Life in a New Russia: St. Petersburg

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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.


Supermodel Documentary Hour August 22, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 4:10 pm

These are the faces of Russian soldiers in Georgia that are being posted on and shown on television.

I think the glamour shot speaks for itself. If this is the way Russian soldiers are portrayed in the Western media, is there any surprise as to why Russians are always thought of as bad guys?


Trust No One August 14, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 4:34 am

In the midst of all this conflict going on between Russia and Georgia I have found the mass media outlets in the US outrageously biased, disappointing, shallow, and unprofessional.

All we keep hearing on CNN and other channels and websites is how Russia has committed horrifying violations of international law by “invading a sovereign nation”! But why isn’t anyone talking about why this whole conflict started? Why isn’t anyone mentioning the fact that the province of South Ossetia (over 70% Russian) was attacked by Georgian troops for trying to break with Georgia to join North Ossetia in Russia? Why are we only hearing the Georgians’ side on this, does no one care what the Ossetins have to say? I found only one page on that mentioned Georgia’s actions towards the Ossetins which started the fighting.

Then Georgian president Saakashvili goes on CNN (where they can’t even pronounce his name correctly and still call Putin “President”) and speaks in English about how Russia is just trying to wipe out this tiny “democratic” nation. He should have also mentioned the fact that two months ago his party sabotaged the election in violation with international observers’ guidelines to guarantee his win. But perhaps we don’t hear anything about this because the US also has a dubious “free election” record. Or perhaps it is because the US has huge interests in building rocket bases in Georgia and making it part of a NATO ring which seems to be slowly crawling into former Soviet Republics to encompass Russia.

THEN John McCain boldly proclaims that “In the 21st Century countries don’t invade other countries!” This man is clearly suffering from elderly forgetfulness or dementia and is unfit to lead a nation.

As tanks are shown rolling around roads in what they say are outskirts of Tbilisi, reporters focus on dubious Russian soldiers “smelling of alcohol.” This doesn’t differ very much from the way the US media showed the Russian athletes at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Looks like were all just violent, drunk, babbling cavemen.

But I’m not about to claim that in Russia they’re covering this fairly or that the only reason Russians have retaliated is to protect their countrymen in South Ossetia. There are oil pipe lines at risk of course. And perhaps this is vengeance for Georgia’s betrayal of the age-old partnership between two neighbors.

My family and I are at a loss for words. We realize that we can’t really trust anyone to tell the whole story. But I mostly feel sorry for the Ossetins, who seem to have become a tiny, disposable pawn in a big ideological and political love triangle. Russia, clearly offended by Georgian betrayal; Georgia, trying to claim its 15 minutes of fame on the world stage (by the way, I bet most viewers didn’t even know where this country was on the map a week ago); and America, playing the cowboy as always, ready to make quick judgments and stamp out an old enemy.


Seeing the Ripples August 1, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 4:41 am

Well, it’s been a little over a week since i came back from Russia. Prior to returning to Syracuse I spent five days in New York City. It’s so calm and friendly compared to St. Petersburg! Honestly! The city may not sleep but I definitely felt a positive, content energy about it.

They say that New Yorkers are rude, but to me they seem to show all the behavioral signs of being a part of a well-to-do society. The high standard of living in American shows even among stressed out city dwellers. Random strangers asked me if I needed help getting somewhere. People in crowded subway cars didn’t feel the need to be rude. In St. Petersburg people don’t like to show their kinder face in public.

Even the homeless people in NYC look like they’re better off. You never see a bum in St. Petersburg with a whole grocery cart full of stuff. If we are to judge a society by how well-off it’s worst-off are, it seems that there are oceans separating my homeland and my home.


Where Did My City Go? July 13, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 9:52 pm

Where beautiful eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings used to complete the architectural ensemble of St. Petersburg, glitzy, modern high-rises reach for the sky like jagged claws of an underground monster. It is as if the new buildings popping up all over the city today are a forewarning of the horror that is to rise up from the ground in the not-too-distant future.

This week I met a couple of real-live democrats and community activists who happen to live in a beautiful old building near Nevsky Prospect. After spending a few hours with Vera and her American husband Thomas (who prefers to go by his Russian name Foma), I learned some shocking facts about how hard it is to exercise one’s civic duties in the city today.

Vera and Foma are active with a St. Petersburg group called Zhivoi Gorod (Live City). Its mission is to protect the cultural and architectural heritage of the city by keeping track of destroyed buildings, getting the word out about buildings and monuments at risk, and counteracting the construction of eye-soars as best they can.

Over the past eight years the city has come face-to-face with a real-estate boom that demands more and more ground to be yielded in the prestigious center. Many buildings there are not very well maintained and so can easily be written off for demolition. Others are officially recognized as architectural monuments but even this status does not always protect a building located on a juicy piece of property.

Such was the fate of a whole block of buildings on Nevsky Prospekt, on the corner of Vasstania Place. Despite its status as a protected block, a couple of years ago St. Petersburg woke up to a giant demolition site instead of a historic corner. Vera and Foma are afraid to imagine what will replace the old buildings.

But probably the most famous recent architectural controversy in the city is over the construction of a gigantic business complex for Gazprom. The “Okhta Center” was successfully booted out from the historic heart of St. Petersburg but is now slated for construction on the banks of the Okhta River, just across the water from Smolni Cathedral.

Our activists attended a public meeting organized by the city in order to allow people to “speak their mind” about the building of the complex. They were shocked to find that the organizers “hired a whole lot of people to imitate support for the project.”
Foma attests to the fact that “There were hundreds of people there who came only because they were organized by someone and paid off. Afterward there was a huge line of people in front of a bus, waiting to collect their money.”

Groups like Zhivoi Gorod tried to stop this and crash the hearing. “At one point, the SWAT team came in and took note of all the people protesting, and took about ten into custody. And that’s what they call ‘We’re interested in what the public thinks,’” said Foma.

I asked Vera about the possibilities groups like Zhivoi Gorod have to demonstrate in the streets. She explains that it’s “extremely hard to get to a place where people will see you.” Any group wanting to demonstrate has to let the city know about this, but the city can override the demonstration plans if there is road work in the area, if another group has already scheduled to meet there, or if there aren’t enough police officers available to patrol the march.

“Every group wants to organize and march in places they will be seen, such as Nevsky,” said Foma, but this is next to impossible. If a group does get permission, it is often “on streets where there are no people.” He feels that the government “tries to prevent the citizens, by any means possible, from knowing what’s happening, or that someone isn’t happy, or that there are people trying to combat these problems and challenge the powers that be. And if it ever does get out, it’s almost always covered in a negative light.”

Foma, self-proclaimed democrat and socialist, works as a translator and has been interested in Russian literature since he was a child. He started learning the language in the 90s when he moved to St. Petersburg. Vera works in the American consulate, and both she and Foma are deeply saddened by the move away from political pluralism in the country.

The couple says that in the 90s, people truly experienced freedom of speech and of the press, and that the country experienced true democracy manifested in the vast number of different political parties. You could have an opinion, express it, and act on it without worrying about getting into trouble.

Now, things are looking bleak, and they see less and less of the St. Petersburg they know and love. The wide-sweeping power of Putin’s United Russia is, in their opinion, killing whatever is left of a democratic culture which developed so fiercely in the 90s.

My talk with the two was fairly argumentative, but I realized after I left that it was because I agreed with them at heart. It would be silly to deny that it’s harder to speak your mind in the press and that it’s harder to get into office if you disagree with the people in power these days. I’ve heard too many stories like the one the couple told me about Gazprom to say they are wrong about the tendencies in the city.

But on some level, I want to believe that the changes that are happening are for the better. Perhaps almost everyone else I have talked to here (people that love Putin and think Russia is headed to great new heights, away from the 90s horror) feels the same way. After a century of war, repression, shortage, and permeating ideology, it’s hard to let oneself think that it’s starting all over again.

Since we feel powerless, we start to think that things are happening just the way they are supposed to, that we are moving to a state of affairs resembling tsarist Russia rather than the USSR, and that the glassy claws breaking through the historic skyline are friendly beacons of hope for the new success of our country.