Sunday, June 27, 2010

In Russia, many men now carry purses.

I'm not really sure what else to say about this.

Friday, June 25, 2010


All we have to do now
Is take these lies
And make them true somehow
--George Michael

Alla Vasilievna wears the same white shirt with the same beaded necklace every day. She has short, dyed blond hair that she pulls while she's talking. She's at once a cosmopolitan world traveler and a deeply nationalistic Russian (unconscious racist overtones and all). And she's a terrific Russian teacher.

Yesterday's topic of discussion was freedom.

Alla Vasilievna asked us all what freedom means to us. Lena, a Cornell student and daughter of Russian immigrants to the US, said freedom is the opportunity to make of your career and your life whatever you want to. Tamara, a history professor from Germany, pointed out that poor people aren’t free because they don’t have the same choices rich people have. Terry, a native of Trinidad-Tobago now living in Washington, DC, said that he has very little, but that he is freer than people who are in slavery to material items. And Pavel, a lawyer from the Czech Republic, said that he doesn’t feel free in Russia because he always has to carry papers with him and because someone refused to sell him beer when a policeman was nearby.

And then, animatedly pulling at her hair, Alla Vasilievna explained that to the Russian psyche, freedom is not an obviously and inherently good construct in the same way that it is to people from some other countries. There is a fear, she said, of unchecked freedom, of anarchy. The idea of the “will” is an ancient one in Russian culture, but the word for “freedom” entered the language more recently and is not understood to have a necessarily positive connotation.

Alla Vasilievna also drew a distinction between personal freedom and political freedom. Personal freedom, she said, is the freedom to choose what you do, where you go, who you marry, etc. Political freedom includes things like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc. According to Alla Vasilievna, personal freedom is important to Russians, but political freedom is "not as interesting." When I pressed her, saying the line is not very clear and using freedom of speech as an example, she even went so far as to say that as a Russian, she felt just as free under Communism as she does now, because she still had personal choices about her career, her family, and the rest of her personal life, and government is another realm altogether.

Now, I'm not a Russian, and I get that I can probably never completely overcome my own cultural upbringing and fully grasp another culture. But is this a bit of a stretch in defense of the Russian people? Alla Vasilievna added that Russians feel free because their country is so large and they have myriad options for travel or living within their own country, unlike smaller countries with close boundaries. And then she capped off her defense by asking each of us what we do when the sign says "don't walk" but there are no cars in sight? Apparently Russians tend to walk, but people from other European countries wait for the light to change. "Who is more free," she asked?

Today we talked about religion (that's a topic for another post ... or hundred posts). Alla Vasilievna mentioned that she is Russian Orthodox, and I asked her about practicing under Communism. She said that she went to church secretly because she knew that if she was caught, she could lose her job at the university or compromise opportunities for advancement. Which sounds to me, with my American predispositions about freedom of religion, like an infringement of personal freedom.

And yet, I believe Alla Vasilievna. I don't know to what extent she represents the rest of her country, but I believe that she secretly attended church and felt somehow personally free at the same time. And I'm fascinated by the idea that in this country, the lines between church and state, between personal and political freedom may not necessarily be drawn more thinly or thickly than in a place like America, but rather on another plane altogether.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


It is impossible to comprehend Russia with the intellect,
Or to measure her with any common measure;
Russia has a unique posture --
It is only possible to believe in Russia.
--Feodor Ivanovich Tiutchev, 1803-1873

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Where am I, you ask?

I'm in Moscow.

Why am I here? Great question.

A few years ago, at the recommendation of several friends, I started reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. She writes about her travels to Italy, India and Indonesia on the heels of a wrenching divorce in an attempt to rediscover meaning in life. But I found myself resenting Gilbert and all her exotic wisdom so much that I had to stop reading after the first few chapters.

Nice for you, I thought, that you can just pack up and travel the world to mend your broken heart. Nice that you have the means and the time and everything to do whatever you want. If I had that luxury, I could also write full-time about the purpose of life, have more spiritual epiphanies and sort through all my personal psychoses.

But I don’t have that luxury. I’m stuck here in what feels like a dead end life with crushing student loans, an hour-long commute to an unfulfilling job, a crisis of faith, disappointment upon disappointment in my personal life and no idea what to do next. And all I’m getting from reading your "inspirational" book is that if I want to find purpose and meaning and healing I need to have a ton of money so I can travel the world. What about the rest of us? What about people who have to find a way to sort things out on a budget, while still juggling life's responsibilities?

And yet, here I am. I’ve arranged for 16 weeks of leave from my job to work on an important-sounding writing project. I've put all my earthly belongings into a 5' by 8' wooden crate. I’ve scraped together enough money to get to Russia and (hopefully) survive there for ten of those weeks. Maybe I bought into it after all. Maybe a part of me really believes that leaving my life behind, even temporarily, and living a foreign life in a foreign country while writing about foreign people is the path to life's answers. Maybe I resented Elizabeth Gilbert because I wanted to be her. Or maybe I just bought exactly what she was selling, without even realizing it.

A few weeks ago, I said to M., Maybe after three months in Russia I’ll know exactly what I want to do with my life. I’ll have direction and answers.

Probably not, he said.

Wow, I thought. That's a little mean.

But he was right, and that's when I realized how hard I was trying to be Elizabeth Gilbert. Life's answers aren't just out there for the taking, growing on mango trees in Thailand or currant bushes in Russia. It's not like there's an on-demand channel for them. I'm just as likely to come back and be right where I started as I am to find answers to any of life’s questions, solve my crisis of faith and have clear direction for my career and my love life.

And you know what? It's a relief to think that maybe I won’t figure it all out this summer. Or ever, for that matter. And so in the end, the answer to why I'm here is that I want to be here. Sure, maybe I'm trying a little too hard to find meaning. Welcome to my world. And yeah, maybe I'm just running away. So what? (Thanks, Dad, for helping me come to terms with that one.) It comes down to the fact that I just want to be here, and I can. And so I am.

It's like this guy said, after quitting his fancy New York City engineering job (what is it with our generation?) to walk across America. (Yep, just walk. He loves walking, apparently. And he’s meeting people and seeing the country and getting to walk.) He said:

"I didn't want to be too ambitious about what I would figure out on this walk. I didn't want to tell myself that when I was done, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. But maybe in the back of my head somewhere, I'm kind of hoping that."

Amen, brother.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Quote of the Day

"We would like to draw your attention to the fact that hot water in the dormitory will be closed until June 30 due to technical reasons of Moscow government."


Sunday, June 20, 2010