Archive for July, 2014

Thursday started out as a good day and kept getting progressively better. I got up and got on the Metro to head off to the RGVA (the military archive) and was pleasantly surprised to immediately notice someone watching the tv show Chuck on their iPad. Sadly I could not creep on them for very long as I had to get off at the next stop to switch lines.

"Short skirt and a long jacket."

“Short skirt and a long jacket.”

I had planned my trip to Ulyanovsk around when my documents would be ready at the military archive. Their summer holiday ran from July 1st through 14th. They said that my documents would be ready on the 17th. I arrived, handed them my pass, and told them that I was expecting documents. The woman at the reading room window could not immediately find my documents so she told me to take a seat. I waited for about 15 minutes before she came back to me. She said that she had found the request form, but for some reason someone had incorrectly written that the documents would be ready on the 25th, which is great because I leave on the 24th. The woman apologized for the mistake and told me that the documents will be ready on Monday.

Not having the documents ready worked in my favor, though, because a new friend was going to be spending the day in Moscow. As I mentioned in the previous post, Jason teaches English in Ulyanovsk at the school run by my friends. He had told me that he read my blog before going to Ulyanovsk. Now he’s got a post almost completely dedicated to his day in Moscow. Congrats, Jason, you’re slightly famous now. I had planned to meet Jason in the evening after a day of reading documents, but I ended up being free as of 11AM. Jason was staying at the Izmailovo hotel complex and was wandering around the souvenir market there, so I said I would meet him there. Due to the location of the archive, it took me almost an hour to meet him there. The market was fun as always, though many of the vendors were not there on Thursday. We walked around the market on a quest to get souvenirs for his relatives. At one stall, the woman thought that I was Jason’s girlfriend. He was looking at nesting dolls and I veered towards a nearby stall to look at propaganda posters. I heard her ask “Oh, where’s your girlfriend?” I wandered back over, Jason bought the nesting dolls, and she wished us happiness. Another vendor was also quite funny. Jason was looking at cartoon and comic themed nesting dolls for his 10 year old nephew. He told that to the vendor, who replied that the nephew is too old for those. Instead, Jason needed to buy him something manly like a flask.

I don't have a good recent photo of the market. You'll have to settle for this one from October of 2011. Nothing has changed there except for the demolition of my beloved shawarma stand.

I don’t have a good recent photo of the market. You’ll have to settle for this one from October of 2011. Nothing has changed there except for the demolition of my beloved shawarma stand.

We left the market after an hour or so and went into the hotel to see if Jason’s room was ready. It finally was, and we went to drop off his luggage and newly acquired souvenirs before heading to the center of the city. At first we went towards the wrong elevators. The security guard gave Jason a hard time and then demanded that we get a visitor pass for me to go up to his room. I told Jason that we should just go to the correct elevator to see if that guard would say the same thing before we wasted time trying to get a visitor pass. The other guarded didn’t even so much as blink at as when we walked to the elevator.

Another photo from October 2011. The complex hasn't changed at all as far as I can tell. These were built for the 1980 Olympics.

Another photo from October 2011. The complex hasn’t changed at all as far as I can tell. These were built for the 1980 Olympics.

Unencumbered, Jason and I grabbed a quick lunch in the food court of the mini-mall across the street from the hotel before taking the Metro to Red Square. We got off of the Metro and decided to go into Krispy Kreme, where we each got a coffee and donut. The donut was a nice treat. While snacking, a random Russian guy came up to us and asked us where we were from. We had a quick conversation with him. He said that he was from a closed city next to Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia. I have the feeling that he might be from the city that contains one of Russia’s maximum security prisons that had been featured on the National Geographic Special “Russia’s Toughest Prisons.” That is an interesting documentary, but one that I do not recommend watching before going to Russia. Or do, because you’ll certainly be on your best behavior after seeing it.

We strolled onto Red Square to take a series of obligatory touristy photos. It took us three tries to get a semi-decent photo of the two of us in front of St. Basil’s. For some reason, the people we asked to take photos of us didn’t think to actually get the cathedral in the background of the photos.

Third time's the charm, ish. We're still missing the very top of the cathedral, but it'll do.

Third time’s the charm, ish. We’re still missing the very top of the cathedral, but it’ll do.

I also made a point of taking a photo with Lenin while wearing my Ulyanovsk State Technical University t-shirt. And a cup of decadent, capitalist coffee. I’m sure Lenin appreciated that.

This photo is almost as good as the one that I took with my Politech hoodie in -20 degree weather. The hot coffee would have served me better then than in this more recent photo.

This photo is almost as good as the one that I took with my Politech hoodie in -20 degree weather. The hot coffee would have served me better then than in this more recent photo.

When I met Jason earlier, he showed me a flyer for an exhibition at the State Historical Museum on the cults of Lenin and Stalin. We both thought that would be interesting to see, so we went into the building that houses the Museum of the War of 1812 to see the special exhibition. Getting into the museum was easier said than done as they had a very sensitive metal detector. My Mercedes belt often sets those off. The guards at Musée D’Orsay in Paris just laughed at me for my belt buckle, but the Russian guards were not amused. I had to take off my belt, watch, and glasses to pass through the detector before opening all of the compartments in my messenger back. The hassle of getting to the cashier’s window was forgotten when I successfully argued for the reduced student rate. The normal price for adults is 300 rubles, or just under $10, but students can enter for 100 rubles. I told the woman that I study at RGGU. She asked to see a student ID, which I don’t have. I told her that I don’t have one and flashed the pass to get into the dormitory. Magically, she acquiesced. Russian cashiers are notorious for rarely giving foreigners reduced rates. The one at the space museum refused to give me the discount because I had a “bilet slushatelya” (roughly translated as a listener’s pass) and not a “studencheskii bilet” (a student ID). When I did my summer program in St. Petersburg, we were forbidden from speaking in English or Russian at museum entrances until after we had passed the ticket collection point even though we each had a Russian student ID. I was quite pleased by my victory. What I was not pleased with was the 150 ruble fee to take photos of the exhibition. I did not pay, so sadly you’ll have to take my word that it was cool. It wasn’t quite what I had expected, but they had some of Stalin’s and Lenin’s clothes, Stalin’s pipe collection, and a series of great Soviet propaganda posters.

We decided to take a walk to the Arbat after the museum, which required walking past the WWII memorial complex along the Kremlin wall. We happened to pass by at the changing of the guards, which was fun to watch. I’m pretty sure the guards on duty were not the regular guards. They looked to be young students of one of the military academies to me.

Changing of the guard.

Changing of the guard.

The Arbat was kitschy as always. Jason wanted to go to a Starbucks to buy a special mug that you can only get in Russia as well as get a caffeine fix. We chatted on a bench on the Arbat for a while before heading back in the general direction of Red Square so that we could go to dinner at a wonderful restaurant called Khachapuri that specializes in Georgian cuisine, namely khachapuri. Dinner was scrumptious.

Georgian egg/cheese/bread goodness.

Georgian egg/cheese/bread goodness.

After our meal we headed to a nearby bar Kamchatka that has 100 ruble beer on tap. We drank, talked, and enjoyed the people passing in front of us at the back entrance of TsUM, one of the major department stores. Much like its counterpart GUM, TsUM specializes in high end goods now. Right inside the door is a Maserati.

We spent a while at Katchatka and headed back to Red Square to take some photos at night for a contrast.

Must get perfect photo for Instagram.

Must get perfect photo for Instagram.

Jason then expressed interest in seeing the Lubyanka, the former KGB, now FSB, headquarters. We walked there, but were saddened to see that its façade is currently under construction. Slightly saddened we returned to the Metro, where Jason and I parted after riding one stop together.

This was my best of about 5 attempts. The lady across from us laughed at my inability to take selfies.

This was my best of about 5 attempts. The lady across from us laughed at my inability to take selfies.

Last Wednesday night I headed to Kazan Station to take the overnight train to Ulyanovsk. The train ride was fairly normal and pleasant. The person with the bunk above mine did not drink half a litre of vodka before puking on me and my bed. After that experience, I have pretty low expectations for what constitutes a good ride. My compartment mates were a 45 ish year old man, a mother, and her teenage daughter. They all kept to themselves during the ride. In other good news, the ride now only takes 14 hours and 10 minutes instead of 14 hours and 30 minutes. Progress! When I got to the station in Ulyanovsk, I was met by my former student from the Ulyanovsk State Technical University, Natasha, and her boyfriend Danila. We took a taxi to Danila’s apartment so I could drop off my things and relax a little after the train ride. Danila lives on the south western edge of the city. What I did not realize when Natasha offered me to stay with her was that they were going to give me their apartment for the time that I would be there. I just expected to crash on a couch, but instead they gave me the whole place to myself. There truly is no equal to Russian hospitality. My roommate for the time was Kevin the cat. We got along well, though he did enjoy biting my feet from time to time. Silly me, I was there to play with him and not to sleep. How dare I think of ignoring him for a few hours if he wanted to be entertained?

Kevin

Kevin

On Thursday morning I quickly ate some very yummy Russian chicken noodle soup that Natasha had made for me before heading off to the university to see my friends again. A number of my friends who had worked in the international department have had children, so they are no longer there, but it was nice to see the friends who happened to be there. I also quickly climbed up to my old department and surprised my former department head, another teacher, and the secretary. They were all quite happy to see me. We quickly caught up and promised to keep in touch with each other before I headed off to the center of the city with my friends from the international department. We grabbed some food and caught up at a café. After that, I wandered around the city center for a while to see what, if anything, had changed in the two years that I was gone. The answer was not much at all. Once Natasha was done with work, I met up with her and Danila and we walked around the center. We made a stop at Shawarman, the best shawarma stand in Ulyanovsk, and dare I say Russia. Danila’s cousin Egor owns the stand. It really does live up to its reputation. It was probably the best shawarma that I’ve ever had. I’m just sad that I had never tried it before.

I am a huge fan of foods that can be consumed while walking.

I am a huge fan of foods that can be consumed while walking.

The next day, Friday, I took a bus from Ulyanovsk to Dimitrovgrad, a city about two hours away in the Ulyanovsk Oblast. Near the city is a camp called Yunost, where my friends from the language school SMART were having a summer camp. They were nice enough to let me come and hang out with them for two days. My friend George picked me up from the bus station in Dimitrovgrad and we headed off to the camp. One other person who came to pick me up was Stas, who is now a youth counselor at the camp. I had met Stas two years ago at one of the language camps and remembered him because he has relatives in my hometown in Connecticut. He was really happy that I remembered both him and that fact.

With Stas after the night's performance.

With Stas after the night’s performance.

I had a few hours to relax and mingle with the kids before dinner and the night’s activities. The food is just as bad at Yunost as I had remembered. The dessert was some sort of tvorog cake concoction that contained spaghetti and was topped with sweetened condensed milk. Actually, I was a little disappointed with this trip because I mistakenly thought that the camp was at Chaika, a much nicer camp with a beach on the Volga. Yunost has a beach of sorts on the Cheremshan, but swimming is forbidden there for a few reasons. At the camp I finally got to meet Kathleen, who had a Fulbright to Ulyanovsk the year after me. She ended up staying and teaching English in the city for another year. I also met Jason, another American who has just finished his first year teaching English in Ulyanovsk. Talking to Jason was an extreme ego boost because he said that he knew all about me from my blog. He said that he couldn’t believe that he would end up meeting and working with most of the people from my blog.

And now the fan of the blog becomes part of the blog.

And now the fan of the blog becomes part of the blog.

The major even after dinner was a Lady Gaga Artpop themed dance extravaganza. The kids learned the choreography to about 6 of her songs and performed it. I have to say, they were quite good, but I found the whole thing a little surreal. The babushki who worked at the camp were also a little confused by the event. A little bit later in the evening, we played a fun game that was part scavenger hunt, part hide and seek, part flashlight tag. Some of the counselors and I wandered around with flashlights and had to tag people who moved within 10 feet of us, or who were making too much noise while walking farther away. We played that game for about a hour. Eventually we settled the kids into bed and turned in for the night, though I didn’t make it to bed for a while. On the way into the camp, we stopped at a small market and got some snacks. I ended up buying a bottle of champagne. I went to the room that was George, Jason, Eben, and Ilya’s with the champagne, which we shared. We ended up hanging out and chatting until about 3:30 AM, which is when I retreated to my room as quietly as possible. Thankfully I didn’t wake any of my bunkmates.

Sorry for the terrible photo quality. The kids really were quite talented.

Sorry for the terrible photo quality. The kids really were quite talented.

The next day I wandered around the camp, hung out with kids, and caught up with my friends before eventually being driving back to the bus station by George. The bus ride was pretty uneventful until we got to Novii Gorod, the part of Ulyanovsk that is on the other side of the Volga. There were only two of us left on the bus at that point as others had gotten off at small stops along the way. The bus driver asked us to get off and switch to a different, older, and slower bus for the last leg into the center of Ulyanovsk. Eventually we set off in the old bus, but stopped at one point for the driver to do something with the engine. Natasha met me at the train station and I had some time to relax before heading out with Natasha, Danila, and their friend Nikita to get shashlik for dinner. I really wanted to watch the Holland-Brazil World Cup game with them, but I had to get to bed because I had a packed schedule for Sunday.

The "bus" back to Ulyanovsk. It was basically a long haul marshrutka.

The “bus” back to Ulyanovsk. It was basically a long haul marshrutka.

At 9AM on Sunday, I met my friend Professor Gurkin. He used to come to my English club at the university. He’s a professor of history, though he focuses on the Volga region. He was nice enough to pick me up with his car and take me to the northern part of the city where there is a very large cemetery. In that cemetery there is a monument to the German POWs who died in Ulyanovsk between 1944 and 1949. From there, we headed to the center to see the monument to those who died in the Ulyanovsk Oblast during the Great Purges. He also showed me the building where the NKVD shot people in the basement during that period. From there, we drove around the city to find buildings that had been constructed by German POWs. We found one and entered it. Professor Gurkin rang the doorbells at a few of the apartments and two babushki came out to talk to us about the building. One was old enough that she remembered interacting with the POWs as a child/teen. She told us that they were nice and that they would sometimes drive her across the city on her way to places. Both women said that the building was unusually well constructed. The walls are very thick and only recently have they needed to do repairs like replace the original German designed radiator or some of the plumbing.

The memorial to the German POWs who died in Ulyanvosk between 1944 and 1949.

The memorial to the German POWs who died in Ulyanvosk between 1944 and 1949.

At 11AM I met up with Olga Anatolevna, a German professor from my former department. We met at the moment to Karamzin in the center and walked down to the central beach on the Volga where we ate shashlik and ice cream. We caught up and she told me stories about her grandmother’s life during WWII. I had a great time with her before I headed back into the center to meet my former Russian teacher, Marina Sergeevna, who thankfully did not kill me for having forgotten some Russian. We bought a cake and headed to her friend Olga’s museum where we all sat and caught up. Olga’s former husband is an archivist in Ulyanovsk and she called him to ask if he had ever come across any documents concerning German POWs in the archive. He said that all of the documents that I need are contained in the private archive of the local FSB office. There is the possibility that I can see them, but I have to specially apply for permission through the FSB.

German teachers are awesome.

German teachers are awesome.

From Olga’s museum, we went over one street to the museum of life in the city to see a new exhibition on Soviet clothing, which was pretty interesting. They also had a few copies of the Soviet equivalent of Vogue, Moda. After that, Marina Sergeevna called her cousin, who was sitting in a café where a local English club met. He invited me to attend and I sat in for about half an hour. The people there were pretty excited to speak to an American. After the English club, I rode back to the edge of the city to see my friend Masha from the international department at the Politech. She got married just after I left and recently had a son. I met Kirill and caught up with Masha before heading into the center to watch Germany defeat Argentina in the World Cup at the Irish Pub with Natasha and Danila.

I was pleased to see German football memorabilia around the TV in the pub. It set the mood for the game.

I was pleased to see German football memorabilia around the TV in the pub. It set the mood for the game.

On Monday I headed back to the Politech to catch up with some other friends there who I had not seen. I saw Lena and her son Ilyusha briefly as well as Katya, who promised to introduce me to her son Lev later. Katya and I ended up going back to Masha’s for a few hours. Katya left to go back home to her son and I walked around with Masha and Kirill for a while before heading to sleep. I was supposed to have a barbeque at Lena and Vadim’s, but Lena got sick. I was sorry to have missed out on spending time with my friends, drinking, and eating good food, but I was more interested in getting more than 5 hours of sleep in one night.

On Tuesday morning I dropped off some things at Lena’s house and saw her son Danya for the first time in two years. He’s still super adorable, and now speaks. He didn’t remember me and was a little shy, but quickly warmed up to me when he saw that I had brought chocolate. Lena also showed me Vadim’s new hunting rifle, which he is very proud of. Towards the end of my year in Ulyanovsk, Vadim and I went to the abandoned tank driving range to fire his shotgun. I don’t want to do that with the new rifle, though, as Lena told me that it has an even worse kickback than the shotgun. She said Vadim’s shoulder was bruised from his hunting trip over the weekend. He won’t let his older son Kostya fire the gun and had told Lena that people who don’t hold it right can break their jaws from the kickback. I was happy to just hold and look at it.

From Lena’s I headed off to the Lenin Memorial, where one of the teachers from my department now works as a director. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to see Yulia Vladimirovna because she was in a meeting all morning, but she made sure that I got a tour from my former student Vanya, who also now works at the memorial, though he is not a tour guide. Regardless, it was nice to go for free and have someone explain a few things for me.

A portrait of Brezhnev made from grains and beans.

A portrait of Brezhnev made from grains and beans.

I could have spent hours at the memorial, but I had to go to the Politech for lunch with Pavel Borisovich, the head of the international department. We talked about my current project and potential collaboration between our universities. After lunch I got photos with the international department before going to Anna and Yura’s apartment to see their son Kostya.

Anna's got some mad selfie skills.

Anna’s got some mad selfie skills.

The visit to Anna and Yura’s was far too brief, but I’m glad that I got to see them. From their place, I needed to get back into the center. They live at the end of the 96 marshrutka. I saw all of them parked, but it was unclear where the bus stop was. I went up to the group of drivers and asked where the stop was and one of them told me to just get into a nearby marshrutka that had a driver in it. I got in and handed him the fare. He then said that usually people don’t get in at that spot and I said that the other driver had told me to get in. He then said that I had a curious accent and wanted to know where I was from. I said America and he got excited that a real live American was in his marshrutka. He insisted that I sit up front so that we could talk on the way into the center. He said that I was the first American that he had ever met and wanted to know what I was doing in Russia, especially Ulyanovsk. We had a nice conversation including topics such as is everyone poor in America and is life better in Russia? Eventually I had to get out in the center, but he happily took a photo with me. I wanted the photo after he insisted on giving me his phone number. He wanted me to send him his email address.

Andrei the marshrutka driver. He was pretty cool.

Andrei the marshrutka driver. He was pretty cool.

In the center I met Natasha and Danila at Shawarman to get a photo with Yegor and the best Shawarma in Ulyanovsk. Then George met us with his car to drive us back to the apartment to get my stuff before heading to the train station. George won driver of the year award after avoiding what we all thought was sure to be an accident. Some crazy lady almost drove into us, but George managed to swerve around her with inches to spare. My goodbye party at the train station also included Inna from the international department. Katya also came with her son Lev, who is super adorable. He was shy at first, but then waved to me as the train departed.

The crew saying goodbye. Even Lev waved goodbye.

The crew saying goodbye. Even Lev waved goodbye.

The train ride itself was pretty awesome. Initially there was only one other person in the compartment with me, a guy who was about 19 years old. I sat down and he said that he knew me from my blog. He said that he found it while looking for a foreigner’s perspective on his hometown of Ulyanovsk. Vadim was heading back to Moscow where he is a student of physics at MGU (Moscow State University), the best university in Russia. I chatted with him for a bit before we both started to read. Another fun part of the trip was that Iriny was also on the train with me, so she came a few cars up to talk with me and share her lovely snacks – smoked turkey breast and black currents sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon prepared by her boyfriend. After a while we were joined by another new friend of mine, Masha, who works in the international department at the Politech. We chatted for a while until the train made one of its longer stops in the town of Inza. The stop there is about 30 minutes long. We got out on the platform and I realized why there are a few long stops along the way. It’s so that they can switch between electric and diesel engines for different portions of the journey. Masha and Iriny departed for the evening during this stop and I met up with them again very briefly on the platform after we arrived in Moscow.

Sunset from the train.

Sunset from the train.

I walked into the Metro as usual at the station. I was wondering if there would be any differences in service after yesterday’s accident in which a train derailed and killed about 20 people. The accident happened on a part of the Metro that I have never ridden on and does not affect any of my transit to the archives. It has only shut off service for the western portion of the dark blue Metro line past the circle line. No one seemed to be concerned by the accident and the Metro seemed as crowded as usual. At this point, I have eight days left in Russia. I should have about three more trips to the archives. I should be more or less free for adventures the rest of the time.