Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Today I am as old in years as all the Jewish people

About ten years ago, I read a poem by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko dedicated to Babi Yar, the site of a Nazi massacre of 100,000 Ukrainian and Russian Jews. I was so moved by its indignation, its pathos, that it's always stuck with me. And today, I went there.

Babi Yar today is a winding, grassy, mowed ravine just a few hundred meters from a metro station on Kiev's green line. People on cell phones walk past it on their way to and from work or school, and couples push strollers along the same ground where children, women, men were slaughtered 60 years ago.

I sat on the edge of the ravine, dangling my feet over it, and tried to fathom 100,000 people. Tried to fathom the people who pulled triggers and pushed bodies down the slope – what did they think in that moment? And what did those people, those fathers, mothers, those children, think as they saw bodies piling up, what were their last thoughts, their last words, as they tumbled down into the gulch?

I wanted to say a prayer in that moment, but for who? For the people who died? For the people who killed them? It all seemed so cliche somehow. In the end, I prayed for all of us, for, as FDR put it, “not just an end to war, but an end to the beginning of all wars.” For people today who kill and are killed in places like Sudan, for those who are trying to do something about it, and for those who just don't know what to do about it.

I stepped over the edge, walked into the middle of the ravine, looked back at the monument and remembered the end of Yevtushenko's poem:

The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.

The trees look ominous, like judges.

Here all things scream silently,

and, baring my head,

slowly I feel myself

turning gray.

And I myself

am one massive, soundless scream

above the thousand thousand buried here.

I am

each old man

here shot dead.

I am

every child

here shot dead.

Nothing in me

shall ever forget! …

In my blood there is no Jewish blood.

In their callous rage, all anti-Semites

must hate me now as a Jew.

For that reason

I am a true Russian!

Read the whole thing here. Seriously, read it.


Yesterday, I ate calamari-flavored potato chips.

Today, I ate mushroom-flavored potato chips.

They tasted surprisingly like calamari and mushrooms, and were surprisingly tasty.

The end.

Kiev Temple

And now, to the point of our arduous journey to Kiev: the dedication of the newest temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The night before was a pre-temple-dedication cultural extravaganza, held at the largest concert hall in Kiev. There were dances and dramatizations from Ukraine, Russia, Armenia, and Khazakstan. President Monson was extremely relaxed and casual. As he entered, he greeted the piano player, and then sat down and played a little Chinese chopsticks. And after his short talk, he actually gave noogies to his interpreter.

The Ukrainian choir director, on the other hand, conducted furiously, passionately. It made me smile. There was a dramatization of the history of Kiev, including the baptism of Rus by Prince Vladimir, who, according to legend, investigated a series of religions before choosing Christianity for his people.

Russia’s section of the program was unabashedly passionate and over the top. The section presented by Ukraine had a distinctly Westernish, Mormonish feel to it, but when the Russians came out with their dramatic poses and a passionate love song to God, it was something completely different. And it really made me smile. In Russia, bigger is better, deeper is better, more passionate is better! It’s a little too much for us cool Westerners, but that’s kind of what I love about it. It’s 100% from the heart.

Yulia looked around at the hundreds of people in the audience, leaned over and commented that it was really warm in the room. Yeah, I said, it is kind of stuffy in here, but she said, no, I meant the feeling. It’s like family. And it really was.

After the actual dedication the next day, I started chatting with a woman who I thought was one of the American senior missionaries I knew from Moscow -- shoulder-length hair, lots of makeup, big eyes. It was only when she asked to interview us that I realized it was Carol Mikita of KSL in Utah. I knew she looked familiar!

So she talked to Julia, Alla and me about our trip to Kiev, and we might be on the worldwide newscast between conference sessions! Here's what I told her (more or less):

“I wasn’t sure whether I was going to come to the temple dedication. I spent the summer in Moscow and then traveled to my mission to visit people, and they said, we’ve chartered a bus to go to the temple dedication and there are extra seats -- come with us! And so I did. It’s so great to be here with them. I was on my mission twelve years ago when this temple was announced. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s so great to be able to share it with people who have waited so long and who it means so much for.”

(These three families from Rostov got sealed in the temple the day after it was dedicated -- and I got to see it. Neat.)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again

Add to the list of supposedly fun things I’ll never do again: A 22-hour road trip with 45 friends on a bus. Add in Soviet-era roads; waiting four hours at the border between Russia and Ukraine; two group sing-a-longs; and rest stops with squat toilets that you have to pay to use, and you have an idea of the luxury travel I enjoyed this weekend.

Trip highlights included:

*Rest stops. And not just for the rest. It was amusing to watch the mothers and grandmothers in the group venture into the bushes to avoid paying a 50-cent fee to use the bathrooms. That was the first rest stop. Later, after dark, we pulled over for another rest stop, and as I got out of the bus I realized that there was no rest stop at all. We were pulled over onto the shoulder of the road and people were scattered among the trees doing their business like it was the most normal thing in the world.

*Eating kolbasa sandwiches and sharing a teacup of juice with the Hausbiulins, each drinking out of a different side.

*Showing Roma the PhotoBooth application

Funny thing is, when they all got back on the bus tonight to head back to Russia and I stood waving and blowing kisses on the sidewalk, I actually felt a pang of sadness that I wasn’t going back with them.

But I guess that didn't really have anything to do with the bus.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Rostov’s believe-it-or-not

On Thursday I met up with Lyudmila, Alya and Ruslan, some of my dearest friends from my mission days in Rostov. We met in Gorky Park, in the center of the city, and caught up over ice cream and juice. I met Ira, Alya’s daughter, a 100% sweetheart:

And then, because we had a little extra time, Alya suggested we visit the Peter the Great Kuntzkamera exhibit in the museum nearby. I didn’t know what Kuntzkamera meant, but a museum exhibit sounded lovely to me, so I agreed. We bought tickets and stepped through a red velvet curtain into the exhibit space, which was filled with … wax statues of people with odd deformities.

For example (and I wish this picture had come out a little clearer but I took it on the sly), this man with two heads, and this man with an unusually large mouth. There was also a dwarf woman, a man with a huge pointy nose and ears, and some others -- all exact replicas of real people and real deformities.

We moved onto the next portion of the exhibit: deformed fetus pictures. Um. I won’t go into detail, and I wasn't about to take any pictures -- I could hardly look at them. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, we rounded the corner into a room with wax heads depicting various skin diseases on the right side, and jars containing actual deformed fetuses in formaldehyde on the left. Alya, her four-year-old in tow, studied all the descriptions, fully intrigued.

Just when I think I know what to expect from Russia and Russians, I get another weird surprise. I kind of love that about Russia. Keeps me on my toes.

Hug me

They say that if you are going to adopt an orphan, you are better off choosing one that hides in the corner from you than one that runs up and gives you a hug. The hesitant child has healthier boundaries and fewer attachment issues, while the affectionate one is more likely to burn your house down one day.

All the same, when a little boy named Sasha jumped into my arms, wrapped his arms and legs around me, and held on even when I moved to put him down – I couldn’t help hugging him back a little longer, a little tighter, wondering how often, if ever, he got a hug long enough that he was ready to let go.

And as I held him, I felt something inside of me release, and I realized it’s been a while since I had a good, long hug, too.

I went with Raya last week to the orphanage to deliver some blankets that the Relief Society women’s organization in Rostov made for them. Here's Raya (in red) and other members of the congregation presenting the blankets to the director of the orphanage:

The orphans are divided into groups of about ten children, and one small wing of the orphanege served each group. Here is the bathroom for one of the groups -- ten little cups, ten little toothbrushes, ten little towels.

The tables were all set for lunch.
And this ... this is a little mini sauna for children. They sit on that little shelf (height-adjustable) and put their heads out the top. Then the door is closed and the steam is turned on. The director told us it helps panicky children calm down.
And here are some of the kids:

There would have been a few more pictures of the kids, but as soon as that last pictures was taken, I was swarmed by small children with attachment issues who wanted to see themselves on the screen, millions of little fingers grabbing and groping the camera, and the battery died a few minutes later. But I still won’t forget all the little eyes looking hopefully up at me, the little arms reaching out, the sense of all the little people in this world looking for a little love.

(Insert rousing rendition of “We Are the World” or "The Greatest Love".)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ghosts, part 2

I just realized that the subconscious influence behind my last post was a collection of pictures I saw recently. Photographer Sergei Larenkov started with photos of the siege of Leningrad in WWII, then photographed the exact same places today and combined them in Photoshop, reminding people of the history that happened on the same streets they walk down every day. The result is haunting, and cool:

See more photos from the collection here and here, and an article about the artist here.

Quantum leap

So many unfinished blog posts, so little time ...

I've escaped the heat and smog to Rostov-na-donu -- the city where I served 9 months of my mission, all in one area. I feel like I'm in a time warp. Where am I? Who am I? What year is it? Where did all these supermarkets and billboards come from?

I was kind of disoriented at first, and exhausted by Moscow both physically and emotionally, but a few days of Raya Hausbiulina's amazing cooking and stories revived me. Turns out a Russian grandma was just what the doctor ordered.

I rode the 71 bus from Zorge to Tsentralniy Rinok the other day, craning my head to see out of the dirty window. If I peeled back the layer of billboards and storefronts and new buildings pasted onto the familiar landscape, I recognized the same crumbling balconies, the same worn dirt paths. I remembered buying ice cream on the corner of Stachki and Zorge – I knew the shape of the corner, I could almost see the ghost of a woman pulling the squat cone out of her portable freezer – it was a cold day in February. It was like the image was superimposed on the current August scene, and if you tried to focus on it too closely it would disappear, but if you let your eyes blur then it appeared right there.

The trees around our apartment were much bigger, and I remembered walking through the park nearby to visit someone who was selling eggs at a rinok in the middle of winter. We brought hot chocolate to her. I remembered a pile of watermelon, taller than I was, on the sidewalk in the summer, and buying chocolate at a kiosk from someone who wanted us to invite them to visit America. I remembered walking in the chastni sector singing “country roads,” eating mulberries right off the trees, and walking through the meat section of the market near Druzhinikov Square. I wanted to peel back the façade of modernization – because that’s all it seems to be here, is a façade pasted onto the same old crumbling landscape – peel back the years, see myself walking through the square to Alla Ivanovna’s apartment or talking to Ruslan, Alya and Lyudmila and the elders at the bus stop about how to properly eat sunflower seeds.

Ghosts were everywhere, and for a moment, all moments were present, and I knew that the core person I am now really is the same person I was then, as much as I may or may not have changed. The trees around the statue of the working class man waving his flag at the beginning of Zapadny region have grown tall enough to obscure the foot of the statue, and riding past them I lost my sense of time and place -- for a moment they became the trees on the way from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and all moments were present. If I had exited that bus and found myself in Jerusalem or Moscow or Washington or Peru, it would have seemed completely normal.

And it was comforting, in a way. More to come about people, experiences, thoughts.

Congrats to the happy couple!

Yay for Zach and Heather!

(Blogger and iPhone and Microsoft and Russia are conspiring to make it impossible to turn this picture right side up. I can't fix it now but will repost soon. In the meantime, please celebrate by standing on your heads.)

UPDATE 9/3/10: I'm back in the land of internet connectivity and just went to change out this upside-down photo, but it's sort of grown on me. Enough of you liked it that I think I'll just post the right-side-up version here along with it (thanks to b. for helping me right it, even if I couldn't post right away):

Congrats again! Love you guys!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Moscow burning

There's a scene near the end of the novel Master and Margarita where the devil sits on top of the Vorobyovi Hills in Moscow and watches fires burn in different parts of the city. Apparently Bulgakov originally planned to have the entire city go up in flames (perhaps as a statement about Moscow, the guardian of Orthodoxy, the “Third Rome, never to be a fourth”).

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about that almost-scene in the last couple of weeks. I can’t describe what it’s like to walk along the street and not be able to see the trees or buildings you know are just a few hundred yards away. What it’s like to feel an itchy sensation at the back of your throat and know that all kinds of particles are filtering into your lungs each time you take a breath. What it’s like to be so hot, -- so very, very hot -- and so tired, so ready to drape yourself on a chair and just sit and stare. It’s still around 100 degrees every day, no air conditioning, and I’m starting to feel a little crazy. Especially now that I’ve closed my window so as not to breathe in air that I’m told approximates smoking four packs of cigarettes a day.

From what I understand, this is all due to a number of forest fires and peat bog fires in the Moscow region and across Russia. Apparently many of the peat bogs were drained in Soviet times in order to harvest the peat, leaving a situation where the peat can spontaneously start to burn if the temperature gets too high. And Moscow has had record-breaking temperatures with no rain for over a month. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, the smoke from the peat fires can cover the city. And let me tell you, it smells awesome.

But I don’t want to let a little smoke get in the way of my summer, so a couple days ago I set off in search of a modern art gallery that I’d been wanting to check out. I came up out of the metro and walked for something like two miles trying to find it, spending more than an hour in the smog. The city felt so desolate, so apocalyptic. I tried not to think of the treeless, hazy end-of-the-world scenario in The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I tried not to think of the anti-smoking ad in the metro here that pictures a hand squeezing a lung and a thick stream of greenish gook oozing from it, tried not to picture my own lungs and what they might now resemble. I tried not to hear Robert Frost’s lines about the world ending in fire echoing in my head. The music in my headphones was like a soundtrack to an apocalyptic film, blocking out all street sounds, and everyone seemed to be moving in slow motion.

I finally got on a trolleybus, not knowing where it was going, but hoping it would deposit me at a metro stop, any metro stop. It did, and I got on a train heading for home, sank into a seat, put on my headphones and closed my eyes, pretending to be anywhere else but there. Pretending I wasn’t covered in a thin film of salt and dust and moisture, pretending everyone else around me wasn’t either, pretending I wasn’t breathing in smoke, even inside the metro – trying to go somewhere, anywhere else in my mind.

I think that was the first day I came home and put my head in the freezer to cool off.

Photos from the Moscow Times.

Read more here http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/medvedev-fires-5-as-moscow-chokes/411735.html

and here http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/moscows-smog-worsens-as-wildfires-rage/411872.html#no