Life in a New Russia: St. Petersburg

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An insider’s taste of Russia! June 25, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 1:56 am
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This is a shadow page of my blog “Life in a New Russia: St. Petersburg.”  Please check me out at:


Vladimir Vasilyevich June 16, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 10:26 pm

<!– /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:""; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";} @page Section1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:SectioThe next day after we came to St. Petersburg, my mother, my grandmother and I took a trip to visit some relative in Saransk, in the Russian Republic of Mordovia. This is in the central part of the country and it took thirty hours by train to reach our destination. We had a four-person compartment and our companion Vladimir Vasilyevich proved to be an engaging conversationalist. After a while, the four of us got to talking about literature.

Grandmother: Dostoyevsky, he had epilepsy from a young age, and that reflected on his psychological state.

Mom: And so what?

Gm: When you start reading him…

Mom: Mom, stop yelling!

Gm: I can’t hear well, I took my hearing aids out…anyway, you begin reading him, and one phrase, one sentence takes up an entire paragraph! You keep reading and reading and in the end you lose track of where he began and where he ended. It’s hard to read him, very hard.

Mom: Well, what are you going to do?

Gm: Chekhov is good to read, or Tolstoy, but Dostoyevsky is hard.

Vladimir Vasilyevich: I don’t like Tolstoy!

Mom: But nevertheless, Dostoyevsky is the most famous [Russian] writer in the West…

Gm: And now they’re releasing the Brothers Karamazov again…I guess they have nothing better do to…

VV: The thing is that in [Dostoyevsky] you find a special point of view on the contemporary circumstances. You can either accept or reject any point of view that’s written…. And if you look at him, you realize his own state is pretty destabilized…”

He did not stop talking for almost 30 hours. He was a zoologist and professor at the Russian Academy of Science, an expert on invertebrate single-celled organisms. He had an opinion about everything. In first couple of hours of our trip, he spoke profusely on topics ranging from tick varieties, amoeba feeding patterns, salmon mating behavior, the particularities of crocodile blood and stomach acidity, the economic crisis, and the stifling inefficiency of the Russian bureaucracy.

“Russia has plenty of brilliant minds capable of making far greater discoveries than western scientists!” asserted Vladimir Vasilyevich, “The problem is that there’s no money, no grants for equipment and technological development. Nevertheless, people are working.”

He told us about the working conditions of a Russian scientist, bearing in mind that the Academy is the most prestigious research institution in the country and is government-subsidized.

“We do have internet access, but we can’t access a lot of scientific sites for example, because we don’t have the money. That access has to be paid for. But the Academy has no money.” Vladimir Vasilyevich said that he frequently accesses such websites using passwords which he obtains from friends and colleagues in other countries.

“Basically the exchange of scientific information is built on personal contacts and networks. Students’ access to all this information is even more restricted. It’s like the powers that be are trying to prevent people from finding common ground independently of the government. You can’t expect to have some unified absolute anywhere though. It’s impossible to unite any country to have a universal consensus on everything, unless it’s a war.”

After talking on a bit about the continued totalitarian tendencies of the Russian government, he added: “Here’s what’s most annoying to me: When initiatives or ideas are put forward [by the government] the seem really great, but the most important thing is missing: There’s no mechanism for realization!”

My grandmother chimed in at this point:

“Everything will come!” she said.

VV: Nothing will come!

Gm: Yes it will!

VV: No, all I see for the moment is the equivalent to taking out adenoids through the back door.

Gm: Well that’s the kind of mentality we have…

VV: No! Mentality has nothing to do with it!

Gm: We Russians really like…

VV: Let’s not even go there!…I’ve lived my fair share as well, and know lots of people with really good heads on their shoulders, but they’re constantly interfered with! Because their ideas are realizable and efficient, but this pushes a lot of bureaucrats away from the feeding trough! And that’s why people say ‘oh it’s our mentality’! It’s not mentality!

Gm: Well, now we’re under a new regime, so put your ideas forward and everything will be done!

Mom and VV: Nothing will be done! It’s all the same old thing!

VV: Nothing has changed. In the Soviet period financing was impossible to find, and it’s the same thing now. The soviet system made it so that nothing is mine, but everything is ours, so people feel free to steal. There’s no sense of private ownership, no respect of private property. Innovation is stifled by greed!

Dispite his overall criticism of the government, Vladimir Vasilyevich did have something positive to say of Putin: “He is the only one of those high-ranked officials who didn’t try to adjust the constitution to himself.”

At the mention of the current Prime Minister, my grandmother launched into a heart-felt speech about how good he has been to retired people, increasing and promising to continue increasing pensions. Elderly people in the last few years have also been receiving special gifts of food and household items to celebrate Victory Day on May 9th.

Vladimir Vasilyevich mentioned that his pension is only 3,000 rubles per month, or roughly $100.

“I’d rather them return to me what I have given to this country. I don’t need Victory Day gifts!” Even though he is of retirement age, he expects to continue working for as long as he can. The older pensioners like my grandmother, who is 83, are the only ones to receive significant pension raises. Nevertheless she too continues to work one day a week to supplement her income.

If it seemed to him like we were getting tired of talking, Vladimir Vasilyevich would go out for a smoke or talk with someone else in the car. At first he didn’t eat very much but only drank coffee. But by the end of the trip, my Grandmother had completely included him into our meals. We even put his zoological skills to work in inspecting some smoked fish my mom bought at one of the train stops.

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An Inconvenient Truth June 14, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 2:42 pm

May 31, 2009. Saint Petersburg

Upon arrival to my native city I am swiftly reminded of an interesting particularity of daily life in Russia which is shocking once one has been away for a while. Everything is annoyingly inconvenient. There are large ways in which things can be inconvenient, for example inaccessibility of single-family homes, or perhaps the lack of proper infrastructure. But the things that hit me were minor, irritating elements of daily life. Below are a few examples and situations.

Traveling takes its toll – The following series of events I have only seen once in my life, even for Russia this seems an over-the-top inconvenience. Upon exiting the parking lot in front of the airport in Saint Petersburg, you have to stick a little ticket you received when entering the lot into a machine. Standard. If you were there for 15 minutes or less, the parking is free, and the barrier opens to allow you to leave the airport. If the time of your stay exceeded 15 minutes you have to pay. However, the toll booth housing the person to whom the money has to be given is physically situated before the machine into which the parking lot ticket is stuck to know if one has to pay. So, if you do have to pay, you have to put your car in reverse, and pull back to the toll booth to pay the man. But, since there are already a million other cars behind you making it impossible to back up that far, the driver has to squeeze out of the car to go to the booth and pay for his parking time. Only then is the barrier opened, and the vehicle can exit. Since this is quite the mind-boggling scenario, below is a rough diagram illustrating the “flow” of traffic out of the airport parking lot:

There’s only one way out…or in
– Life in the western world has conditioned me to expect that if I see a set of double doors, both sides of the set will be functioning, one to allow traffic into the building and the other for those exiting. Or, if there is a large stretch of building with several sets of double doors, all of them will be open in order to increase the fluidity of traffic. Not so in Russia. Regardless of the amount of doors, the size of the building or the number of people trying to get through, only one door will ever be open. And not one set of doors, but just one side of one set of double doors. Not only does it create an extreme two-way bottleneck effect for no imaginable reason at all, but the phenomenon of passing through the door is preceded by a brief period of frantic rushing from one set of doors to another only to come to the realization that all of them are indeed locked and that to get to where you want to go, you’ll have to squeeze in with the fifty other people already trying to diffuse from one space to another. The only exception to this is the Metro where all doors are always open. This attempt at a man-made semi permeable membrane is also probably against all fire codes, but luckily for the institutions that practice this sort of traffic control, no one is around to enforce them anyway.

Exact exchange – In Russia, it can be surprisingly difficult to spend money, especially if you have large bills on your hands. Quite simply, most establishments that sell anything from groceries to theatre tickets are somehow not equipped with sufficient small moneys to provide change for large bills. Two or three times in any given day people will ask you to provide exact change, or extra coins so that the change can be given in one single bill. The larger your bill (say for example, a 1000 ruble bill), the harder it is to spend it since you just can’t get change. Case in point: When I visited the Anna Akhmatova museum all I had was a 1000 ruble bill. An audio guide cost 80 rubles. I had to go to four different people all over the museum to try to find someone who could give me change. Finally, someone begrudgingly exchanged my bill for a few smaller ones and I could enjoy the museum. The cashier who did mentioned that she probably would not be able to make change for anyone else for the rest of the day.

The Anti-crisis sale – The final thing I’d like to mention is the prevalence of the economic crisis. Talk of the global financial downturn talk can be heard in regular conversations as well as in the public and corporate arenas. Unquestionably, the world crisis is sharply felt in Russia. People are losing jobs, down-sizing businesses, and seeing their assets steadily lose in value. However, one convenience that has been a result of this crisis is the so-called “anti-crisis” promotion. Businesses have been jumping at the opportunity to advertise special discounts in light of the economic situation in the county: Get twice the sushi for half the price!


Train Woman – a flashback vignette of last summer May 17, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 7:38 pm

-“Fuck! Fag sons of bitches!”
-“Yeah, they’re not buying anything!”

One of these two shaggy, red-faced women had just staggered through the train car with a handful of dirty, red-and-green road maps of Saint Petersburg and a long ribbon of lottery tickets. As she came toward my end of the car, dragging her feet haphazardly through the swaying car, she mumbled incoherently about the attributes of her maps. Her dirty brown coat was emblazoned with psychedelic insignia and tribal symbols.

-“She’s drunk out of her mind, she can barely walk,” my grandmother whispered to me when the woman passed us. For some strange reason I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She sat down in between two men on the last bench of the car and tried feebly to sell the maps to one of them. No success. I kept looking. She hung her head and collapsed onto her knees. Then she held her face in one hand and looked up after a moment. Her dirty face, framed by wisps of blond, relatively rare hair, was imprinted with fatigue. She looked out onto the long car and her eyes didn’t look to me like they were inebriated by alcohol. They were red, dim, and desperate. She was fighting down tears.

Then she got up and tried again, shuffling her feet wearily. The train began to slow down and as the doors opened onto another subway station she rushed out, meeting her counterpart from the next car, and damned us for our lack of consumer participation. The doors closed and both disappeared in the dim light of the Saint Petersburg metro.


Peregruzka March 7, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 5:30 pm

While in Geneva on March 6, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this little gift of good will. It was supposed to be a “Reset” button signaling a new era in Russian-American relations. The State Department made this gift with what they thought to be the Russian word for “Reset” written in latin characters across the top. Unfortunately it seems that there are no native Russian speakers working at the State Department, because the word they wrote was “Peregruzka”, or overload.

A couple of issues seem obvious to me. First of all, why isn’t there anyone in the State Department who is a native speaker and who could have overseen the production of this gift? This would have saved the U.S. government a major embarassment amidst an already-shaky international relationship.

The second thing is the word itself. Overload. Perhaps it was the appropriate word after all? In the past year, there have been incidents such as the war in Georgia this August, the New Year’s gas distribution crisis, the continuing debates about NATO’s influence on the states of the former Soviet Bloc, the election of Medvedev to the presidency, as well as the ongoing arguments as to who is actually running our country. All of this combined with the particularly politically-charged year the United States itself has experienced, can make for quite the mental overload. In the struggle to figure out where the new U.S. administration stands and in what way they would like to develop a relationship with Russia, one also sees Russia trying to re-assert iteself as a growing global power player. Things are diffciult to sort out and a “new direction” cannot be taken so easily. We can’t really reset an international relationship, we can only try to mediate it in hopes of imporvement. People don’t easily forget history, or economic interests after all, both of which have put the U.S. and Russia at odds with eachother over the past century. It’s no wonder someone at the State Department felt overwhelmed.


Wordle February 4, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 5:49 pm

I did a Wordle about the Blog today. I really liked what came out. I think I will start writing again.


The Untold Tale October 28, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 7:47 pm

After I returned from my trip to St. Petersburg, I was trying hard to consolidate what I learned back home with my experiences in the Russian community of Syracuse. I was trying to write an article about the Russian community of Syracuse for the local paper, the Post Standard. But I couldn’t quite get a coherent story. Recently, I’ve decided to switch my perspective, and write a different story.

Even though the original article may not be newspaper-worthy, I feel like I owe it and the people I wrote about some exposure. Love it or leave it, here is my story.

Every time I come through the plain red door of my house I feel like Harry Potter, crossing an invisible divide between two very different worlds. From a world of pizza, wings, and Philly cheese steaks I enter one of salted fish, beef tongue, and pickled vegetables.

A slew of people gather at my house regularly to celebrate birthdays, baptisms, as well as less traditional occasions. Recently we hosted the Annual Beer Festival, a favorite occasion among the Russian community in Syracuse. Families from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan stormed our home for an afternoon of Slavic delicatessen, a variety of local and imported beers, and some great stories.

Unlike many other immigrants, Russians look like any average Syracusean, until we open our lunchboxes, or our mouths.

“I’m pretty sure most people say that I have an accent,” said Varvara Mikushkina, 20. “Here in Syracuse accents are such a bigger part of defining you, it’s almost like a race. When I lived in New York City I didn’t know I was different. There are so many accents in Queens, I didn’t know I had one. I feel studied now.”

But it’s not just the accent that makes Mikushkina feel studied. V-A-R-V-A-R-A is a difficult barrier to cross. She goes by Barbara among her American friends. She lives with two different identities, divided simply by the pronunciation of her name. “I have to be someone I’m not [among Americans]. One of the greatest things about having Russian friends is being proud that they can say my name right. That’s the truth.”

But it’s not just our exotic names that make us feel out of place in this country. We just can’t interact with our neighbors the way we do with our countrymen.

Most of the men are shirtless within fifteen minutes when we host parties on summer days. Our voices get louder, and food begins to be treated very seriously.

In the kitchen, my step-father Sergey Golovko and friend Arkady Tolkachou excitedly discussed the best way to marinate salmon. Elsewhere in the house, Orthadox icons of the Virgin Mary protecting the house from evil thought and of Nicholas the Miracle Maker safeguarding people far from home hang on the walls. Next to them pictures of the canals and palaces of St. Petersburg pay tribute to our home city. On the TV screen stiff anchors speak urgently in Russian about the latest developments in Georgia: “The Georgian army has bombed another Ossetian town…”

Physicists, doctors, nurses, and computer analysts drive up to my house in Ford Explorers and Hyundai station wagons. They come with their kids who go to Liverpool High School and CNS. Most of us are used to having two identities: One to abide by American social standards and the other to feel at home.

Caviar (not a rare luxury in Russian homes), shish kebabs, pickled vegetables, salads and smoked fish, are set around our table. Hearty, warm smells fill the air as we prepare to feast during several Thanksgiving-like hours. I found myself next to Arkady’s wife Elena. She,her husband, and their two daughters came from Misk, Belarus almost eight years ago. Back home, they struggled to make ends meet.

“Here life is good, materially I mean,” she said thoughtfully, sweeping back a strand of short brown hair. So what’s missing?

“My friends and relatives,” she said as she watched me cover toast with red caviar. “I would be completely happy if all my relatives lived here. Otherwise I like everything here better.”

My family and I arrived in the US eleven years ago. I was nine. After living in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia due to my mother’s studies, we have settled in Syracuse. Every time we move the process finding new Russian-speaking friends begins. But it’s as if we had known each other all along. When we meet, we come together easily.

There were twenty of us at my house on this particular day, ranging from age seven to their mid-50s. We met each other through school, work or mutual acquaintances.

“When you meet a non-Russian person for the first time you feel like you have to start from scratch to define you,” said my friend Varvara, “but when you meet a Russian person for the first time you’re already half way done!”

Varvara and I are always very excited when our little community gets together. We are always proud to represent our culture but nothing beats being around people who share your experiences. She boasts a large tattoo of a cartoon goldfish on her left thigh. Ornate orange-and-black flowers wrap around her right leg. Few non-Slavs would know the folkloric origins of the goldfish or recognize the wood-painting Khohloma design.

She is an unusual sight to the unfamiliar eye, and but it’s not the curiosity that bothers her. “It’s the people that examine you but don’t ask anything, because they’re so intimidated by that. I’d rather have you ask and study me rather than study me without asking”

Now that she is entering her second year at Syracuse University, Varvara says that she is more socially comfortable in college. Her Russian friends understand her and she is glad for the opportunities she has to socialize with fellow immigrants.

“No matter where you are and what country you’re from you get it. You get this immigration process you get this poorness. There’s a poorness most immigrants have dealt with.”

I associate this poorness with homelessness. When our parents come here, they are often without a home. Many sell their property in Russia to afford the journey. My parents had to start from scratch in rural Appalachian college towns. We had no connections, little money and a very feint idea of how things worked in this country.

But as I grew up and my parents have established themselves, purchased a house, and built new careers I still have that feeling of homelessness.

“You are a Russian citizen but you’re not really Russian anymore,” my mother’s half-brother Gregory said to me one day this summer in Russia. I spent two months in my hometown of St. Petersburg, and for the first time in my life I saw indifference in friends’ and relatives’ eyes. I couldn’t possible understand their lives they seemed to be saying. How could my home be a place I know nothing about?

Olga Mikushkina, Varvara’s mother confirmed my experiences as she held a piece of shish kebab for her baby son, Konstantin. “People over there think that we betrayed our homeland. Absolutely. No one will say it to your face but I felt it,” she said. “When you go back there you expect people to take you as you are. I don’t think I’ve changed for example, my husband feels the same way, but of course we’ve changed. After ten years it’s bound to happen.”

The Mikushikins’ home is also filled with Russian food and art. Olga’s husband, artist Nikolay Mikushkin, often paints Russian landscapes and cityscapes and has set up a gallery in their home at 176 Kuhl Ave in Syracuse. But often, our ideas about Russia, expressed in words or on the canvas, are ones of a home we left and not of the country that exists today.

As night fell and the air cooled, the men put their shirts back on. We bring out the giant samovar to heat water for tea. When I looked around at my guests, old and young, I think that they are all here to stay. Why? Arkady Tolkachev puts it well:

“My homeland is the Soviet Union, not Belarus, I miss the Soviet Union. There used to be a system that worked. We can say that someone didn’t get what they deserved back then but it’s the same in America. There’s always someone who doesn’t get what he deserves. If you followed the principles of the socialist system you could live pretty well. If you take the living standards in the cities in, say, 1980, I don’t think we were much worse off than Americans.”

All of that is gone today, and so are the places we arrived from in the 90s. My family came from Russia, the Nesterenkos from the Ukraine, the Talkachous from Belarus, and the Mikushkins and Brusgulis from Kazakhstan. In the USSR, the distinctions between the republics were only formal ones. After 1992 all of these people suddenly found themselves divided, living in new nations. Some were just as foreign to them as the US.

The evening drew to a close and the women collect their sleepy children. My mother packed up leftovers of fish, shish kebabs and various salads in the kitchen for people to take home. I watched as our friends prepare to go back to America. I know that once they are outside my doors and back at their jobs they will become reserved and private. They will not be hostile to those who misunderstand them. Like me, they will simply accept that the next time they will fill at ease and understood is in their home or in mine.