After living in this city where I am reminded almost everyday of the sacrifices the people of St. Petersburg made to ensure their own freedom, I can’t help but have a more emotional connection to the history and sacrifices of WWII. 

Peterhoff and the fountains
And this is why День Победы, Victory Day March 9th the day WWII came to an end for Russia, is the most important day in Russia. I was lucky enough to celebrate this victory with the rest of Russia. The celebrations started off at 10:00am in Palace Square where thousands of people gathered to watch a military parade complete with tanks. Unfortunately, my friends and I did not find a spot to watch so we decided to travel to a the suburb of St. Pete, Peterhoff, to see the lovely summer palace of the Tsars. This place is incredible and a must if you ever travel to St. Petersburg. The palace is actually known as “The Russian Versailles” due to its similarity to the French Palace. The highlight of the palace is, hands down, the boulevard of cascading waterfalls. I can’t even describe the opulence of rows upon rows of gold encrusted statues sprouting water, so I included a picture. And to top it off, we witnessed mid day fireworks over the palace and waterfalls in honor of Victory Day. Seeing this palace in all it’s glory now is a perfect symbol of this Victory - the Nazis destroyed the palace and fountains during WWII. Now the palace is simply glistening, a far cry from only several decades ago. 

After Peterhoff, we traveled back to the city in time to see the grand spectacle of the day- The Veterans Parade along Nevsky Prospect. This parade truly touched my heart. Men and women who served on the front and suffered through the most horrific of times during the Leningrad Blockade walked along the prospect waving to spectators and proudly bearing their medals. Thousands of people watched and many even ran out onto the streets to give these veterans flowers. What a beautiful display of appreciate for those who suffered to provide Russia freedom from Fascist oppression. I will never forget the expressions on the veterans face after receiving the flowers and I will also never forget the pure atmosphere of the event- the gratitude, the pride, and the patriotism. Fortunately, the day ended on a perfect note. As the sun slowly began to fade, we watched fireworks cast off into the twilight sky over the Neva River and St. Peter and Paul Church. Interestingly, Russian fireworks making a booming sound before and after the fireworks light up the sky. The patriotism was simply resonating throughout the city. As we walked along Nevsky Prospect on our way home in the pouring rain, the energy was electric. Everyone chanted Россия! Россия! (Russia! Russia!) and waved the national flag. 

Fortress Oreshek
On the day following Victory Day, my friends and I traveled to the “off the beaten track” to a destination known as Fortress Oreshek. This fortress sits on an island located at the meeting point between the Neva River and Lake Lagoda. We couldn’t have picked a better day to tour this destination. During WWII, the Nazi forces were able to completely surround the city of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) except for this tiny island fortress. The fortress was one of the most significant locations on the Path to Life. During the winter, many Leningraders were able to evacuate the city and supplies were transported to Leningrad via this island. If Hitler would have successfully taken this island, Leningrad would have been entirely surrounded by enemy forces, resulting in the deaths of thousands if not a million further civilians. Exploring this significant location the day following Victory Day was truly memorable. Not only was the stark beauty of the island fortress haunting, but the red flowers strewn across the monuments on the island also presented a reminder of the lives lost defending the city. I will never forget this special last weekend in St. Petersburg. It is hard to imagine how damaging the war was in Europe especially. WWII was a civilian war, and the effects of this warfare could certainly be still seen in St. Petersburg today. This semester, I attempted to better understand the significance of this time period in Russia (or should I say the Soviet Union’s) history and the Russian people’s feelings toward the leader at the time Stalin. This weekend allowed me a glimpse of Russian’s perceptions regarding sacrifice and the war. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sochi and the 2014 Winter Olympics

Sochi Airport with the Olympic Rings 

Before receiving the bid for hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics thereby gaining international recognition, Sochi had been a resort town primarily for wealthy Russian oligarchs and bureaucrats. Now, the city has opened itself to the scrutiny of the world. And let me say I am a bit worried about it’s progress as Olympic Season approaches. The region itself has the potential of some of the most  popular mediterranean areas, but as many of us American students have claimed Sochi is an illusion of capitalism. Sochi is breathtakingly spectacular, but the resorts and hotels are very Russian, meaning that they were built in the 1970’s and have yet to be sufficiently remodled. For instance, our hotel claimed to have at least 7 restaurants, a fitness center, a nightclub, and a beach bar on the premises. All of these were closed, boarded up, and filled with defective furniture. The promenade was filled with restaurants and practically devoid of night life. Business could make a significant profit by increasing services, but Sochi (and Russia for that matter) hasn’t quite figured out capitalism like America has. 
The Caucasus- to the right of the peak: Abkhazia

On our fifth and final day in Sochi, we traveled to the locations of the upcoming Olympics when I became even more worried for the city. This Olympics has so far been the most expensive Olympics to construct in history, and they are not even finished. Traffic is terrible and there is currently a mass effort to build infrastructure and roads for those traveling to Sochi for the Olympics in less than 10 months. According to official statistics, only 77% of the roads have been complete, and many olympic complexes are still undergoing construction. I am sure Russia will get it together in time for the games, but with a result of a large deficit for the government. 

Olympic Alpine Village- Krasnaya Polyana
While looking at the sights, we passed by the Olympic village in Adler (a neighboring city of Sochi) and then drove up the mountains to the three down-hill Olympic sites in the Caucasus. There we stopped at the alpine resort Krasnaya Polyana. This was the most American experience I have ever had in Russia. The Russians completely built the entire mountain village in the last 4 years and it reminded me like any alpine village such as Whistler or Park City. My friends and I had delicious American chicken fingers for lunch at Park Inn resort owned by Radison. We also took a 40 minute gondola ride peak of the mountain. On the way up we saw the locations of the down hill skiing and mogul courses. It was also quite hilarious to see the areas where snow is being stockpiled just in case next winter is as warm as last winter (during this past February apparently there was not enough snow to ski on the olympic slopes). I was blown away by the peaks of the Caucasus Mountain Range and the gorges in Abkhazia. Sochi is a beautiful location to show the world about the wonders of southern Russia. Hopefully, construction will be completed and the winter weather is cold enough though!
Wine Tasting in the Caucasus

As my time in Sochi was starting to come to an end, our group quickly stopped by a Caucasian wine and honey tasting extravaganza. My friends and I bought a bottle of Georgian wine for the night - and let me tell you georgian wine may be the best wine I have ever had. We picked the sweet red wine even though the honey wine was also delicious. That night, we ended our journey in Sochi by drinking the Georgian wine on our hotel balcony and then on the beach shore as the sun set. Sochi’s beauty was more than I ever expected. I’m sorry that I had to leave this place after only 5 short days, but I have a lot to look forward to during my last week and a half in Russia. Time has flown and my time in Russia is almost at its end. 

I Almost Forgot How Much I Love NATURE! Sochi Take Two

Second Day in Sochi. Best Day in Sochi. An 11 km hike through one of Sochi’s most popular forests. Let me tell you though, I was a bit out of shape. The hike was rough and entirely uphill for the first hour and a half. As my friend Olivia commented, there were sections of the hike that involved more rock climbing than hiking. I’ve got to say that it was probably my second favorite hike ever. I may have liked the hike to the bottom of Bryce Canyon more, but it’s a close call. On our winding path through the forest, we marveled at hills covered with flowers, views of the sea, white cliffs, deep ravines, a fallen log bridge, murmuring streams, and a towering rock gorge (where I incidentally thought that I had been transported into an Indiana Jones film). And then my dream came true again, we swam in another waterfall pool! After I plunged into the waterfall and swam around for 30 seconds it was already time to get out. I’ve never been in colder water. We joked that after only 10 seconds in the water our breathing and stokes slowed and our vision blurred. Not really, but it was a close call. 

At the end of our hike, we were treated to a traditional Georgian lunch complete with pear juice, a loblani bean dish, the best cheese bread in history (hachipuri), humus, cheese, and meat filled polmeni (similar to dumplings). Georgian food is filled with delicious spices (especially the ‘“Georgian salsa”’ as I liked to call it). It was quite the amazing experience to eat this cuisine within a mile from the border between the heavily disputed territory known as Abkhazia and Russia. During my time in Sochi, I ate Georgian food at least 5 times, and I’ve got to say that I’m a fan. 

Tasting chai leaves at the chai plantation
Like everyday in Sochi, we rewarded ourselves with tropical cocktail while watching the sun set from a Black Sea Beach. The Caucasus are such a beautiful region of the world; the ability to hike through this region on only my second day in Sochi could easily  be considered one of my top 3 days in Russia. Good news: day 3 was almost as good as day 2. We woke up early and headed off to our shortest excursion- a trip to a tea plantation in the hills of the Caucasus. I learned that tea grows in bushes and there there are 5 general types: black, green, white, red, and yellow (all of which grew at the plantation). After tasting the chai leaf, we had our own tea tasting extravaganza complete with a samovar and traditional Russian folk performances. Overall, a very relaxing and enjoyable experience with a breathtaking view of the surrounding area.

After the excursion, a group of 7 of my friends decided to explore by ourselves. As the Russian history nerds that we all are, we made it our mission to find Stalin’s dacha (aka Stalin’s personal vacation villa). It was everything I expected and more. The whole experience oozed paranoia and melancholy in a remarkably beautiful setting. As we made the 20 min hike up a forested hill, we were wondering if we were ever going to glimpse the building. Well we didn’t until we were physically 20 steps away from the dwelling. Why may you ask? because Stalin's dacha was colored in the same green as the surrounding forest; the dacha almost completely blended in with the foliage. Only Stalin. His villa though was beautiful, covered with vibrant flowers, yet it was also minimalistic. It is hard to believe that I was walking around the building of a man who many say was responsible for the deaths of 20 million of his own people. What was even more amazing was the fact that everything in the dacha was an original: the satinwood floors, carpets, tables, toilets. You name it; it’s an original. The highlights of the tour most definitely include: the pool, the billiards room, and Stalin’s office. The indoor pool was probably 10 feet deep. I didn’t quite understand this though because Stalin couldn’t swim. We joked that Stalin never did things half way, but really why the deep pool? As we headed toward Stalin’s office, I couldn’t help but imagine Stalin in the villa. The window shades were closed, a certain darkness loomed inside the house - a seemingly perfect location for plotting the mass executions and show trials of the 20th century. Our group was so fascinated by the tour; out tour guide probably thought  we were young Stalinists from America. But how could we not be awed when she allowed us to stand behind Stalin’s own office desk and hold the pool stick that he used during his vacations on the Black Sea?
Behind Stalin's desk and next to his bed
One of the most exotic and unique aspects of Sochi’s landscape is the proximity of the colossal snow-covered mountains to the tropical resort area on the Black Sea beaches. Day 4 in Sochi allowed us to take advantage of the scenic views that Sochi offers. After strolling through an ancient section of the forest where сумшит trees (pronounced sumshit jokes abound) have flourished for over 1000 years, we serpentined up to the top of Mt. Akhun where we were rewarded with a beautiful vista and Georgian food. The view: blue-green waters of the Black Sea, green rolling hills, beach cities, and towering mountains. On a clear day, it’s even possible to see Turkey; however the marine layer unfortunately prohibited from viewing the opposite shore of the Black Sea. We did see the hills of Abkhazia though- where Russian forces invaded Georgian territory in 2008, kickstarting an international crisis. I didn’t know the next day I would be within a half a mile of this controversial territory. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

South to Sochi: Let the Journey Begin

The time has finally come - spring break abroad. It was the last week in April, and I had been anticipating our week long group excursion to the tropical resort of Sochi, Russia for months. Now that's I've returned to St. Pete I can honestly say that Sochi was everything I wanted it to be and more. On Friday, April 26th my friends and I boarded our 36 hour train ride to our final destination- Sochi. On the train, it was most intriguing to see how the majority of Russians live. We passed a number of worn down houses, small cities that I didn’t know existed, and an endless sea of golden fields on the way south. Cherry blossoms thrived on the river banks of Varonezh (city in pic to the left) as I stared out the widow. The most memorable portion of the train ride experience was without a doubt the sight of modern day collectivized farms in the rural countryside. In the early 1930’s, Stalin repressed millions of Russian peasants by forcing them onto small plots of land to cultivate agriculture. Families were obligated to provide a certain ration of their produce to the state by law (whether or not this amount had been produced). Even though this collectivization policy is no longer viable in Russia, many famers as I saw still live on this small plot of land. While gazing out my window, I saw rows upons rows of families living in houses approximately the size of a small shed, each with its own 25 by 25 foot agricultural land to harvest crops. My jaw literally dropped when I saw all the hard labor being conducted on such small properties. It is mind-boggling to imagine how visible the effects of the Soviet Union’s policies still have on the daily lives of many Russians. 

Fast forward to Friday and we’ve arrived in Sochi! home of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Immediately upon arrival I thought I had been transported into an entirely different country. Palm trees lined the streets leading to the Black Sea Coast Line. The Black Sea itself reminded me of home. The calm lapping water literally sparkled with a blue- green tint. Then there’s the mountains covered with a mixture between tropical plants and deciduous trees. Even visible are the snow covered mountains of the Caucasus. When we moved into our hotel room, I was graced with a view of Sochi: the mountains, forests, rivers, city, beach, and sea. The picture to the right is only one from of Sochi from my hotel room's balcony. This place was magical. Russians actually smiled on the streets of the city... what a difference from St. Petersburg. 
Olivia and I in the waterfall pool

Our first excursion in Sochi after our arrival can only be described as purely magnificent. We took a 30 minute hike through a forest toward a tree covered gorge with a cascading waterfall. I’ve always dreamed about swimming in a waterfall pool and I finally had my chance! The water was freezing, but the experience unforgettable. I also swam in the clear green waters of the river that cut through a mountain gorge. I didn’t think that I would ever want to leave.

Fisherman on the pier at sunset- Black Sea

My first day in Sochi ended with a trip to the Dendarium Botanical gardens where we ran away from a bat, chased peacocks, listened to frogs chirp, and gazed at the radiant tropical flowers that are non-existent in St. Pete. Then it was off to the boardwalk. As I watched the sun set over the Black Sea leaving streaks of orange and pink in the sky, I couldn’t wait for the next day in Sochi. What an experience of a lifetime, and I had only been in Sochi for one day.