Goodbye Siberia

It has been nearly two weeks since I left Tomsk, and my silence in the intervening time may have led you, Dear Reader, to believe that I had put my blog to bed.  However, my “miss list” didn’t seem a fitting way to bid goodbye to my experience as an honorary Томичка.  I thought I should at least attempt to chronicle my last week in Tomsk (distant as it now seems to me) and to say what life has been like back in the U.S.  I am warning you now that this is a very long post…but it’s my last one, so I think I’ve earned it!

My final week was, obviously, full of farewells, which ranged from nonchalant to  humorous to tearful.  Some of the goodbyes I felt most acutely were those with people I may not have known very well, but whom I saw every day, like the wonderful ladies who work at the TSPU stolovaya (cafeteria) to the dorm laundrywoman, Galina Ivanovna, a late-middle-aged former pediatrician from Uzbekistan with whom I had many conversations over the course of the year.  One of the things that made these farewells sad was the fact that I never expected to see the people again.  The apron-and-hair-net-wearing pensioners who run the university bufet (snack bar) where I got my coffee every day were unlikely to have email addresses.  I knew only their names, their smiles, and their small talk, and yet they formed an integral part of my Tomsk experience.

Some goodbyes, as I mentioned, were very festive.  My friend Olya and her mother, who is Korean but was born in the U.S.S.R., made me a wonderful farewell feast, served Korean-style on a mat on the floor.  The final touch was a sparkler candle that fairly terrified Olya’s mom and me when we saw flames approaching from the kitchen.

I also spent leisurely, food-filled evenings with several of my favorite folks in Tomsk, including my friends Irina, Andrey, Olga, and my Uzbek friend Sasha, the cook who invited me into the kitchen of his restaurant for a noodle tutorial.  Afterwards, we took a walk by the Tom’ river and watched the sunset.


I spent my last day in Tomsk at Lena’s dacha, which has featured so prominently in my blog in recent weeks, and which I will remember with great fondness for a long time.  It was, in many ways, the perfect ending to my time in Russia, as it reminded me of the country’s rural roots and the hospitality and kindness of the Russian people.


The night ended with a peaceful but mosquito-plagued walk down to the creek at the foot of the dacha encampment, tea and cigarettes and ear-splitting early 90’s pop (in typical Russian fashion), and a climb up to the roof to watch distant fireworks through the trees.  The fact that the fireworks were in honor of some Orthodox holiday, and not my departure, hardly mattered.  Then, just as I thought I was finally ready for my last sleep in the Russian countryside, Lena’s husband Igor hunted me down with a bucket of very cold water, insisted that I needed a shower, and–before I could protest–dumped the bucket over my head.  The sound that escaped my lips was certainly something like the call of the wild.  “A natural scream,” Lena said with an approving nod, “there’s something good about that.”

Lena and Igor were kind enough to drive me to the airport the next day, where I got slapped with 4000 rubles (my monthly rent) in oversize baggage fees and was unable to feel any nostalgia for the Russian service-with-a-scowl that would soon be a thing of the past for me.  I had a long plane flight during which to think about all I had just left behind, but nothing could have prepared me, really, for the transition from this:
to this:


Now I have gone, in the space of 10 days, from New York City to Boston to Ithaca, a small city in upstate New York which is home to Cornell University and Max.  The six-hour drive from Boston to Ithaca led me to reflect on the rainy landscape, which, aside from the replacement of birch trees with their North American counterparts, looked a lot like Siberia.  Since my arrival, I keep seeing things that remind me of Russia, and comparing and contrasting things that don’t.  Many things, from Fenway Park to Sears to the faces of the people around me, strike me as very American– and I suppose they are.  Yet how strange to return and find that I fit into this society without anyone noticing anything, as if I were feet stepping back into well-worn shoes.

And yet (and there were times I never thought I’d say this) I do miss Russia…at least, some things about it.  Mostly, I miss the sense of doing something entirely different from my life up to that point, and the way that a constant feeling of otherness shocked me into a new awareness of the life around me.  But it is hard, as my friend Irina aptly pointed out, to live with a kind of double feedback loop forever circling in one’s brain.  When you live abroad, she said, it is exhausting, because you have two “loops” going at once: the one that handles the banalities of getting through the day in another country, and the second loop, which is constantly analyzing, trying to understand the surrounding society on a level both general and deeply specific.  It is a relief to bid goodbye to that second feedback loop, but it also makes life just a little bit boring.

Coming home has made me realize that I don’t know if I am a person who would prefer to live abroad forever–something tells me I am not.  However, I want to travel always, and not to lose that engagement with those parts of the world that I will never understand in my bones, at the deepest level.  I feel that way about Russia, certainly.  But I will never forget what Irina said to me as she walked me home along a familiar path to my dorm just before I prepared to catch my plane.  I looked around at Kartashova Street, the Dzerzjinsky Market, the Triumph convenience store, a fat man with a fat dog, and Irina said, “It’s somehow свой, isn’t it?”  (Свой, pronounced svoy, is an impersonal possessive pronoun meaning “one’s own.”)  I had to agree, even as I looked on everything we passed with a preemptive sense of loss.  Some of it was ugly and dirty; some of it I would not miss.  And yet, the fact that, over the course of less than a year, this place on the other side of the world could have come to feel like home was really remarkable.  That is how I hope to remember Tomsk–as bewildering, beautiful, occasionally backwards, but full of history and wonderful people–foreign, but somehow свой.

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The Miss List

As I prepare for my final week in Tomsk, it seems entirely surreal to me that in eight days’ time I will be collecting my battered suitcases at JFK Airport’s baggage claim.  I have regrets about my time in Tomsk– the main one being that I did not take the initiative (or spend the time or money) to travel around Russia more.  I look at my fellow Fulbrighters, many of whom are working at ACCESS English-language summer camps in far-flung places like Kyzyl or Ulan-Ude, and I think, That could have been me!  I imagine fulfilling my Trans-Siberian dream of riding all the way to Vladivostok.  I wanted to gawk at onion domes in Vladimir, freeze my teeth off in Yakutsk, buy cheesy magnets at Baikal.  My time in Russia is nearly up, and I haven’t done any of those things.  If anything, this past year has made me anxious to return to the world’s most enormous country and see more of it–but not yet.  There is more I could have seen and done, but the truth is, Dear Reader, I am thrilled at the thought of home.

My impending return stateside has filled my mind with thoughts of the things–and people–I’ve missed.  There are too many of them to name.  More surprising, perhaps to you and certainly to me, is the number of things I will miss about Tomsk.  This week has already been full of farewells, and not only to the people who have made my time here so incredible.  I have begun to walk along the streets and feel like the bunny in Goodnight Moon, who bids goodnight to every beloved object in his room before going to sleep.  I find myself thinking, “This is the last time I will [see/watch/hear/taste/smell] [this/that/the other thing].”  Every outing feels a little elegiac… at least until some cigarette-wielding skinhead in plastic tapochki nearly runs into my while yelling Russian mat (swear words) on his cell phone.  Then there is some consolation in the thought that follows:  Well, that I won’t miss.  There is a lot I won’t miss about Tomsk, but here are some things that I will:

1. Russian hospitality

The Russian attitude towards guests illustrates the fact that Russia has, in many ways, an Eastern culture.  They take great pleasure in giving their guests the star treatment.  I have griped week after week about the ordeal of being stuffed with food, filled with tea, and regaled with anecdotes for five or six hours at a stretch.  But man, will I miss it!

2. Drunk Chekhov and the Happy Wolf

From “Anton Pavlovich  in Tomsk  Through the Eyes of a Drunk Guy Lying by a Canal and Never Having Read Kashtanka” to the wolf from a famous old-school cartoon, Tomsk’s Monument to Happiness, who proclaims, “Now I will sing!,” Tomsk’s famous statues are hilariously spunky and upbeat.  I will miss them.

3. Unlimited (albeit slow) free downloads

Copyright, schmopyright.  Lady Gaga might not be getting lots of Russian royalties from her newest album, but I guarantee everyone in Siberia has heard it, thanks to torrents.

4. Bliny and kvass

So many bliny, so little time.  Any kind of low-carb diet is pretty impossible in the land of deliciously buttery, crepe-like pancakes, beer so cheap it’s practically free, and kvass, a refreshingly fizzy, surprisingly sweet drink dispensed from yellow iron spigots by scowly, jowly ladies on every street corner.  Guess what kvass is made from?  Bread.  I will miss these carb fixes like crazy, even though I guess my waistline won’t.

5. Random holidays

There is little Russians seem to like to say more in English than “I congratulate you on this holiday!”  There are ample occasions to do so, considering such calendar favorites as Students’ Day (Sep. 1) Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland (Feb. 23), International Woman’s Day (Mar. 8), Day of Work and Labor (May 1), and a whole host of Soviet holdover holidays like Doctors’ Day, Construction Workers’ Day, Physicists’ Day, and so on.  Whatever the occasion, the bottom line for my students seems to be, “No class!”

6. Tomsk trams

For all I know, these things were built under Brezhnev.  One of them, printed with Tomsk’s coat of arms, proclaims proudly, “The Tomsk Tram is 60 Years Old!”  As far as I can tell, that specific tram might be doing a bit of self-promotion.  The new tram fleet is funded by Putin’s party, whose logo is emblazoned boldly on every one of them.  But the old ones are what I will miss: freezing at -40C, sticky at +30C, rickety and lopsided and inefficient and beloved.

7. Time at the dacha

I have already devoted a lot of blog space to the dacha phenomenon.  Russians take great pride in their summer cottages, where they plant cucumbers, grill shashlyk (kebabs), take a steam in the banya, and toast to the weekend, all with equal aplomb.  Suffice it to say that I now understand what all the fuss is about. And I want one of my own.

8. Stolovaya

The ladies who lunch in fur hats come to stolovaya, a Russian adjective-as-noun referring to Soviet-style lunch counters.  All the food is cheap and filling, under-spiced and over-salted, served mostly by matrons in aprons with tea that costs two rubles a cup.  I will miss standing in line for my daily slice of “gray bread” (серый хлеб), my six-ruble glass of stewed dried fruit (компот), and greetings from servers Tanya and Marina, much warmer than the food on offer.  I will even miss the self-service microwave in the corner.

9. Russian sweets

I’ve tried things I never thought I would in Russia, especially in the realm of desserts, from “bird’s milk” candies to “Poor Jew” cake.  Russians are major сладкоежки (the word for someone with a sweet tooth).  They drink tea all the time, and tea requires something to go with it!  Tomsk’s ice cream is also the best I’ve had, if we count exemplars from France and Italy as belonging to another category.  They are delicate, while Russian ice cream is robust and creamy.  This ain’t no gelato.  I’m going to miss all the sweet moments.

10. Cute kids and bossy babushki

People all over the world rave about the beauty of Russia’s young ladies, but I have fallen in love more with the images of old folks and children all around– from the murmuring babushki who share gossip on park benches (huddled under shawls even in summer) to the solemnity of little boys, holding court on the jungle gym, playing at manhood.

11. Birches

Russia’s birches  are, to my eye, the most beautiful trees in the world.  They are ochre- and gold-leaved in autumn, stark and delicate against the blue sky in winter, and lushly green again by June.  And Siberia’s vast steppes are full of them.  I will never see birch trees without thinking of my time in Russia.

12. Wonderful people

Last but certainly not least are all the incredible people I have met here in Tomsk.  They have made my time here unforgettable.  I admire their strength, their good if sometimes bitter humor, their generosity, and their love of a country that does not make their lives easy.  I intend to fill my last week in Tomsk with them.

T minus 7 days to NYC.  Time to stop writing Tomsk and start living it, while I still can.

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Bits of Spring

My last entry didn’t give me an opportunity to post some pictures taken this past weekend at Lena’s dacha, nor to capture the beauties of Siberian spring.  Here are a few images to help you imagine how the world around Tomsk looks right now, and my translation of one of Pasternak’s many spring-related poems, for good measure.  Enjoy!

My Sister—Life

By Boris Pasternak

Life is my sister, and today in floods

She let spring rain loose over everyone.

Behind their monocles, the lofty, peevish

Folks hiss in dismay like snakes in oats.

No doubt the elders have their reasons for this,

Undoubtedly much sounder than your own,

That in the thunder eyes and lawns turn violet,

And moist mignonette scent drifts on the horizon.

That in May, when you read on the train

The timetable for the Kamishyn Branch Line,

It seems more grand to you than holy scriptures

And railway seats worn black with storms and grime.

That as the brakes, barking sharp warnings, drop

On villagers in some backwater town

We gaze up from our train beds—not my stop—

And the sun gives me his sympathies as he lies down.

And once poured forth, the third bell floats away,

Constant apologies: “Sorry…not here.”

The scorched night burns under the shutters

And from the steps, the steppe falls towards the stars.

Winking and twinkling, but someone sleeps sweetly

Somewhere, as, like a mirage, my love sleeps,

And my heart pours out onto every platform

And scatters train car doors across the steppes.

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Умом Россию не понять…

The title of this post is the first line of a four-line poem by the nineteenth-century poet Fyodor Tyutchev.  My second and final visit to the Kislovka literary club this Friday will be devoted to discussing this poet, so get ready to hear him mentioned again.  The poem I have quoted, from 1866, is a kind of well-known epigram among Russians:

Умом Россию не понять,
Аршином общим не измерить:
У ней особенная стать —
В Россию можно только верить.

[Russia cannot be understood by the mind, / Nor measured by the common mile: / Her status is unique– / Russia can only be believed in.]

Now that I have entered the home stretch of my time in Tomsk (two weeks to NYC and counting), I have been thinking more than ever about what understanding of Russia I will take away from my time here.  Winston Churchill famously said that “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  Of course, the Russia he was talking about no longer exists, for the most part.  But the curious impenetrability of the culture remains.  I have gone whole days here without thinking much about the country’s peculiarities; in most ways, Siberia is simply a place, like anywhere else.  But it is an ironic and unspoken fact of programs like the Fulbright, which aim to foster “intercultural understanding,” that the divisions and differences between cultures are what ends up getting highlighted most of all.  This morning, I went to the convenience store across the street from my dorm, and the nice saleswoman (a real rarity in such places) remarked when I ordered, “Your accent is practically gone!  You’ll be a native in no time!”  This led the man behind me in line to ask when I was going back to my country, and what my impressions of Russia were.  He wanted to know how the living conditions in my dormitory compared to those in the U.S.  I skirted the question by answering, “What I’ve really learned here is that people everywhere are pretty similar.  People are just people.  And Tomsk’s people are what I like best about it.”

Then I commuted up to my Russian tutor’s apartment for our final tutoring session.  I ended up staying at her place for six hours.  We had the usual ninety-minute lesson, followed by a homemade lunch and tea, a lengthy conversation, an exchange of presents, a lengthy film, and more tea.  In many ways, it was my tutor I was thinking of when I praised the people of Tomsk to that man in the store.  Over the course of our (only) five months together, I came to see her not only as a teacher, but as a kindred spirit and friend.  Although our conversations were in Russian, I felt able to communicate with her, not only about simple things, but about ideas, about our lives.  She is–as I might formerly have expressed it to my parents or American friends–“very Russian,” but it seemed to me we spoke less as representatives of two different cultures than as equals.

How strange it was to end our time together with a 1998 film called Сибирский цирюльник (“The Barber of Siberia”) that was basically about the cultural differences between Russians and Americans, and how, in some sense, the two nationalities will never understand each other.  My tutor explained how the tragic love story between an American woman and a Russian soldier at the turn of the 20th century exemplifies a difference between how Russians and Americans (or Westerners in general) understand interpersonal relationships.  She said (I’m translating and paraphrasing here), “For Americans, in the sphere of relationships, there is business, and then there is love.  They are separate.  For Russians, their is only emotion.  We cannot look at relationships between people in any other way.”

She went on to remark–solemnly but without bitterness–that many of her Russian-as-a-foreign-language students have told her or written to her to thank her for her lessons, and have said they would never forget her…”but then, of course, they do.”  I felt a kind of pain thinking of the card I had given her, written in Russian and still unopened.  The final line was, “I will never forget you.”  I had meant it.

“Maybe the problem is that it is possible for a Russian and an American to care for each other, and to wish each other all the best, but to disagree on what ‘the best’ consists of,” I told her.  “We have different ideas of what we want from life, or should want.”  I don’t think it was only my fumbling Russian that made the exchange feel unsatisfactory to me.  There was suddenly something, some great barrier (call it culture), interposed between us.  And yet we parted with a warm hug, and with great fondness and mutual respect.  In the dank, rickety elevator, I felt my throat clench up with tears.  Then I emerged into the six o’clock sunshine, swallowed my sadness, and headed to the bus stop.

Writing about what happened doesn’t clarify anything about the differences between our two countries’ mentalities, of course.  But what I felt as I left her place for the last time was almost diametrically opposed to my joy in the convenience store this morning.  I have spent ten months in Russia, and what I have come to understand is precisely how little I understand it.  I am trying now to tell myself that the most important thing is to experience Tomsk as fully as I can in the next two weeks.  Perhaps some understanding may come later.  If it doesn’t, well, I have learned one thing in this country: even bewilderment can be useful.

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Siberian Pastoral

Spring is finally in full bloom here in Tomsk, and the implications are multiple: a booming ice cream industry, kvass for sale on street corners, ever-lower class attendance, babushki sitting on every park bench, hot water shortages (courtesy of the Russian government), and, most importantly, trips to the dacha.  What, you may ask, is a dacha?  Although I learned the word in first-year Russian class–those goody-two-shoes textbook characters Petya and Volodya were always chilling either at their dacha or at pioneer

"My Wonderful Dacha" magazine

camp–I didn’t have a good sense of what a dacha was until last weekend.  As far as I knew, a dacha was a kind of summer house.  The strange thing was that every Russian person I spoke to had one.  How could they all afford a second property, I wondered, and why did they claim that a dacha was somehow both more and less than a house?  Why did everyone insist that a dacha was such an integral element of русская душа, the Russian soul?

A few weeks ago, I witnessed a rather heated argument between my Russian language tutor and her husband.  The bone of contention was whether the dacha represented labor or leisure.  My tutor insisted that the only truly necessary element of any dacha is the ogorod, or vegetable garden.  In Soviet times, when people lived in communal apartments and had no space to themselves, the government allotted each family a small plot of land for growing fruits, vegetables, and flowers.  This was especially precious to Soviet citizens because it allowed them to escape from dirty, crowded, often bleak cities and return to Russia’s pastoral roots.  It was also economically important, since limited food, and basically no produce, was available in stores in Soviet times.  The word дача comes from the root word дар (dar), meaning “a gift.”  The private plot of land was a gift from the Soviet state to the people.

Anyway, my tutor argued that the dacha represented labor and reward, since people worked to cultivate their land and then reaped the benefits.  Her husband, who is Pakistani but has lived in Russia for many years, claimed that Russians love the dacha because they go there to relax and escape from the trials of working life.  They grill shashlyki (kebabs), comb the forest for mushrooms, take long walks, swim in the river, and generally enjoy the peaceful Russian countryside.

Thanks to the lovely Elena Sergeevna (the same one responsible for introducing me to both the School for the Deaf volunteer project and the Kislovka-based book club), I got to discover the truth about dachas for myself this weekend.  And I have to say that both my tutor and her husband were, in some ways, correct: the dacha experience seems to include both work and relaxation.  Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is that it all takes place a mere fifteen-minute bus ride from the city, and yet it feels a world apart from the work week.  I took a marshrutka to the last stop and followed the road straight, as Lena had instructed.  “You can’t go wrong,” she assured me.  This was the road:Naturally, I did go wrong, and Lena’s neighbor gallantly came to pick me up in his car.  I arrived in the afternoon, when the heat of the day and the bulk of the work had already passed.  Lena appeared in shorts, a T-shirt, and tapochki (plastic sandals), covered in dirt and grinning broadly.  She had been in the garden all day.  Her neighbor, also named Lena, was back at the dacha preparing a Kazakh specialty for dinner.  Several of the neighbors would be coming to eat dinner with us outside.  Of course, there would also be vodka.

I got a tour of Lena’s family’s dacha and several of the neighbors’ properties.  The plots of land themselves took much longer to see than the dachas, which generally consisted of only one or, at most, two rooms, a banya, and an outhouse.  Many of the dachas appeared not to have changed much in the past fifty years.  Lena’s family’s dacha was built by her husband’s grandparents, and electricity and running water (although no toilet) had since been added.  Other dachas were more modest, although a sense of owners’ pride was clear.            I also had the opportunity to meet several of Lena’s neighbors, including Alla, a grandmotherly widow with a green thumb, the cheery Natasha and her husband, Misha, who cheerfully agreed to take a picture with me and then used the opportunity to reach back behind me and get a little naughty, even as his wife looked on laughing!

Alla shows me around her garden.

Take a wild guess where Misha's other hand is now.

At dinner, I got to sample Russia’s most beloved summer soup, okroshka, which is made of scallions, herbs, little pieces of meat, sour cream, and kvass.  It is served cold.  I never thought carbonated soup could be tasty, but it was surprisingly refreshing.  The main course, neighbor-Lena’s bish barmaq, was, like most Central Asian food, heavy and tasty.I climbed the treacherous stairs up to the second floor of Lena’s dacha, feeling very full and slightly tipsy.  She had made up the pull-out couch for me.  There were tomes of Pushkin and Hemingway on a makeshift bookshelf across from the bed.  It was chilly, so I pulled Lena’s husband’s Russian army greatcoat over me and fell asleep at once.

I had planned on sleeping in, but the light and the wildlife woke me around seven.  When I stepped outside, my eyes were dazzled with the brightness and the greenness of my surroundings.  I was a long was from the gray cinder-block bleakness of Komsomolsky Prospekt!  Lena and I had a leisurely cup of coffee and then took a walk down to a creek at the edge of the dacha “neighborhood.”  The trees were in bloom, and people’s plants were just beginning to poke up out of the dirt.


 The restorative powers of nature are well-known, but, being a city person, I seldom get to tromp around in the dirt as the air around me buzzes with pollen and the flash of darting, iridescent insects.  I understood on that walk–more physically than intellectually, based on the feeling of the earth beneath my feet–that this was perhaps the “realest” Russia I had experienced so far.  For all its breakneck development, its capitalist market, its concrete monstrosities and imported cars, Russia is a country with pastoral roots.  The Russian people seem to have a fraught relationship with nature, especially outside of cities, where life has, for centuries, been hardscrabble but somehow pure.  I felt some of the purity of that connection to the land as I walked from the rows of dachas into a clearing surrounded by birches.  In a country where most things are so communal, it’s no wonder that Russians love their private dacha plots, as well as the chance to connect on an individual level with the nature that has defined their land since the beginning. I admitted to my Russian tutor today that my first dacha experience was more leisure than labor.  Not to worry, though, I assured her.  I’ve been invited back to the dacha next weekend, and not just for vodka and small talk.  As I was leaving, Lena informed all the neighbors that they needn’t be too upset; I would be back next Saturday.  Then she turned to me and said with a wry smile, “I need your help next week.  The potatoes await you.”

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Secrets in Plain Sight

The building at 44 Lenin Street, at a prominent corner along Tomsk’s main boulevard, stands directly across from the mayor’s office, from which the Russian flag flies proudly.    There is a garden outside with benches where teenagers smoke and gossip and drink beer.  On the top floor is Tomsk’s main internet cafe, and across the street is one of its most popular cafes.  But not so very long ago, this well-kept facade hid a terrible secret.  It was the Tomsk headquarters of the NKVD (НКВД), or the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.  In typical Soviet fashion, the name sounds official, yet innocuous enough.  In fact, the NKVD was the Soviet Union’s state security organization, as well as its secret police force, directly responsible for the Stalinist repressions of the 1920’s and 30’s.  Prior to 1944, the building, and the garden outside, were hidden behind dark, impenetrable fences.  Those who were lucky never found out what was inside.

Those citizens who did enter the complex were brought there in inconspicuous trucks, painted with words like ХЛЕБ (BREAD) to divert any suspicions.  Once inside the prison, there were only two paths out: one was a tunnel, which led to a brick wall and a firing squad.  The other led to one of Siberia’s many GULAGs, or labor/concentration camps.  In neither case would prisoners ever see their friends or family again.

Tomsk was, of course, not unique in having an NKVD headquarters.  All major cities in Russia had them, with the main one located on Lubyanka Square in Moscow.  The former  headquarters-slash-prison is still there, and Russians used to call it the tallest building in Moscow, because you could see Siberia from the basement.  There was a reason why the NKVD’s main building looked so official: the people working there, according to Wikipedia, “conducted mass extrajudicial executions, ran the Gulag system of forced labor camps, suppressed underground resistance, conducted mass deportations of entire nationalities…to unpopulated regions of the country, guarded state borders, [and] conducted espionage and political assassinations abroad.”  They were busy folks!

People were brought to such state prisons for a number of reasons.  Generally, they were labelled as “enemies of the people,” either for being an intellectual or for being of foreign descent, or for expressing any kind of religious beliefs.  Most of the people were never given trials; they were simply taken from their homes and brought to the prison or sent to GULAGs to fill a regional quota.  Believe it or not, there was an official book containing quotas of political prisoners from each oblast’ (region) of the USSR.  And if not enough people made themselves actual “enemies of the state,” that was no problem; the NKVD could always find or create more.

Nowadays, 44 Lenin Street, the original prison building, is home to the NKVD Memorial Museum, the only one of its kind in Russia.  I had–well, not the pleasure, but the experience–of going there this week with my wonderful Russian tutor, Anna.  The museum was moving in a way that I find most American genocide- or Holocaust-themed museums not to be, perhaps because we were actually in the cells where the prisoners were kept.  One cell was left in its original condition, and looked as it would have looked in the 1930’s.  It was the size of a walk-in closet, and the only difference between its current appearance and its prior one was the lack of thirty to fifty prisoners filling every inch of space.  There were two “beds” (really bed-frames, no mattresses) on which they would take turns sitting or lying down.

I have long been familiar with ways in which governments and individuals torture and destroy their own people.  However, when I emerged from the tomb-like museum full of mug shots of “dangerous” Soviet citizens and found myself on sunny Lenin Street, right in the center of Tomsk, I was overwhelmed by the idea that such senseless brutality could have gone on for years right under people’s noses.across the street from the NKVD Prison

Some Russians look back fondly on the Soviet times; others regard them as a bleak and awful period in twentieth-century history.  I believe the Russians who say that some aspects of life were better then (the sense of community, the lack of financial worries, etc.), but when I think of how ignorant people were of the political apparatus all around them at that time, it seems to me a miracle that Russia has become what it is today.  My students were born and raised in a non-Communist country; they never knew the Soviet Union.  I am not trying to glorify the West, or to denigrate Russia’s past in one broad brushstroke, but I will say that the opening of this museum, after the fall of Communism, seems to me to represent Russia’s new awareness and acknowledgement of its often awful past.  No one can change what happened at 44 Lenin Street and throughout Russia in those years– but at least now the NKVD Museum is bringing one of the country’s darkest secrets out into the light.

Postscript: If you want to get a better sense of the museum, look at this video.  It contains no words (only ominous music), so it is English-speaker friendly.

Postscript Two: Since I began this post, the electricity in my dorm room went haywire, and my computer’s adapter (along with all the lights in my room and my appliances) literally exploded.  After I use up the battery on my laptop, I will be quite literally in the dark.  Now that I am in a bit of a prison of my own, it looks like blogging may be a challenge for a while.  So please be patient, keep your expectations low, and I will write again when I can get my hands on a keyboard.  -M.

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Tomsk Victorious

There are some debates that one seems destined to have over and over in life.  One question over which friends and I have often argued is whether it is better to be an optimist or a pessimist.  Most people would probably choose optimism, but I–less out of originality than out of being a lifelong Negative Nancy–tend to side with the pessimists.  The reason is because I find that building up an event too much before it happens can lead to disappointment when that event fails to live up to one’s great expectations.

When I arrived an hour early for the Victory Day parade and found a cold and empty Lenin Street before me, I thought that my one-and-only experience of the holiday was destined to be (in the words of our generation) an “epic fail.”  Part of the build-up to the parade was seeing the propagandistic posters appear all up and down Tomsk’s main drag: 

I had so looked forward to День Победы, a celebration unique to Russian culture, that it surprised me to hear my Russian friends and colleagues talk about skipping the parade in favor of their dachas or a couple extra hours of sleep.  My own invitation to go to the parade with a veteran and his family was cancelled at the last minute, and the forecast was bleak.  Nonetheless, clad in several layers of clothing, winter boots, and my fur hat, I went to the parade alone.

It seemed for a while that I might be alone at the parade as well.  I had been warned to arrive an hour in advance, but apparently no one else got, or heeded, that advice.  The sky was the color of old socks, and a chilly wind was blowing.  Not promising.  I bought a blin and wandered up and down the avenue, checking out the balloon men and the women selling red carnations, which one is supposed to buy and give to the veterans.  The only problem was, there were no veterans around.  Apparently even the promise of free flowers was not enough to rouse them from their beds on this cold day.  I couldn’t blame them.  Finally, a crowd began to gather down by the War Memorial Gardens.

As the parade began, so did the snow.  It was a light dusting at first, like a sprinkling of salt.  Then the wind picked up, and it seemed the salt was being thrown over someone’s shoulder with considerable force, to ward off evil.  (I thought of my superstitious German grandma, spitting and throwing salt at a host of bad omens.)  Despite the snow, the tanks rolled in to the rum-tum-tum of a marching band, and I had to admit that the soldiers looked cheerier than most Russians I meet on the street.

Soviet flags were flying high as students from Tomsk’s military school and the military arts department of Tomsk State University (something like our ROTC, from what I understand) marched past.  I do not know if my pacifism or my American upbringing is to blame, but I do know that I felt strange watching these children march.

While I am not such a patriot myself, I am all for patriotism in theory.  However, watching  these soldiers and trainees–some of them looking as if they’d barely hit puberty–march in seamless formations, I was torn between enjoyment and unease.  On the one hand, it was admirable that Russians dedicated a day to remembering the sacrifices of their forefathers in World War II.  On the other hand, their march celebrating the victory over fascism reminded me a little bit of, well, fascism.  It recalled images I had seen from Nazi Germany or North Korea.  This is different, I reminded myself as I stuffed my hands deeper into my jeans pockets, wishing I’d remembered to bring gloves.  The enormous TV screen at the end of the boulevard was showing black-and-white wartime footage interspersed with shots of the Moscow Parade.  I had to admit that the comparison it invited was not in Tomsk’s favor.  By now I was cold and pretty cranky.

    The hailstorm began just as the governor of Tomsk came up to give his speech.  I could only imagine how all the cadets standing stiffly in uniform before the podium were feeling right now.  The policemen assigned to prevent spectators from getting too close looked like it was no picnic for them, either.  I don’t remember that much about the speech; it was fairly generic, about different generations of Томичи coming together to keep the memory of their forefathers’ sacrifice alive.  What I remember better is the relief as soon as the parade ended, and the hailstorm along with it.  In a turn of typical Siberian luck, the sun came out as soon as the crowd dispersed.

I warmed up at home for a few hours and was taking a nap when I got a call from my friend Olya.  She wished me a happy Victory Day and asked, “What are you doing tonight?”  I wasn’t doing anything, I told her.  Well, she said, there was a free holiday concert at the concert shell down by the Tom’ River embankment, just below…the War Memorial Gardens (Лагерный сад).  Not again, I thought, but I knew that I would regret not going, so I said, “I’m in.”  I put on even more layers of clothing, prayed for an end to the snow, and got back on the same marshrutka I had taken home only hours before.

The weather had cleared up considerably–it was even sunny–by the time I arrived.  The monument was surrounded by people who had come to pay their respects.  I don’t think I’d ever seen so many flowers in my life.  There were also a number of Tomsk soldiers-in-training, who had been hand-selected (for their posture or their sour expressions, I’m not sure which) to stand around the monuments and stare like guards at Buckingham Palace: We made our way down the long, winding dirt path to the concert shell, which was incongruously cheery compared to the guards and the monuments themselves.  The concert itself was a great experience, although some of the seven amateur rock groups from Tomsk were less than spectacular.  Olya’s friend Marina performed in one of the groups (the best one, to be honest): she sang backup and played both the xylophone and a strange kind of pipe-accordion thing I’d never seen before.  The highlight of the night came when the audience voted for their favorite wartime song, and Катюша (Katyusha) won.  This happens to be the only Russian song to which I know all the words, and it reminded me of my long-ago Russian studies at BB&N.  I’m proud to say I sang along with a fervor that few of the Russian spectators, even the tipsy ones, could match.

A sunset walk by the river, and I was pretty much done in for the night.  But my Victory Day wasn’t over yet.  Olya and I went and grabbed some dinner, and then returned yet once more to Лагерный сад for something called the “salute”–which, I found out, is Russian for fireworks.  The show was staggering, as was the rush of humanity towards the taxis and buses afterwards.  It was quite an adventure to get home, and suffice it to say I slept very well that night.

So, Dear Reader, you may ask, what was my overall impression of Victory Day?  It reminded me in superficial ways (fireworks, concerts, drunk teenagers) of the Fourth of July, but it was also bittersweet in a way that our Independence Day isn’t.  Part of the sadness came from the fact that half of the more than 100,000 citizens of Tomsk who went off to fight in the “Great Patriotic War” never returned.  It was also sad to think that so few of those who did survive the war are still alive today.  I fear that the holiday may mean less and less to people as fewer survivors remain.

Victory Day was the most Soviet-seeming holiday I’ve encountered in Russia thus far, and as such it was militaristic in a way that I have been brought up to dislike.  That said, I admire the fact that Russians keep the memory of this war alive.  America has fought many wars abroad, but (since the Civil War) we have never battled on our home turf, so to speak.  Observing Victory Day in Russia made me think for the first time about how different it must be to fight for one’s native earth, one’s motherland.  I am not one for nationalism, but I do think that love for one’s country is something to celebrate, however inclement the weather there may be.

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