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Wow, I guess I had a big break from blogging there. Part of the reason is that I was busy with end-of-term stuff, part of it was that I kept getting sick, part of it was that I was in Russia without regular internet access for two weeks, and part of it was that I just wasn’t in the mood. But here we are.

We took the ferry and the train to and from St. Petersburg. It took a long time, but it was nice, especially on the way back when all the cheap cabins on the ferry were sold out and we sprang for a nice one. It was an interesting study in demographics. On the way there, December 23rd, there were very few Scandinavian-looking people on the boat. All the Swedes and Finns were home with their families. It was the immigrant boat. Girls in head scarves speaking Finnish. On the way back, January 5, it was the Russian tourist boat.

Russia was interesting as usual. I realized that if we’re going to stay in Sweden and I’m only going to go to Russia once a year, it ought to be in late spring or summer, NOT December/January. Yes, I did once vow to spend all New Years in Russia, but really, it’s more about having people around than where you are. So the plan is to have everyone come here next New Year.

The effects of the financial crisis were more apparent in St. Petersburg than here in the bubble of small-town Sweden. Our friends had stories of their workplaces downsizing, several had been given an extra “vacation” (without pay) or received a pay cut. There seemed to be fewer cars on the road, which is only good for traffic and the environment, but a sign of tough times nonetheless. In general, things felt more subdued than when we left eleven months ago. As a visitor, it was kind of nice. But we realized that if we had stayed in St. Petersburg instead of coming to Sweden, we’d be unemployed now too – companies are trying to save money by cutting back on “extras” like English lessons for their employees.

The week after New Year is one long national holiday in Russia. The thing to do is stay up late, sleep til afternoon, eat leftovers, go out somewhere shopping or to the movies or to a cafe, get drunk, and do it all over again. We saw two Russian movies in the theater and two on DVD while we were there. Here are my reviews.

Obitaemiy Ostrov (Inhabited Island) – Sci-fi dystopia based on a classic novel. It was supposed to be the New Year’s Blockbuster. It didn’t impress me much. I thought the special effects were crappy and hackneyed, but it did make me want to read the book, so that’s something.

Stilyagi – This film RULED! I hope they release it internationally. It’s a musical, and I hate musicals, but I liked this film. It’s about youths in 1950s Moscow who embraced jazz and dancing and brightly-colored clothes, enduring harassment from their peers in the Komsomol. So it’s kind of political, but the main reason I liked it is that it was just really well done visually.

The following are the films I saw on DVD. They’re a couple years old, but you probably haven’t seen them, so I’ll review them. :-)

Bumazhniy Soldat (Paper Soldier) – artsy fartsy film about how members of the intelligentsia participated in the development of the Soviet space program by standing around in puddles smoking cigarettes.

Vdokh Vydokh (Inhale Exhale) – artsy fartsy film in which a guy hires his ex-wife as a prostitute. They had gotten divorced because the ex-wife had had a lesbian love affair which consisted of a lot of skipping around in the forest, pillow fights and giggling. A pile of utter nonsense, but visually appealing.

So that was my trip to Russia. I got valenki (felt boots) from Kostia’s mom for New Year, will try to get around to taking a picture of myself in them. In the meantime, here are some other photos:

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Kostia’s hometown. They stopped building the building on the left when the Soviet Union collapsed. On the right you can see part of the sign for “Trendy Cafe”.

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Obligatory picture of the Church on Spilled Blood

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“Now it’s a holiday, the rest of the year – gray everyday life?”

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View of Nevsky Prospect and Griboyedov Canal from Dom Knigi

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Went to Stockholm for the day last Monday to drop off my Russian visa application. Kostia and I are going for Christmas and New Year. It only took about 30 minutes at the embassy in what had to be the most friendly and efficient office of the Russian Federation I have ever been in (must be the Swedish influence) and I had a day to enjoy Stockholm. Decided to get a haircut as they seem to be on average 200 crowns (25 bucks) cheaper than in Falun. Thus far I’ve managed not to get a haircut in a salon in Sweden (perhaps because it’s so expensive?), so I was stressing out a bit about my Swedish salon vocabulary or lack thereof. I needn’t have worried. I walked into a random salon, where the stylist said it would take 20 minutes to finish with her current customer, sat down, and heard that the stylist, the customer, and the other woman hanging around were speaking Russian. Saved! By now my Russian salon vocabulary is totally functional.

Despite it being the darkest, grimmest time of year and it being an especially gray and drizzly day, Stockholm looked fantastic, especially after dark with all the holiday decorations. I amused myself by visiting secondhand shops and had the opportunity to meet with the owners of a language school I’m doing some teaching through these days, who were lovely people. The day culminated with a visit to the Christmas market in Old Town. I didn’t bring my camera, thinking, what else can I possibly photograph in Stockholm after having been there countless times?

I have to go back to Stockholm on Tuesday to pick up my visa, and am really looking forward to it. This time I will bring my camera.

Here are a few photos from Tjejmilen weekend:

On the train to Stockholm. This lady was like something out of a children’s book, and actually she quite resembled a triplet from “The Triplets of Belleville“. The man on the left was her equally eccentric-looking husband.

Me, before Tjejmilen, grimacing

Kostia and “the Russian fil”, fil being a cousin of yogurt. They don’t seem to sell kefir in Falun so Kostia was excited to find it in Stockholm.

Here is a photo from last weekend:

We were invited to a party and instructed to bring a pie, a savory one, not a dessert one, so I looked in my Russian cookbook and made a kulebyaka, which is basically a big pirozhok. This one has meat inside. That’s supposed to be a hedgehog on the side. The decoration leaves something to be desired but hey, it was my first attempt.

Kostia’s grandma died yesterday. She’d been bedridden the last couple of months and when Kostia saw her a few weeks ago she was barely conscious and probably didn’t recognize him. Here‘s what Kostia wrote about her on his LiveJournal:

Babushka Valya died yesterday. Valentina Fyodorovna Baranskaya.

She was born in 1922 in the village of Krapivno, in what is currently the Gdov district [in the Pskov region in northwest Russia].

The Polish surname is from her grandfather. He moved to the village in the beginning of the century, apparently. Made the bricks for the local church. Babushka was so proud of her grandpa and her surname that she didn’t take her husband’s name. For this her husband, that is, my grandpa, to the end of his days called her that: Baranskaya.

To my shame, I only once managed to record her reminiscences. Here and here [in Russian, obviously] she talks about her brother, the war, her husband, the kolkhoz, and Stalin.

One of the last photos, taken just before she became bedridden:

Kostia returned from Russia with a funny ad for Nikola brand kvas that he had torn out of a magazine. Kvas is a traditional Russian non-alcoholic beverage which is an acquired taste for foreigners. The Nikola brand often uses ad campaigns that play off its Russianness and other soft drinks’ foreignness – even its name, Nikola, sounds like “not cola”.

The new ad campaign is totally over the top. The idea is that there is a foreigner, probably supposed to be an American, posing as a Russian and trying to persuade people that kvas is bad, and the Russian consumer is supposed to find this mock-offensive and want to drink patriotic kvas. The ads are written in pretty amusing Russlish. They have a bunch of video clips at the ad campaign’s website, where you can see that it is a Russian posing as an American posing as a Russian trying to persuade people that kvas is bad in order to make them think that kvas is good. A pretty convoluted strategy. I think only a small number of people are in a position to appreciate this. Judging from the comments on YouTube, most people don’t. The website is full of bizarre content – some geek spent a lot of time putting this ad campaign together.

Kostia’s at his family dacha in Russia at the moment, sending me occasional SMS updates on what Russian TV is saying about the South Ossetia conflict. A decidedly different view from the ground in Tbilisi can be found at WuWei. I have no more information on who’s to blame and what’s going on than the BBC or the New York Times do, but my gut tells me that Saakashvili is the lesser of two evils here.

(Soccer, for those of you in North America.)

Russia has made it to the semifinal of the Euro Cup, which is a super big deal. Just making it to the quarterfinal was a really big deal. Russia hadn’t even made it that far in post-Soviet history. (The Soviet Union made it to the final in 1988.)

Kostia and I were on a train for most of the duration of the game. I listened to it on the radio when reception allowed, and Lenka SMSed me the score when it didn’t. It was very exciting. I don’t even know why I care, except that I can imagine exactly what it is like on the streets of St. Petersburg at this moment – full of drunk, happy people, on the whitest of the White Nights. (edit: Oh, and also because it’s fun to root for the underdog.) I kinda wish I was there.

During our last stint in St. Petersburg, I realized that reading the St. Petersburg Times and its sister publication, The Moscow Times, made me depressed. They really give you the impression that 100% of everything in Russia sucks and, if you’re in Russia, a strong urge to run for the border. So I don’t recommend reading it on a regular basis. But nevertheless, there are frequently excellent articles, like this one on why Russia should lift its tourist visa requirements:

Mr. Medvedev, Tear Down This Wall!

“Russia’s position on the visa issue is not useful. At its root, the reciprocity argument is based on pride. But as Bilan and Russian athletes proved this month, Russia has a lot more to be proud of than its ability to create paperwork hassles for Western tourists.”

Update: Kostia disagrees. He thinks that Russia needs to keep its one bargaining chip in the negotiations for visa-free travel for Russians in Europe. I still think it’s a weak bargaining chip at best and Russia is only hurting itself by discouraging tourism and the money it brings.

Yesterday I made poor Kostia watch the film “White Nights” which, as you may know, is not an adaptation of the Dostoyevsky short story, but rather one of the most absurd screenplays in the history of cinema. In a nutshell, a Soviet ballet star who has defected to the US (Mikhail Baryshnikov) is on a plane which crash-lands in the Soviet Union, and the evil Soviets try to keep him there, making an American tap dancer who has defected to the Soviet Union (Gregory Hines) be his guard and companion.

I wanted to watch it because it made a big impression on me 20 years ago. It was one of those movies that got steady rotation on HBO for awhile and then disappeared from our lives, and I think it contributed to my fascination with the Soviet Union, and my decision to study Russian in junior high school.

It’s always funny to watch a film that you thought was cool when you were a kid, knowing it’s going to be really bad. But now that I’ve spent time in both St. Petersburg and Helsinki it was neat to be able to identify which shots were stock footage of Leningrad and which were actually Helsinki, where they shot the film. They did a pretty good job of making things look real and Russian, except that Baryshnikov’s apartment was way too fancy even for a Soviet ballet star of the time. The non-Russian actors had obviously been well-coached on their Russian – although they spoke with accents, their intonation was solid and it was possible to understand what they were saying (unlike, say, Sean Connery in “The Hunt For Red October” who had obviously just interpreted the transliteration in his script for himself. Nobody coaches the Sean Connery, I guess).

Also, the dancing was amazing. I can appreciate that now in a way that I couldn’t when I was 11 years old and tap dancing seemed to be the lamest thing on earth.

But the plot was still ridiculous, and the soundtrack… whose idea was that soundtrack? I managed to amuse Kostia by singing along to “Say You, Say Me”, though. Why does the brain retain lyrics to terrible 80s songs and not, say, the ability to do calculus? Sigh.

This clip reminded me how much I like Russian nerds (as a distinct subset of humanity, not just the one I live with and his friends) and their sense of humor:

The song is from the Soviet sci-fi film “Kin-Dza-Dza”, which a Russian nerd first made me watch 5 years ago.

If you grow up in certain parts the US you can get the impression that all Russians are nerds, since many Russians who come to the US are academic immigrants. Once you’ve been to Russia, you realize that Russia has the same ratio of ochkariki/botaniki* to sports fans/pop music fans/rednecks/whatever else as the rest of the world, which is to say, too small. Luckily the brain drain hasn’t drained all the brains out of Russia, and they’re still there, grinding out pirated software and acerbic commentary on their LiveJournals.

Mendeleev

* “Ochkarik” and “botanik” are the Russian words for nerd/geek. An “ochkarik” is someone who wears “ochki”, glasses. You can figure out “botanik” for yourself.

About This Blog

I'm an American who started blogging when I moved to Russia in 2004. Eventually I moved to Sweden, where life is pleasant but uneventful, and stopped blogging for lack of interesting things to say. And then I joined Facebook, which further destroyed any motivation for blogging. Maybe someday I'll start blogging again, but for now, this blog is dormant, an archive of The Russia Years: 2004-2008.

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