Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

Just before 8:30AM on Wednesday June 7th, I walked to the Khabarovsk train station to undertake the longest leg of my Trans-Siberian journey. I would be on the train for roughly 58 hours. For this jaunt, I was on train 007 – Vladivostok-Novosibirsk. While waiting at the platform, a 20-ish student approached me and asked if he was in the right place for his train. He was French, spoke somewhat broken English, and zero Russian. He was indeed in the correct place, and it turns out that he had the bed above mine in the train. His name was William. He had some time off from university, and he decided to take the Trans-Siberian and make some stops along the way. His grandfather had done it the year before, so that was one of his motivations to take the trip. We would be together on the train for 50 hours, until he got off at Ulan-Ude, a stop that I wanted to make but didn’t have time for as my trip was already 16 days long.

Novosibirsk-Vladivostok carriage number 12, my home for 58 hours.

As we got to our area, we met out other traveling companions. The person with the lower berth across from me was a 70 year man named Boris. He was traveling from his home of Khabarovsk to Ulan-Ude to visit some relatives. When William and I got to our spots in the train, Boris was sitting with his wife. They both sighed in relief when they found out that I spoke Russian. Boris’s wife was not going with him, though, she was just saying goodbye to him. In Russian trains, it’s common for people seeing you off to walk into the train and help you get your things settled at longer stops. The conductors allow this, and a few minutes prior to departure, the conductors walk through the carriage telling those accompanying passengers to leave the train. Boris was quite the character, and he made sure my time passed quickly on the train.

Bad photo, but the only one I really got of Boris.

Above Boris was Ulugbek from Kyrgyzstan. He had been in Korea (which Korea was slightly unclear) on a work contract. Ulugbek was an engineer who works in hydroelectric stations. He was riding on the train from Vladivostok to Krasnoyarsk. I was worried because we got onto the train already 13 hours into its journey, and Ulugbek had an unrefrigerated rotisserie chicken that he proceeded to eat over the next two days. He was also very friendly and pleasant company.

Ulugbek and his collection of most likely rancid food.

Along the window there was a 20-ish girl who was a student at Far Eastern Federal University, who was riding back home for the summer. I forget where exactly she got off, but it was towards the evening of the first day. She had to switch trains to ride to some smaller city called Tynda. She was asleep most the day that we were with her, and she didn’t say anything to us, though she did tell Boris she was a student and going to Tynda.

The train itself was pretty nice. It was the newest style of older carriages. The bottom bunks had padding for your back when you were seated, and I had the coveted spot in the carriage that had an outlet. In the older trains, not every spot has an outlet. Usually the second series of berths on each side have one outlet. Then, there is usually an outlet by the toilets at either end. I didn’t have to worry because I could change my phone whenever I wanted, but others in the carriage took turns standing by the toilets and watching their phones. Others just decided to chance leaving their phones by the toilets. On our longer train, we had police officers patrolling the carriages, and at times they would ask whose phone was being charged as a reminder to look after ones belongings. The carriage we were in didn’t have air-conditioning, or if it did, it was broken. Thankfully, our window opened. And, unlike the older trains, these newer carriages have LED displays at both ends of the carriage that display the Moscow time, the temperature in the train, and whether or not the toilet is free.

Pretty nice for platskart.

Although my ride to Irkutsk was long, it wasn’t bad. I alternated my time in the train talking to my companions and reading. The train also makes a few longer stops each day, and in the Russian Far East, villagers have created their own small businesses around the train schedule. They know when the long-haul trains make stops and line up near the station to sell provisions.

The food sellers in Belogorsk.

In Belogorsk, for example, I managed to buy a hardboiled egg, some potato vareniki, and a local fish called harius. I opted to go for hot smoked, which leaves the flesh pliable and soft as opposed to cold smoked, which dries out the fish and almost turns it into jerky. The meal was scrumptious. While at the stop, a man selling fish looked at me and turned to the woman with the eggs and vareniki and said in Russian, “Do you speak English? You better.” I responded that I speak Russian, and they were happy.

Hot smoked harius.

I then had a discussion about the differences in fish smoking techniques. I also had to help William buy food as he couldn’t communicate with the people at all. After we ate our food, I watched in horror as Ulugbek added a large quantity of unrefrigerated mayonnaise to his bowl of ramen. The standard train foods for these journeys are sunflower seeds, a Russian pastime, and either instant noodles or potatoes. Every Russian train carriage has a water boiler for tea and food.

Golden Lenin of Belogorsk.

Most of my entertainment from the train ride came from talking with Boris over the first two days. I spoke a little with William, but his English was bad, which limited our conversations. Boris was a bit of a provocateur, and was full of lots of interesting information about Russia. He constantly spoke in a weird slang, and refused to ever use common words to explain himself. He asked me if I heard about what to say if someone asks if you want a brick in Vladivostok. Apparently, this is a petty form of extortion. The person being asked is to respond, “how much?” and then pay said amount, otherwise they will be beaten and robbed. Apparently, there are lots of similar tactics on Russian roads in the Far East. Often, people will just sit on the side of the road and say they don’t have gas, or will try to sell you gas. Sometimes, they’ll leave something on the road for you to stop and grab. In all of these situations, I was told to never stop. However, if stopped, it’s always best to pay what amounts to the bribe. Finally, when traveling on Russian roads, it’s good to have a weapon in your car trunk. Boris was once stopped by a group. One guy talked to him while another searched his trunk. They both left him alone after the one who opened the trunk found a large machete. This also partially explains the wooden mace that the government chauffeur in Ulyanovsk had in his car trunk.

Typical view at a stop: everyone out and smoking.

Between teaching me about how to survive in Siberia, Boris spent time provoking me and those around us in the train. We discussed Russian history at one point. He was angry that I didn’t know a word or two about tributes during the Mongol conquest of Russia. I said that my specialty was Soviet history. He said that it wasn’t an excuse, that instead my program was probably weak or that I was lazy. I responded that I don’t have time to read about early Russian history in depth because I have to spend my time reading about the Soviet Union and other history. This then caused Boris to launch into a lecture about how I have time because I do not work on a kolkhoz, a form of village based Soviet collective farm. Had I lived in a kolkhoz, he said, I would truly not have time. I would have to wake at 5:00AM to feed the chickens and milk the cows, make breakfast, wake the children, “pat [my] husband on his head,” and send everyone off before doing my assigned labor task on the farm for the day. This then caused Boris to lecture about American women. He wanted to know why it was acceptable to go shopping in house clothes or sweat pants. In his mind, women need to dress up to buy groceries or run simple errands. In his eyes, a woman should always be made up and strive her best to visually please the men around her. That was a fun conversation, and one of many of different cultural views about the gender roles and marriage ages in America versus Russia along the train ride.

At one point, when William and I were speaking in English, we caught the attention of two young girls in the train. One asked what we were speaking, and was surprised when I said English. She said she studied English, but refused to say anything to me from being shy. Eventually, she told her mother about us, and then her mother came to talk with us. Boris then began to provoke the mother and said that her daughter didn’t speak any English because she refused to say anything to me. Boris then proposed English lessons on the train. He said he was the director of the school and would get 70% while I would get 30% of the proceeds. When asked why the cut was so large, Boris cheekily responded, “because I’m here getting you work, while you’re being lazy and just reading books.” He then said that lessons would begin promptly at 8:00AM the next morning. I groaned about the early hours, and he laughed. Although Boris liked to poke fun at people or stir up trouble, he was truly a nice man. One night, he noticed that I had gotten cold while sleeping and got a blanket for me.

Boris was also immensely entertaining because he somewhat befriended the lady who walks through the train selling food and drinks. He offered all of us, plus her, some food and drink. She accepted the offer, and would sit down with us when she passed us by. She affectionately called him “ded,” basically, “gramps.”

Making friends with the food seller.

One of the interesting experiences on the train was with the police. They extensively patrol the trains in the Far East. At times they were doing document checks, but they never asked us for our documents. I have rarely seen the police on trains in Russia. I have only on one occasion seen them on one of the trains between Moscow and Ulyanovsk, and they asked for my documents then. I remember being confused, and the older woman in the kupe with me said that it was nothing to worry about and normal. They did a little more on this train, though. On the second full day on the train, we stopped at a small place called Mogocha. About fifteen minutes after leaving the station, the police walked through our carriage with a man in handcuffs. There was one cop in the lead and there were two behind. The second cop had his hand on the back of the man’s neck/head, forcing it down. The man’s hands were tightly cuffed behind his back, and he was bent over and walking in a stress position. The third cop was carrying the man’s bag. Boris said that he had never seen that before in all of his years riding the train. He seemed to think that the man had tried to ride on the train without a ticket, but from a conversation I had just before getting off the train in Irkutsk, it seems that the man might have been belligerently drunk. He was hauled off of the train when we stopped in Chernyshevsk.

Also on this day, as we rolled through some middle of nowhere part of Siberia, it began to snow. I had not expected to see snow that south in Siberia in June. It was crazy.

On the second day, the girl had gotten off of the train, and no one new joined our area. This meant that we could sit at the two smaller window seats when we pleased. At one of these periods, William’s passport fell out of his pocket, which caused me to have a discussion with Boris about Russian passports versus American or European ones. Russians have two kinds of passports, internal and external. The external passport is just like ours and is used for leaving the country. The internal passport serves the function in Russia that our driver’s licenses do, basically, and then some. They include information about birth and age. They also include where the person is registered to live, marital status, and information about children. While talking to Boris, a man in the next berth over noticed that I was foreign and began to speak with me. Andrei was a sailor who works on large freight ships. He was traveling from just outside of Vladivostok, Nakhodka, to see his children in Irkutsk, where he had grown up.  Andrei was very friendly and went on long rants about the divisions within Russia between Moscow and Siberia. In his opinion, Moscow steals everything from Siberia and gives nothing back. Boris at one point was jealous that Andrei was taking over as the one to tell me tales about Russia and told Andrei that I probably didn’t understand what he was saying. What Boris didn’t know was that I understood Andrei’s slang better than has because Andrei used simpler words and words that I was familiar with.

Andrei mid-speech about something.

In the morning of the second day, when we made our “breakfast” stop, Boris told me to buy something called “сера” (sera), which is a Siberian gum. It’s made from tree sap/rubber. It tastes like chewing a mixture of a pinecone and a rubber band. I can’t say I super loved it, but it did make my mouth feel cleaner around sporadic trips to the somewhat gross toilet to brush my teeth. You buy sera by the stick. I got one. Others bought bushels of them. Apparently, it’s only common to buy in the Far East.

Sera – Russian gum.

As the train carried on across Siberia, I alternated between reading and staring out of the window. I had heard someone describe the Trans-Siberian as “the greatest Russian novel ever written.” I’m not sure where I heard this, but I agree. It was easy to spend hours just looking out of the window, watching the scenery change. You would fall asleep and wake up in what looked like a completely different country as the geography and vegetation would change drastically. The temperature also fluctuated between hot, comfortable, and downright cold. At one point, the provodnitsa walked through the car and asked if we were cold and if they should turn the heat on. They were taking a poll of the passengers and their comfort level. I said I was fine and just put on a warm shirt. Thankfully, they didn’t turn the heat on. The villages that came and went along the rail lines were fascinating to look at. Although some of them looked a little rough, none of them looked totally rundown. There is clearly poverty in Russian villages, but they don’t look like war zones like some of the places I’ve seen in ex-Soviet republics. I now really want to find a way to spend at least a day or two in an actual Russian village.

Village life.

Another interesting part of riding through the Siberian wilderness was looking at the cars. The number of vehicles in the villages was pretty small, but almost every settlement had either an UAZ Bukhanka, UAZ 469, or a Lada Niva. Ulyanovsk pride for Siberia! On the whole, cars in Siberia were interesting to observe. Most of the cars in Vladivostok were right-hand drive, brought in from Japan. As you ride across back towards Moscow, the percentage of right-hand drive cars shifted from about 90% to 40%. I suppose the Urals are the dividing line for this trend. In European Russia, it’s possible to find a right-hand drive, Japanese import car, but it’s rare.

Ulyanovsk pride in Siberia.

 

After Boris and William got off in Ulan Ude, I spoke with Andrei quite a lot on the leg from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk, an additional 8 hours on the train. This was the best part of the trip because we spent most of it riding along Lake Baikal, and the view was mesmerizing. Andrei gave me tips for what to see or do in Irkutsk and told me the history of the area and the Angara River. He also gave me his phone number and said that he would be glad to show me around the Vladivostok area should I wind up there again.

Lake Baikal from the train.

Just about two hours before Irkutsk, the train made a stop in a place called Slyudyanka, and a man of about thirty got on and took what had been Boris’s space. He was nice and well prepared for the long train ride. He had brought a combination strip outlet/extension chord with him to power his laptop. He offered some of his snacks, and asked if I wanted to watch a movie. I declined as I was getting off of the train soon and had to gather my things. At that point, another guy came into the area and asked Andrei where the foreigner was. He said that he was in another car with a French guy, “from Brussels.” I told him that Brussels was in Belgium. He said, “Whatever. He speaks French and English. I don’t speak much English. Please come and translate for him and two other foreigners.” The new guy next to me asked why I had to do that. The strange man said that the others around them in the carriage also didn’t speak English, and that most of the others around them were foreigners, like my neighbor, and spoke Russian with an accent. My new neighbor then got angry and said, “What do you mean foreigners like me and what accent?” The guy responded that he was clearly from a different country. The neighbor responded that he was born and raised in Irkutsk, and that his family was from Dagestan, which is part of Russia. The weird guy again said whatever and ushered me off with him.

My new home? It would probably be a good place to write my dissertation distraction free.

We walked into the next carriage and I met the Belgian guy, who was named Arthur. He was talking with two Italians who were going home from an 11 month trip around the world. Both Arthur and the Italians were on the train for the sake of saying that they had done the Trans-Siberian. They were all riding from Vladivostok to Irkutsk, stopping in Irkutsk to see Baikal, and then going from Irkutsk straight to Moscow. I chatted briefly with them and then went back to gather my things. Andrei and my new neighbor wanted to know what was going on, and I said the strange guy was just drunk and that there was no need to go off and talk to the others. However, when I got off the train, I did end up sharing a taxi with Arthur, who must have been some sort of rich Belgian playboy or trust-fund guy. He talked about having spent the past three months in Asia. He also had an American Express Platinum card in his wallet. His hostel was near the one where I was staying, so I figured it would be ok to grab a cab with him. We took a Yandex taxi for under 100 rubles, which was funny because the taxi driver asking if we wanted a ride quoted 500 rubles for the same ride, and I just laughed in his face.

Like the serialized stories of Dostoyevsky or Dickens, the next few posts will chronicle my trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. This year has been one of freedom and exploration for me. There have been a number of places within Russia and the former Soviet Union that I have wanted to see for a long time, and I’ve taken advantage of my relative flexibility in this year to see them. One of the things that I’ve wanted to do for a long time was to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad across Russia, and I am pleased to say that I recently returned from a two-week trip doing so.

On Saturday the 3rd of June, I boarded a plane from Moscow to Vladivostok at Sheremetyevo Airport. I was tired of the constant cold and bad weather in Moscow, so I flew to Siberia, where it was sunny and warm aka actually summer. I’m surprised to have had to go to Siberia for summer weather as well. We took off after an hour or so delay due to late aircraft arrival and then made our war arching north across the frozen northern reaches of the Russian Federation. It was a bit of a trip to see the permafrost from the plane.

Permafrost.

Without issue, we landed in Vladivostok, and I didn’t have to wait too long for my bag, a backpack lent to me by my friend Terry. I then walked through the terminal to a train that took me from the airport to the central railway terminal in Vladivostok. From there, it was about a ten minute walk to the hotel where I was staying. I was exhausted. It’s an 8 hour flight across Russia, and we left around 4:00PM Moscow time. As I wasn’t tired, I couldn’t really sleep on the flight and arrived at what felt like midnight my time, despite it being 7AM in Vladivostok. Russia has a lot of time zones, and Vladivostok is 7 hours ahead of Moscow, so I was 14 hours ahead of New York time for some perspective.

I was able to go to my room early and collapse for a quick nap. I didn’t have much time to recover, because I was getting a tour of the center of the city from a friend of a friend’s brother. He met me in the lobby, and we set off the see the waterfront, a ship, a submarine museum, the WWII monument, the historic GUM shopping center, and the beach, among other things.

Vladivostok from my hotel window.

One of the highlights of the tour was a surprise car show on one of the main squares. I excitedly saw a display of a few UAZiki, which made me instantly very happy.

A little bit of Ulyanovsk in Vladivostok.

After our walking tour, which lasted a few hours, I went back to my room and crashed for a few hours. Feeling better from some sleep, I walked around the center again and got some dinner and headed off to the famous Mumiy Troll’ bar. Mumiy Troll’ is a cool rock group from Vladivostok, and they opened a bar in their hometown.

I was there a little early for the evening, but when I went in the place was dead. I was super disappointed in the bar, sadly. They had no Russian beer, so I had a Guiness. I then decided to have a White Russian. The bartender proceeded to then fill a glass with ice and a splash of vodka before pouring in a whole lot of cream. He had forgotten to add the Kahlua for a good two minutes.

The Mumiy Troll’ bar.

The next morning, I got up at had breakfast at a Soviet themed stolovaya. I then walked to the funicular to get to the view point of the city. Annoying, the funicular was closed for “technical reasons,” so I climbed up the whole hill to the view.

Central Vladivostok.

It was definitely worth it. I took a bus back down to the center and had lunch at the stolovaya because the three restaurants that I had tried to eat in where closed for unknown reasons.

USSR themed stolovaya (cafeteria).

After lunch, I took a taxi to Russky Ostrov (Russian Island), where is the home of Far Eastern Federal University. To get to the island, we had to cross a major bridge, now a symbol of Vladivostok, which is the longest bridge of that cable style in the world.

The Russky Ostrov bridge.

The university itself is a massive university campus the likes of something like Ohio State or the University of Illinois.

Far Eastern Federal University.

The plus of the university is that the campus has a beach on the Sea of Japan, which I stuck my feet into briefly.

The beach.

Running somewhat out of time, I got back on a bus to the center of the city to grab some dinner and get some last minute provisions for the overnight train ride. When stopping at a café for a coffee, I thought there was a language barrier between the Russian staff and the Chinese tourists ahead of me in line. I heard the woman ask if they wanted something with milk or juice. I just assumed that there was something wrong with someone’s English; however, I was super surprised when asked, in Russian, if I wanted my iced coffee with milk or juice. I can’t imagine why anyone would mix coffee with juice. I apparently could also only get an iced coffee with syrup in it, which I thought was strange. Apparently the staff doesn’t understand that they make more money off of me if I refused the sugar syrup.

The end of the Trans-Siberia: 9288KM from Moscow (5771 miles).

The first leg of my train adventure was on train 001, the fabled Moscow-Vladivostok train.

Train 001- Moscow-Vladivostok.

Unlike some, I wanted to use the train to get off and see some major cities along the way in Siberia instead of riding 7 straight days on the train. For the ride, I was going in third class, platskart, the whole way. I wanted to mingle with lots of Russians, and I somewhat accomplished this task. When I handed my ticket to the provodnitsa, the conductor, she asked if I spoke Russian and signed a huge sigh of relief when I said I do. “Thank God,” she said. Apparently, the Trans-Siberian is super popular for foreigners looking for adventures, most of whom who don’t speak any Russian. This strikes me as very strange, as Russia isn’t really a country that is great to travel to if you don’t speak the language. A few people speak English, but most of the people one would encounter on the train don’t, and speaking with the real Russians is part of the appeal of the journey.

Getting onto train 001.

The first night in the train, from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk, my immediate section of six spaces was full. It was myself, a father and his young son, two Czech guys, and a Russian student from Far Eastern Federal University, who was a cheerleader heading home for summer break. The Czech guys started to talk to me and we had a good conversation with Zhenya, the student, for a while. The Czech guys were drinking a lot, which is forbidden on the trains except in the dining car, and eventually attracted the attentions of a random Russian guy from somewhere else in the car. He came up and insisted on speaking to us in broken English, which the Czech guys couldn’t understand at all. The Russian guy, Sasha, just wanted to mingle with some foreigners, which the Czechs didn’t understand. They didn’t know what a rarity it is for Russians to interact with foreigners, especially in the Russian Far East. One Czech guy forgot that he told Sasha that they were form the Czech Republic, and the second guy got spooked when Sasha said something about the Czech Republic. The second guy then got paranoid. He thought that I knew Sasha and turned aggressive and yelled at Sasha to leave. He then said to me, “we don’t want any trouble,” as if I had some connection with Sasha and we were trying to pull some sort of scam. It was weird. In the morning, they basically didn’t say anything to me as we got off the train in Khabarovsk.

The Khabarovsk train station – the largest in Siberia.

In Khabarovsk, I got off the train and walked the fifteen or so minutes to my hotel. The woman who checked me in was super nice and gave me a ticket for breakfast that day. It was a decent place to stay, but was super Soviet in that there was a lady on the floor, with whom I had to leave my key when I wasn’t in my room. After showering, changing, and having breakfast, I set out for a whirlwind day in Khabarovsk. I walked down the main road and through a Chinese Market (clearly all of the items were 100% legitimate Adidas and Armani products, no counterfeit items at all) to eventually make it to the riverfront on the Amur River, which serves as the border between Russia and China. In Khabarovsk, I was only a few kilometers from China.

The Amur and the steps down to the central beach in Khabarovsk.

From the river, I tried to go to the military museum, which was closed for no reason. The door was open and I walked in to buy a ticket, however the woman at the desk said it was closed and wouldn’t explain why. Instead, I walked across the street and spent some time in the Regional Museum, which was pretty cool. They had a large series of fish tanks with some of the famous Russian fish such as the sturgeon. They also had a lot of stuffed animals eating other stuffed animals.

Om-nom-nom.

After the Regional Museum, I walked off to see the local history museum. A bored docent was pleased that I spoke Russian and gave me an impromptu tour of the first floor of the museum. After my unofficial, but informative, tour, I walked to a nearby shopping center. The food court had a Mexican restaurant run by an American. I was able to get a real burrito for the first time since Murmansk, and the hot sauce was indeed actually spicy.

Happiness is a good burrito.

From lunch, I walked back to a different area along the waterfront.

Downtown Khabarovsk.

I went to see the main cathedral, which is allegedly the second tallest in Russia after Christ the Savior in Moscow.

Tallest cathedral in Siberia.

Eventually, after more walking, I wound up at a different mall food court near the hotel where I got an excellent dinner of Korean food. I then walked to the store to load up on provisions for my next train leg, almost 58 hours between Khabarovsk and Irkutsk. All in all, I walked a total of 14.4 miles in Khabarovsk. I crashed hard that night, and got up and had breakfast before walking to the train, which left around 8:00AM. The long train journey and my adventures in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal will be chronicled in another post.

May 9th, or Victory Day (День Победы, Den’ Pobedy), is a major Russian holiday at commemorates Soviet victory in World War Two in the European theater of war. The first Victory Parade was held in Moscow at Red Square on June 24, 1945. After that, though, Victory Day was not a holiday, and did not become so until 1965 and the 20th anniversary of the ending of WWII. During the Brezhnev era, the Soviet victory over fascism became a point of stability and self-worth for the Soviet government. It was under Brezhnev that the Cult of WWII became a phenomenon and part of Soviet society. Major parades on Victory Day, though, were reserved for large anniversaries of the date. Only four Victory Parades took place in the Soviet Union, in 1945, 1965, 1985, and 1990. The major military parades were saved for the anniversary of the October Revolution, which was celebrated on November 7th (when the Revolution took place, the Russians still used the Julian calendar; the Soviets switched the nation over to the Gregorian calendar). Under Putin, however, the Victory Day parade has become a staple, and the Cult of WWII has regained a prominent place in Russian society. As a fan of military technology and the stereotypical images of tanks and ICBMs rolling down Red Square, it was a dream come true to be in Moscow for Victory Day.

ICBM in downtown Moscow. No big deal.

Due to the importance of the event, a number of practices are held in the weeks leading up to the parade. One night after Taekwondo, Jean Louis found out about the practice, so we headed off to Red Square around 9:45PM in the cold and rain. We were able to stand near the Okhotnoy Ryad Metro entrance and see all of the tanks parked and ready to roll onto Red Square. As we stood under the rain, we heard the soldiers on Red Square shout “УРА” (Hooray) before the machines started up and rolled past us. It was absolutely unreal to stand meters away from moving tanks, missile launchers, and ICBMs. It’s one thing to see them in museums, but it’s completely different to feel the sidewalk shaking underfoot as the trundle past at speed.

A few days later, I managed to see another practice off of Tverskaya Ulitsa, one of the main roads in downtown Moscow. This practice was held earlier in the evening, or rather, I saw the technology roll by closer to 7:00PM. They would then wait outside of Red Square and would again drive onto Red Square after 10:00PM, once the soldiers had finished their marches. I went with two of my dorm neighbors, Gustav and Linda, and we were again very lucky to get right up to the barricade near the Mayakovskaya Metro stop. This repetition was even better because it was daylight. Because we were at the spot where the tanks turn off of the Garden Ring and onto Tverskaya, there were some gaps in the procession and differences in speed of the vehicles. Trying to catch up to the ones ahead, some of the tanks were clearly driving at full speed when they went past. You could see the damage they were doing to the pavement.

On Sunday morning, I had been having brunch with Jean Louis on the 8th floor. While we were cleaning up, we got the surprise of a lifetime with the practice for the aerial portion of the parade. Our dormitory is right under the flight path towards Red Square, and the planes were just overhead. The view from the kitchen window was perfect. I geeked out as I saw a number of really cool planes fly over, such as an Antonov An-124 Ruslan (the largest military transport plane in the world), and the Tupolev Tu-95 bomber. The Tu-95 is known as the Bear bomber according to NATO, and it is Russia’s equivalent to the B-52. It’s the USSR/Russia’s strategic long-range bomber that can drop nukes and conventional bombs as well as fire cruise missiles. Unlike the B-52, which is jet powered, the Tu-95 features 4 turbo-prop engines with 8 contra-rotating propellers.

A trio of Tu-95s.

It’s one of the fastest propeller driven aircraft and is also one of the loudest military aircraft. The noise of them flying overhead was deafening. You could hear them from really far off, and that must have been somewhat what it was like to live through the Blitz, hearing propeller bombers approaching from far off. The sound meant that nothing good could be coming. There was also a sweet flyover of various fighter jets and bombers, which were in great patterns. The final planes dropped smoke in the color of the Russian flag, which was great.

On Victory Day itself, I woke up at 6:30 so that I could leave the dorm at 7:00 to head off to Tverskaya, one of the main roads in Moscow to try to watch the military vehicles parade down the roads. The major ceremony takes place at Red Square, but only diplomats, veterans, and special guests can go to see the parade in person. It’s an invitation only event. Myself and a few others braved the cold weather and rain to head to the same spot on Tverskaya just past the Mayakovskaya Metro stop to catch the machinery roll by before parking off of Red Square. The official ceremony starts at 10:00AM. We figured we could see the stuff and then wait for the planes to fly over.

When we got there around 7:30, we spoke to a few cops and they said that the stuff had already gone by at around 7:00 if not earlier. While deliberating what to do, Jean Louis was briefly interview for some Russian TV channel. Slightly discouraged by the lack of tanks, we walked by foot in the direction of Red Square to see how close we could get. The closest, near the Teatralnaya Metro stop, didn’t give us views of anything. The others talked about maybe going to one particular spot, and I wasn’t sure what would or wouldn’t be visible from there.

I walked back to the dorm to have a quick chat with the security guards about going on the roof. The guy in the first building said that he didn’t have a key to the roof, and to ask the guys in the main building. He told me to tell him if the other guards had the key, because he also wanted to go on the roof to watch the planes fly over. So I went off to the main building and asked the guard there if he had a key to the roof so that we could watch the planes. He said that he didn’t have it, and that he himself had been searching for it for the same reason. I wished him a happy holiday, and he said he would unlock the main door for me to leave. We then stood there for a solid minute while he tried to unlock the door. Once again, I was reminded at how deadly every exit to the university potentially is.

On the street, I ran into an acquaintance named Anna. She said she was waiting for her friend Dasha, and that they were going to go to Tverskaya together to watch the tanks. I said that I had been told that they had already gone by, and she said that was crazy. By this time it was already nearing 9:00AM. She said that the first vehicles, such as the T-34 tank on a trailer (70+ year old tanks aren’t meant to drive miles down the roads of Moscow), were probably what had gone by.

The T-34 gets special treatment. It was the tank that won WWII, and the first to use sloped armor.

We then set off to the Mayakovskaya station to get a spot and wait for Dasha. When we got to the station, a cop was announcing on a megaphone that the tanks had already gone by, and he listed a few places for us to go to see them, once of which was where the others had gathered.

We hopped on the Metro and rode to the center, to a station where there are four stations together. It turns out that we could only exit from one of them, which means we had to walk through basically three others to get to the street. We exited at Arbatskaya and stood in a fairly thick crowd. By chance, another acquaintance, Dima, was there and saw me. He said hello and told us how to join up with the others, so we quickly walked off and wound up on a hill overlooking the exit of the Kremlin, right were the vehicles would leave the Kremlin and drive up and through the city.

Sadly, from that point it’s impossible to see the foot soldiers. The parade of vehicles was just as cool as when I saw the various repetitions. On one hand, the practices were better because I was closer to the vehicles, but it’s something else to see them rolling with the Kremlin walls in the background.

С Днём Победы! Happy Victory Day!

As soon as the tanks passed, the police made announcements for the crowd to disperse. Due to the poor weather, the planes had been cancelled. Some people were saying that it was the coldest Victory Day ever. While I’m not sure of that, I do know that it was indeed cold. On the 8th, it alternated between raining heavily and snowing. I thought that this was intentional. The Russians do something to the clouds to push them out of the sky and cause them to rain before and after the holiday so that the skies are clear on the holiday itself. They either didn’t do it, or it was too cold and the clouds were too saturated. The temperature on Victory Day ranged from the mid-30s to the mid-40s Fahrenheit, and it rained on and off for most of the day. The weather was evidently bad enough that they decided not to do the fly overs. Slightly dejected, we wandered off to get food. We wound up back by Pushkin Square, which was filled with a parade for various political parties including the Communist Party and one that was for the restoration of the monarchy.

Lenin Lived. Lenin Lives. Lenin Will Live.

I wound up getting a photo with some Communist pilots, who I think used to fly for Aeroflot.

With my new pilot friends.

After getting cut off a few times, we eventually wound up in a good cafeteria where we all chowed down and regained some energy. We then walked to the Hermitage Garden, where there was a smaller collection of Victory Day activities. There were a number of old GAZ Volga cars, and there was a Ural motorcycle that we could sit on. There was a concert of military music, and there was a special ceremony of thanks and recognition for a few veterans of WWII. There are still a few of them around, and they were proudly enjoying the day’s activities. From there, we walked back to RGGU to have tea and rest up for other activities.

To Berlin!

Around 7:15, Jean Louis asked if I wanted to get dinner with him. We walked to the store and got some booze and then grabbed some food from McDonald’s, which we ate in the 9th floor kitchen. Izaro was making herself pasta, and Étienne was sitting and having a cup of noodles. Jean Louis then invited him to the fireworks. Gustav also joined us, and we hopped in the metro to ride off to Park Pobedy, Victory Park. The show was supposed to start at 10:00, so we left before 9:00. When we changed stations at Kievskaya, we all piled into an overcrowded car for the one stop to Victory Park. In the station, we met up with Dima, and then we proceeded out and to the park. To get into the park we had to wait in line to go through metal detectors. The crowd was pretty tight getting through security, but once we were inside it was OK, as the park is huge. We then met up with the Italians and two Germans. At 10:00, the fireworks began and lasted for about ten or fifteen minutes.

This might be slightly better than the 4th of July.

Leaving the park was quite difficult. As soon as the fireworks ended, people rushed the exits. We went towards the exit, but all movement stopped pretty quickly. We stood unmoving for quite some time. We then tried to see if we could go out a different exit, but it had been blocked. We were essentially locked into the park by police barricades. Only after a while did they open the main barricade that was stopping us. We got shuffled and pushed towards the exit with the mob. We unfortunately lost two of our friends in the process. As we approached the entrance to the metro, the mob was bonkers. We were being crushed and pushed from every direction as everyone rushed to get down the stairs. Once a few steps into the metro entrance, however, the crowd dispersed and we were able to have some space to ourselves and make sure everyone was there to head home.

Packed metro. All of these people were exiting the station.

In total, Victory Day was absolutely fantastic. I fulfilled a dream of mine to be in Moscow on Victory Day, which is everything I had hoped it would be and more. I also walked 13 miles over the course of the day, so my body feels like one of the tanks rolled over me. And now I have to leave for the former Party Archive, where I will spend my day reading about POWs. Life is never dull as a WWII historian.

I just got back from a trip to Murmansk and Teriberka, north of the Arctic Circle. Thursday was February 23rd, Defenders of the Fatherland Day, which used to be Red Army Day, and is roughly the equivalent of men’s day in Russia. Due to the holiday, the archives, as well as much of the country, shut down. The archives were closed Thursday and Friday and had a half-day on Wednesday. The side reading room in GARF also decided to have a half-day on Tuesday. The closures also mean that my document request times are pushed back and the soonest I can see documents again are this upcoming Thursday. Thanks to the holiday, I got to take an amazing trip to the far north reaches of European Russia with a few others. Because what is a better time to head north of the Arctic Circle than in February? Actually, February is a mild time. There is something called the Polar Night up there in December and January that lasts for about 45 days. They get dusk and dawn, but that’s the extent of the daylight, in reality its almost 24 hours of darkness. In the summer, they have the Polar Day where it’s light out 24 hours a day.

Murmansk.

Murmansk.

The route from Murmansk to Teriberka.

The route from Murmansk to Teriberka.

On Friday morning I woke up super early to catch a 7:20AM flight to Murmansk, the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. I ended up having to take a taxi to Sheremetyevo as I needed to get to the airport before the Aeroexpress train started to run.

Morning at Sheremetyevo.

Morning at Sheremetyevo.

Getting out of the dorm was my first adventure of the day. I’m not quite sure what time they technically open the door to the street, maybe 5:00 or 6:00AM? The night before, I went to speak with the guard. The door guards work in 24 hour shifts, so the guy there in the evening would be there through the next afternoon. He’s friendly and asked where I was going and was excited when I said Murmansk. He was also quite drunk due to the holiday. I told the guard that I had to leave early and asked if I could due to the flight. He said it was fine and then rambled on about the holiday in slightly slurred speech. I congratulated him and walked off. In the morning, I went by the little guard office near the door and noticed he was asleep on the couch. I went and tried the door, which was open, so I didn’t have to wake him. From there, I just waited for my Yandex Taxi to arrive and went off to the airport in about 25 minutes due to the lack of traffic in Moscow in the early morning hours. As I’ve learned flying in and out of JFK over the years, as painful as it is to wake up for the early flight, it generally makes the process of getting to and through the airport much less stressful.

This was my first time flying domestically in Russia, and as such was my first time at the domestic “terminal” at Sheremetyevo. What this really amounts to is going to the far end of the check-in hall. There is a separate security point in the domestic flights terminal past security is just a wing of the overall terminal, which is blocked off by a wall. I quickly killed some time walking around the entire domestic part of the terminal before getting ready to board. As I saw I was at a lower level gate, I immediately knew that I would be getting onto a bus and then getting onto the plane with stairs. Boarding was fine and swift and we departed 10 minutes early from the “gate.” The flight was reasonably full. I had a mother and her 9 year old son next to me. The son was playing GTA San Adreas on his iphone, which was moderately interesting to watch. We got the same breakfast meal that I got on the flight to Tbilisi, a fish, pickle, and spread sandwich with a yoghurt and small chocolate bar. After two hours, we landed smoothly in Murmansk.

On approach to Murmansk.

On approach to Murmansk.

Murmansk was founded in 1916 as a year-round port on the very northern shores of Russia. Due to the Gulf Stream, the waters remain navigable year round. As I have said, it’s the largest city north of the Arctic Circle and also features the northernmost trolleybus system. I have wanted to go for a while with my pop-cultural influenced love of Russia. The Hunt for Red October essentially features a submarine from nearby naval bases. These bases aren’t actually in the port of Murmansk itself. They’re spread throughout the nearby territory in closed settlements. Neither foreigners nor regular Russians are allowed to go to these places. Sometimes, to travel to nearby areas for hunting or fishing, or overland border crossings to Norway or Finland, special permission has to be received from the local authorities.

I traveled north with three acquaintances. The person who invited me was Vanessa, an Italian whom I had met in the dorm a few times while she was visiting some of my neighbors. She teaches Italian at a few places in Moscow. She casually invited me at dinner one night, and I immediately agreed to join the trip. The third member of our group was Terry, an American who teaches English at a private Russian school on the outskirts of Moscow. Our final travel companion was Alex, a Russian who somehow knows Vanessa through the other Italians. We all had different travel arrangements, more or less, that were facilitated by the February 23rd holiday. Terry arrived Thursday night, I arrived Friday morning, and Vanessa and Alex were supposed to arrive at the hostel around midnight on Friday into Saturday.

From the airport in Murmansk, I quickly grabbed a Yandex Taxi that was waiting in the parking lot. The cab drivers clearly hang out at the airport in the hours near the flight arrivals. It was only 500 rubles to go the 30KM from the airport to the hostel compared to the 1,000 rubles to cover roughly the same distance in Moscow from the dorm to Sheremetyevo.

I got into the hostel on the outskirts of Murmansk around 10:30AM, which was named the Little Mermaid in Russian. I found the reception staff, two nice men of about 40-45, and placed my things in my room before finding Terry. We spoke to the two hostel guys about getting food and then seeing things in the city as well as excursion outwards on either Saturday or Sunday. The guys recommended a food shack that was on the opposite wall of their office. We went there to get food before heading into the center of town to explore the city. The guy running the food shack was named Sasha, and he was super excited to meet two Americans in his little establishment on the edge of Murmansk. We ate some of his grilled wings in the unheated food shack. We wanted to get shashlyk, grilled meat, but he didn’t have any ready yet. He gave us his number and told us to call and come for dinner.

After lunch, Andrei, one of the managers of the hostel, drove us into the city and dropped us off at the main square. Terry and I wandered up and down and around some of the side streets of Prospket Lenina (Lenin’s Prospect) before popping into an Irish pub to grab some drinks and warm up. It was probably about 10F on Friday. In the Irish pub, we were met fondly by the bartender and one other patron who were excited to speak with some Americans. We tried some beers from a local brewer, which were quite tasty. If the option to drink Piligrim’s (Пилигрим) wheat beer is presented to you, go for it.

Symbols of the city near the main square off of Prospekt Lenina.

Symbols of the city near the main square off of Prospekt Lenina.

A few hours passed in the bar and Terry and I headed back out to wander more in the cold. We walked past the obligatory statue of Lenin off of his street. We also found a monument to Sergei Kirov, a somewhat rival of Stalin and Leningrad Party Boss whose suspicious murder helped kick off the Terror of the 1930s. Getting cold and hungry, we wandered into a different bar that on the outside looked like a German style brew house. The inside was themed as an Irish bar, and they only had two types of beer as well as a weird menu that was a mixture of Russian classics and pub foods. From there, we headed to a supermarket to get something for breakfast before taking a taxi back to the hostel.

Intense WWII monument in Murmansk.

Intense WWII monument in Murmansk.

For anyone looking to travel to Murmansk, do not stay in the Rusalochka Guest House (Русалочка). There is a reason why it was dirt cheap. As we were in two person rooms, we each paid 400 rubles a night to stay there, or roughly $7.00. The place was on the edge of the city in an industrial park. There was nowhere to walk to from it, and the bus that the internet said existed didn’t really exist. We had to take taxis to and from the place all the time. There were a few other foreigners there, but the clientele was mostly sketchy Russians.

Murmansk street corner.

Murmansk street corner.

My room was so-so. Coming first, I was a jerk and stole the more real bed. Vanessa got stuck with a folding cot with a decently thick mattress on it. Our room was also a former office. The key even said “Office No. 2” on it. Thus, there was a large desk and some chairs in it as well as an old bookcase. There was only one shower in the whole building of maybe 30 rooms, and there were two other toilets, which were basically unheated. I couldn’t figure out how to work the shower, either. There were no regular knobs. I went into the hall and asked a Russian guy if he knew how to work it. He somewhat laughed at me and came in but couldn’t figure it out. He also asked some other Russian man lingering in the hall outside the kitchen if he could figure it out, which he couldn’t. I found Terry and he showed me that it operated with a push button that had to be hammered in with your hand. It’s basically the same mechanism as those sinks where you push down on the knob and the water runs for about 10 or 15 seconds.

Our next problem with the hostel came from the overnight staff. While Terry and I were out, Vanessa and Alex messaged us that their flight was going to be delayed. They would arrive closer to 4:00AM. When we got back, Terry and I went to inform the staff. The woman working overnight was creepy and unfriendly. I told her about the delay and she told me to tell them to immediately find her so that she could copy their information from their passports. I sent this message along to Vanessa and Alex. In the mean time, Terry and I walked around outside the hotel a few times to see if we could see the Northern Lights, which was a failure. The guy from the food stand came up and asked why we hadn’t come for dinner, and when we went to see if we could walk anywhere along the road, a passing motorist seemed to stop to see if we needed assistance. Eventually we called it quits and went inside to go to bed.

Vanessa's bed.

Vanessa’s bed.

As I was getting ready for bed, the woman working at the guest house knocked on my door and asked if I was going to lock it when I went to sleep. I said I would, but she told me not to as the others were coming in late and it would be a disturbance if they knocked on the door. I said that no matter what, I would wake up when they arrived, so it wasn’t an issue for me. She then left me. At about 4:15AM I got a phone call from Alex asking me to open the door. I got up and went to the main door, which was unlocked. Vanessa and Alex didn’t even try to open it, figuring that the outside door would be locked at that hour of the morning. They had tried to call the posted number for the worker, but got no answer. I told them about the passport, and we knocked on the office of the administrator, but there was no answer. So we went to our rooms and to sleep. We forgot to lock the door to our room, so Vanessa and I were rudely awakened at 5:00AM by the crazy woman. She threw the door open and turned on the light, which scared us to death. She then started to demand the passport from Vanessa. I went back to sleep and then slept poorly and woke anytime I heard someone approach the office doors near our room.

In the morning, we got up and attempted to eat breakfast in the kitchen. The kitchen really served as the smoking room for the Russian clientele, who used a jar and its lid as an ash tray. The Russian men were also having beer for breakfast. We had gotten cereal to eat, but there were no spoons in the hostel. Instead, we just munched on the dry cereal and tried to figure out what to do for the day and when to arrange a trip to a village called Teriberka about 120KM away that was on the Barents Sea. We spoke with Andrei, who told us that he knew a guy and we could arrange a trip for the next day. He then dropped us all off in the center of the city, but this time by a restaurant where we got a second breakfast/early lunch.

Beer for breakfast.

Beer for breakfast.

We ate and then walked along the main road to the train station. From the train station, we crossed a series of tracks on some bridges towards the port, where we went to the museum for the first atomic icebreaker, named the Lenin.

The first atomic icebreaker, the Lenin.

The first atomic icebreaker, the Lenin.

It was built in 1959 and served until 1989. The only way to go on it is through a tour that runs certain days at 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00. We got the 2:00 tour, which seemed to be the most popular. Walking through the ship was pretty cool. As a floating city, there was a very scary looking medical complex featuring a dentist office, an x-ray room, and a surgery.

The stuff of nightmares.

The stuff of nightmares.

The grand staircase of the ship was slightly ornate. However, unlike the famed staircase of the Titanic, which featured a centerpiece carving of Honor and Glory crowning Time, the Lenin had a giant Lenin quote and carving of his head.

Grand Staircase Soviet style.

Grand Staircase Soviet style.

We got to go past the decommissioned nuclear reactor, which had a good display set up in it to see what it looked like while working. There was also a tour of the engine room and the steam turbines that powered the ship with over 144,000HP.

Steam turbine.

Steam turbine.

The best views from the ship were from the bridge.

View from the bridge.

View from the bridge.

After the tour, we headed back to the center via a stop at an old steam engine by the rail tracks. We climbed up it for some cool photos before getting a taxi to an edge of the city to see the giant war memorial.17021499_10212322263634583_4807174153905822397_n

Murmansk was a major city for Russia during the Second World War. Murmansk is one of the twelve Hero Cities of the former Soviet Union, cities of the most importance to the effort on the Eastern Front. Because of its year round port, Murmansk was a major target for Nazi advances and bombing campaigns. This port is where a lot of the Lend Lease goods came in to supply the Soviet war effort. The Nazis wanted to cut this off, but never managed to take over the city and do so. Murmansk was actually the third most attacked and ruined city of the USSR, and Russia, after Leningrad and Stalingrad due to its immense strategic importance. On a hill overlooking the city is a giant monument to the war effort, called Alyosha, of a Russian soldier that was built in the 1970s.

At the Alyosha monument.

At the Alyosha monument.

The view of the city from the top was absolutely stunning.

Looking at Murmansk from the memorial.

Looking at Murmansk from the memorial.

We wandered all around the monument and took in the views of the city before walking down through the park back to the city. We walked the whole way from the monument to the main roads of the city. While heading back to Prospekt Lenina, we stumbled upon a Mexican bar and restaurant called Amigos right on the edge of the main road. We went in and enjoyed having fajitas and enchiladas in the arctic north. I haven’t even had Mexican food in Moscow, yet there is a decent place to eat it in Murmansk. Who would have thought?

I like Murmansk more than Moscow.

I like Murmansk more than Moscow.

We wandered more and then took a trolleybus back towards the outskirts of the city in an attempt to find a place to look for the Northern Lights. After wandering around outside for about a hour, we headed into a café next to a park to have some tea and warm up. There was a DJ there playing songs off of his laptop who kept staring and me and Vanessa. If we started to bob along to the music, he would turn it up. If we didn’t, he would skip songs until we did. I ended up seeing a kid eating ice cream and talked about eating it outside. It was a bitterly cold day of -13F that was down to about -20F with the wind-chill. The others somewhat dared me to eat ice cream outside, so I got one and did so. It was wonderful.

Photo taken from the comfort of the cafe. I had no problems eating my ice cream outside. It was refreshing.

Photo taken from the comfort of the cafe. I had no problems eating my ice cream outside. It was refreshing.

We regained some strength and headed outside through the park to look for the lights again. On the way, we found a slide made of ice. I found a cardboard box on the ground, and we took a few turns going down the slide before heading back into the center on the trolleybus. We grabbed some breakfast foods and then went to bed fairly early after chatting in our room for a while as we had an early start the next day.

We arranged through Andrei to get a driver to take us to the fishing village of Teriberka. I highly recommend going there, but it is very important to go with an experienced guide in the winter. We were lucky that the road was currently open, though it closes sometimes for days at a time due to the snow, and people can be stranded in the village. Our driver Igor was an extreme professional. He had an SUV with studded snow tires. His trunk was filled with shovels, a sleeping bag, and a butane camp stove among other supplies. His day job is with the МЧС, or the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Basically, this means that he works as an emergency first responder. He has his own tour company for other days. I highly recommend his services. The price was 10,000 rubles for the day in which we left at 9:30 and came back at 6:00. Split between us, it was 2,500 rubles each, or roughly $45.00, which is not bad for a whole day with a knowledgeable guide.

His group is called Туры и экскурсии по Кольскому полуострову (Tours and Excursions along the Kola Peninsula)  and he can be reached through his Vkontake page.

As we headed out, the danger of the drive became a little more evident. He kept checking in with someone else on his phone. They try to take the drives in groups of at least two cars in case some sort of problem happens with one. You literally drive across the middle of nowhere with no available help. The road on much of the trip is really just gravel, though in the winter everything is snow. A few times we passed giant trucks that were removing snow from the road. Igor told us that on one recent trip, they had to wait three days for the road to reopen. As we headed farther away from Murmansk, we crossed into the tundra. The weather conditions immediately changed to heavy snow and essentially white out conditions. Both the road and the horizon were white. The only way to see where to go was orange markings on the side of the road, which also told the plow drivers where to plow.

Difficult driving conditions.

Difficult driving conditions.

Along the way to Teriberka, we stopped a few times for photos. At one point, we took photos on a dam. I reveled in living out GoldenEye fantasies of being on a snow covered damn in northern Russia. For those of you who don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of that particular film, the opening shot is at the fictional Arkhangelsk Chemical Weapons facility, which supposedly sits at the base of a dam. James Bond runs across the dam and bungee jumps off of it to enter the base. In reality, the scene was shot at the Contra dam in Switzerland, but I didn’t care. Arkhangelsk is another far north Russian port city with a sizable nuclear fleet base.

View from a Russian dam.

View from a Russian dam.

Another very interesting sight on the way to Teriberka was the presence of a group of para-snowboarders and skiers. These extreme sports junkies head out in convoys to the snow drifts of the tundra. They attach parachutes to themselves and have the wind propel them along the snow as they attempt to do some jumps.

Bad photo, but para-snowboarding.

Bad photo, but para-snowboarding.

The road to Teriberka was also dotted with little fishing encampments, or just cars parked along the road for people to head to the many nearby lakes for some ice fishing.

Fishing encampment.

Fishing encampment.

After about three hours of driving including a few photo stops, we reached a fork in the road for Teriberka and New Teriberka. New Teriberka is a settlement that sits a little more inland on the Teriberka Gulf. It has a few buildings, a café, and a sandy beach.

Some of New Teriberka.

Some of New Teriberka.

The real Russia.

The real Russia.

We walked along the beach and took photos of the stunning countryside before heading into the café for a lunch of soup and local crab and scallops. Igor told us that the crabs were not native to these waters. Instead, Soviet scientists took crabs from Kamchatka and brought them to the Barents to see if they would take off, which they did. However, Igor told us that Russia has very strict regulations about the fishing of fish and shellfish to control the population. Apparently, the Norwegians don’t follow the same principles.

Old Teriberka as seen from New Teriberka.

Old Teriberka as seen from New Teriberka.

Refreshed after having food, we got back in the car to Teriberka via a quick stop at the ship graveyard. They are early steam ships. Igor said that he’s tried to learn the history of them, but hasn’t been able to do so.

Ship graveyard.

Ship graveyard.

There wasn’t actually anything to see or do in Teriberka itself. Instead, we drove to the edge of the settlement before undertaking a 30 minute hike across the snow to the rocky beach on the Barents Sea.

Hiking to the sea.

Hiking to the sea.

The views along the way were also breathtaking. Murmansk is more of a stereotypical northern city near the water that has a few hills and trees. As we headed out of the city, the large pine forests started to surround us. Then we got to the nothingness of the tundra before approaching giant mounts near the sea.

The beach at the Barents was really just a pile of boulders that we had to carefully climb over.

The beach at the Barents Sea.

The beach at the Barents Sea.

Vanessa was partially insane and a trooper. She was insistent upon swimming. Igor helped her get to the water and loaned her his second jacket and sleeping bag in place of no towels. She got up to the water, took off the jacket, and got hit by a massive wave before quickly getting dressed again. I took off my shoes and socks and walked up to the water. It was quite painful, but eventually my feet just ignored the pain and went back to feeling normal. Due to the rocks and waves, I couldn’t really get into the water. Instead, I stood in a small puddle near the edge, which kept going up and town with the tide. I my book, it doesn’t count as visiting a body of water unless you at least stick your feet in.

Put feet in Barents Sea in February: check.

Put feet in Barents Sea in February: check.

Alex also took off his shoes and socks. After having our water adventures, Igor pulled snacks and tea out of his backpack and we had tea on the rocks of the Barents Sea. It was an unreal once in a lifetime experience.

Picnic at the Barents.

Picnic at the Barents.

The tide was approaching our perch, so we warmed up and then hiked back to the car. Igor drove us back to Murmansk without any issues. Along the way, he started to talk about WWII a bit and I asked him a few questions. I knew that there were about 5 POW camps in the area. He said that the POWs helped to rebuild and that they were largely used in the construction of a hydro-electric plant that the Finns designed. He also mentioned that a lot of the nearby roads to the various fishing spots were first built by the Germans. They paved them with gravel and stones, and they are all apparently still in fantastic condition.

After arriving back at the hostel, we got dinner of grilled meat from the shack, much to the happiness of the owner Sasha. We relaxed and chatted in the room. We had a carton of milk that we hadn’t opened and were wondering what to do with it. Jokingly, we said we should freeze it and turn it into ice cream, so we put it in cups out of the window to do so overnight.

Homemade ice cream with a snow dusting.

Homemade ice cream with a snow dusting.

Vanessa and Alex had the 5:00AM flight out of Murmansk so that they could be back in Moscow in time for work on Monday. They left the hostel around 3:00AM. I was dead tired and didn’t hear Vanessa get up. Nor dead I hear or notice her opening the window to try some of the ice cream, of which she took a flash photo. I only woke up when she said my name, goodbye, and walked out of the door. I woke again a few hours later to gather the last of my things, hand Terry the key to my room, and get my taxi. My taxi was at 8:45, and there was seemingly no one working at the time. Terry was OK with taking the key as his flight was at 1:00 or so.

I got into the cab with a nice driver. He first asked if I was from Norway or Finland, and was surprised when I said the USA. On the way to the airport, he insisted on us stopping at a natural spring at the side of the road so that I could try the local spring water. I did, and it was indeed fresh and lovely.

The spring.

The spring.

We got to the airport quickly and easily. I then waited in line to check-in. I wanted to be there early for my 10:50 flight as I couldn’t check-in online. The line moved fairly quickly as the check-in was just for my 180 seat plane. Oddly, there was a group of about 20 Chinese tourists also on my flight.

After a quick and simple security check-point I wound up in the mostly wonderfully Soviet airport terminal. There was a giant socialist realist sculpture on the wall. The layout was also that of a provincial train station. It had the same design and furniture of the train station in Ulyanovsk, for example.

Soviet airport greatness.

Soviet airport greatness.

The gates were also just two doors out to the tarmac. I got some great views of my plane coming in from Moscow as well as an old Antonov An-24 turboprop plane operated by a small regional airline called Pskovavia. The particular model of plane was manufactured from 1959-1979.

This is why you only fly on Aeroflot within Russia.

This is why you only fly on Aeroflot within Russia.

Boarding was just us all massing at the gate door. Our tickets were ripped, and we got onto a bus to take us to the plane. We quickly boarded and left on time. As the airport is tiny, there isn’t much of a taxiway. There’s just a strip from the middle of the runway to the terminal area. We drove up the strip and along the runway. At the edge of the runway, the plane made a u-turn. I didn’t realize that an Airbus could turn around like that. Then we took off and landed in Moscow with a minimal delay caused by the traffic in front of us to land. Lunch on the flight was a simple ham, cheese, and pickle sandwich, a fruit bar, and a mandarin.

We got an actual jetway when we arrived and quickly got off of the plane. I walked to Aeroexpress and was back in the dorm by 3:00PM. And thus ended my adventures to the far north of Russia. I highly recommend taking a similar trip if someone ever gets the chance. It was refreshing to be outside of Moscow in the real Russia.

I’ve been fairly intensively consumed by archival work recently. Normally I don’t like to write too much about what I find or see in the archives, but I’ve come across some interesting stuff lately, and I had a quintessential experience with the head archivist at Socio-Political Historical Archive (RGASPI) this past week.

Photo of a cool sunset by Red Square to distract from a ramble about the archives.

Photo of a cool sunset by Red Square to distract from a ramble about the archives.

In the military archive (RGVA), I’m collecting more supporting evidence but I haven’t found anything particularly new or shocking. The folders entitled “Sentenced War Criminals” in the Stalingrad Oblast were not quite what I had hoped they would be from the title. After 1950, the Soviets insisted that they held no more German POWs; rather, they only had sentenced war criminals. While undoubtedly many of those held had indeed been properly sentenced for actual war crimes, others were likely falsely imprisoned through show trials under a pretext that was internationally acceptable during the burgeoning Cold War. I was hoping to find information about these trials that evaluated POWs and designated them as war criminals. Instead, it was about 600 pages of guys being sentenced to various periods of jail within the camps for refusing to work or obey orders. There was a funny one about a guy who was sentenced to a week in camp jail for wandering around shirtless and in his underwear and cutting in the line to get mail.

In State Archive (GARF), I’ve begun working in some different collections. One has to do with bread rations during the Soviet famine of 1946-1947. As typical Soviet documents, they don’t actually admit that there is a famine. However, it is quite clear from what’s inside the documents that there was a major famine. They talk about how the camps did not have enough bread to feed the POWs. There were also many documents, especially from the republics of Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia, punishing the POW camp staff for missing food. During the famine, the camp staff clearly stole bread and potatoes. At least in these republics, they were caught and sentenced to a variety of different punishments for this.

As I’m dealing with Russian archives, I also had two “fun” incidents recently. The first involves the electronic catalog for GARF. There is an online catalogue on their website, but it doesn’t work properly. I thought there was way less on my topic in GARF because of this. For example, typing POW in the online catalogue comes up with zero results, but if I search the catalogue on the computers in the reading room at the archive, I get hundreds of results. So now I’ve got a bunch more to read through there.

I also had my first personal experience with the true Misha treatment at RGASPI. He refused to give me volume 2 of opis 2 of the Molotov fond. When I registered he only gave me the third volume, and I found some great stuff with POW repatriation or UN commissions/Cold War related stuff in those files (lots of correspondences between the Western allies and the USSR about German POWs in Soviet hands). However, someone else working in the archive had specifically told me to get a folder from volume 2 as she had ordered it and seen things about the POWs in it. I asked Misha for volume 2 but was told that “foreign affairs are only in volume 3. There is nothing for you in volume 2. There’s nothing else here for you. Go to GARF.” After some arguing back and forth and me showing him a citation for a particular folder a few times, he relented and pulled out volume 2 to look up said folder. Trying to prove a point, he flipped directly to that folder instead of letting me look at the volume myself. When he got to it, he read aloud the description, which included the German POWs. “Well, you never said the word repatriation,” he grumbled as he handed me the whole volume and walked off.

While doing my laundry last week, I was perusing the bookshelves in the lobby of the dorm. I found a copy of an Ian Fleming collection in Russian, which includes “Diamonds are Forever,” “From Russia with Love,” and “Doctor No.” I’m pretty excited to read them in Russian. I was confused by the book at first, though, when I pulled it off of the shelf because it claims to be a collection of detective novels. If you know me, you know my love of James Bond films, video games, and books is pretty extensive, except for the travesties known as the Daniel Craig films. Those suck. End of discussion. Some of the coolest days in the archives for me are when I come across SMERSH documents. SMERSH was a Soviet counter-intelligence agency that stood for “Death to Spies.” SMERSH features prominently in Fleming’s novels and a couple of the James Bond films. Those are the days in which I don’t hate my otherwise fairly dreary existence of reading dusty documents.

Ian Fleming - Detective Novels.

Ian Fleming – Detective Novels.

How do I cope with the boredom or insanity of the archives? I’m glad you asked. Sometimes I have a variety of food adventures around the city or in the dorm. For example, we have become regulars at the Uzbek restaurant Café Anor. We go there often enough that the staff recognizes us and the server knows to bring us two portions of adjika, the hot sauce.

Some nights I just put copious quantities of hot sauce on my eggs. Eggs are somewhat interesting in Russia in that they don’t come in a dozen, but rather in a pack of ten. I feel like there’s some Soviet joke to be made about only decadent capitalist imperialists having eggs coming in a dozen. img_3331

Maybe I spent a little too long reading files from the propaganda department. They love throwing phrases like capitalist imperialist around. I also improved my eggs with Sriracha, which was one of the prized possessions in my suitcase full of odds and ends. If I have to be responsible and trek to an archive in sub-zero temperatures, then I get the liberty to draw on my food with hot sauce. There is also a reason that I study history and not art, which is evidenced by the photo. In some ways I bring nothing but shame to my maternal grandparents, who were talented artists and long-time art teachers in the New York City public school system. Don’t worry, none of this is cold induced brain damage. That all happened years ago when I frequently fell down the stairs in my youth. Gravity and I are still on neutral terms at best.img_3332

Or, I have the wonderful luck of being friends with Anne-Marie, who had gone to cooking school and worked professional in the restaurant industry. On Monday night this past week we made a delightful macaroni and cheese with a béchamel base to which we added three cheeses, one of which was brie. It was superb.

There is no such thing as too much cheese.

There is no such thing as too much cheese.

Then, on Wednesday, we decided to make dinner with the leftover macaroni that was inspired by an internet food post about grilled cheese sandwiches with mac and cheese in them. I decided to step things up a notch by buying bacon at the store, which also happened to be on sale that day.

Om-nom-nom.

Om-nom-nom.

The other news in the dormitory is the turnover of the students. Over the course of the last week I said goodbye to the two remaining students who wouldn’t be back for a second semester. And, after a few quiet days of there only being three people on the floor, the new neighbors have begun to arrive in droves.

Napoleon has managed to somewhat achieve his goals 200+ years later. The three new French Canadian students are living on my floor. All of my Italian neighbors, with the exception of one, have gone back to Italy. Supposedly there are supposed to be eight new Italian students this semester, but if they’re here, they aren’t on my floor. Instead, we have quite a few French students from France on this floor, and there is also another group on the sixth floor. Thus, I am now completely surrounded by the French in the middle of Moscow. I feel like I’ve been transported into the world of “War and Peace.” I’m in some pre-1812 aristocratic Russian settlement as the corridors are filled with French speech and the only Russian uttered is broken. My only solace is that I don’t think there will be any balls held in the dormitory. Perhaps I should mention that I disliked the peace parts of “War and Peace.” There were too many balls, and Natasha’s inability to choose between her love interests was insufferable.

Outside of the comfort of food, I rely on going to Taekwondo to physically beat out my aggression.

Dojang sweet dojang.

Dojang sweet dojang.

This past week, I cut my arm pretty badly while fighting and there was a moderate amount of blood. When walking home from practice I thought about stopping at the pharmacy to buy some sort of antiseptic for the cut on my arm, but then I remembered that there is always vodka in a the freezer in the dorm.

Back in Moscow

Posted: January 16, 2017 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

A few hours ago I landed back in snowy Moscow. I spent roughly a month “home” for Christmas and New Years. I use the term “home” loosely as I wound up in Vermont, Cape Cod, Boston, New York City, Connecticut, Chile, and Argentina over the month. Most of my trips were to see family or friends, but the trip to Latin America was business oriented. I presented a paper at a conference in Chile, and wound up winning a best paper award for the conference.

The host university.

The host university in Chile.

The flight back to Russia was its usual fun routine. I’m currently stuck with a conundrum when it comes to flying abroad. I have Global Entry, which also gives me TSA Pre-Check, which means that I can go through expedited security lines that don’t require me to remove my shoes, laptop, or liquids. I also get to go through a regular metal detector instead of the millimeter wave scanners. However, this only applies to American carriers. Thus, my choice of poor fates is to either fly internationally on an American airline or to go through regular security in exchange for a better flight experience. For Russia, I don’t really have a choice. Delta now only flies seasonally between Moscow and New York, and for some strange reason, the season is not in the middle of the Russian winter. People who have read this blog before will also know that I despise flying on American airlines and love the Russian airline Aeroflot. I’ve had much better service on their New York-Moscow flights than on the same route with Delta.

Breakfast Aeroflot style: blini and herring salad.

Breakfast Aeroflot style: blini and herring salad.

Check-in at JFK this morning (yesterday?) was a breeze. The security line was frustratingly long, as usual, but I managed to avoid having to be patted down. Boarding was delayed by about half an hour because the plane was late to arrive from Moscow, probably due to de-icing. What was new this time was a bevy of security checks at the gate. I’m not sure if there is something about the particular flight and current Russian-American relations or if screening has just been amplified after the Florida airport attack earlier this month. First I had to present my passport for a visa check, which is normal to fly to Russia. Then, my passport was checked by a TSA agent. From there, I was asked to show the contents of my bag to a different TSA agent. Finally, while getting onto the jetway, I was asked to show my passport to an Air Marshall, who left me alone, but they were asking the Russians what they were carrying, specifically quantities of money.

The flight itself was uneventful. I had a window seat, which I strategically booked towards the back of the plane in a row in which the aisle had already been selected. Thankfully, the seat between myself and the man on the aisle remained empty, and I could stretch out during the flight. As usual, the best part of the flight was the people watching. There was a Chinese man in the row in front of me who likely has a gambling addiction as he spent the entire 9 hour flight playing a Texas Hold Em poker game on the in flight entertainment system. The guy who had the aisle seat in my row was also a bit of a character. He got on the plane and moved his bag from bin to bin every few minutes. I also noticed, during some of his luggage rearranging, that he had bought a bottle of Bacardi at Duty Free, which he had consumed about 1/3 of before boarding the plane. Thankfully he wasn’t a drunk mess, nor did he consume more during the flight. In total, we were about 90 minutes late due to the delayed boarding and waiting to taxi and take off. The second we touched the ground in Moscow, the guy in my row and some others stood up and started to remove their bags from the overhead bins. This prompted the flight attendants to get up to tell them to sit down. The men who were standing were angry and responded that they were 90 minutes late, which somehow justifies standing when they weren’t supposed to stand?

Immigration was fine, as usual, and we had to wait a while for our bags due to “technical reasons.” I hopped on the Aeroexpress Train, which boarded exactly a minute after I arrived at the platform and bought the ticket, thankfully. I then grabbed a taxi from the train station to the dorm. Due to the traffic and the crazy intersections and long lights around the station, I probably could have walked to the dorm in the time it took to drive, but I’m lazy after the flight and with my luggage.

Back in the land of snow.

Back in the land of snow.

I caught a break when coming back into the dorm. When I left, they took my electronic key card that gets me through the turnstiles at the security checkpoint in the building with street access. I have a student ID as well as a different paper ID that says that I live in the dormitory, but it’s a hassle to dig them out of my bags and talk to the guards about why I don’t have the electronic pass. Thankfully, the guard on duty when I arrived was Anatoly, who I have previously bribed with cigarettes. He said welcome back and opened the gate for me, and I walked right through and went to my dormitory building. The next fun step was getting my room key and keycard back. There was no one at the desk, and the administrator was not in her office. I just wandered down a corridor of offices near the laundry room and found the administrator in order for her to give me my stuff.

No, seriously, the land of snow. This was shortly after we began to taxi to the gate.

No, seriously, the land of snow. This was shortly after we began to taxi to the gate.

I quickly dropped my things in my room before heading to the main building to hand in my passport and migration card for the registration process and to pick up my letters of introduction to re-register at the archives.

The second I put my big bag down in my room, though, I began to slightly worry. I noticed that the lock was missing, a telltale sign that the TSA had inspected my bag. Whoever searched my bag must have thought I was a complete weirdo. My bag contained two pairs of pants, some sneakers, and a sweater. The rest of the bag was whiskey, chocolates, peanut butter, hot sauce, and a large bag of Splenda. In retrospect, having a bag containing white powders is probably a super sure way to get your bag searched at the airport. Thankfully, noting was removed, and perhaps the most important item remained, the Splenda. The woman who makes the letters of introduction for the archives has a diabetic mother. When I stopped by her officer every few weeks to check the mail for things from home, she mentioned how her relatives in the States send Splenda for her mother. Before leaving, I stopped by the office and asked if she wanted me to bring some Splenda before asking if I could email her the list of archives ahead of time to have the letters ready when I arrived. The promised bribe worked. Irina responded to my email in record time for RGGU and the letters were ready within 24 hours. I popped by her office and got the letters, and she very gladly received a large bag of Splenda from me. She was so happy to get it that she even hugged me.

I hit a new minor snag of sorts with the bureaucracy associated with the registration process. The visa office requires a photocopy of your passport, migration card, visa, and entry stamp to fill out the registration documents at the Federal Migration Service. Previously, I would walk into the office and they would do the copies then and there for me. Now, though, they want you to use a kiosk in the lobby of the building to do the photo copies. The copies themselves cost 7 rubles a sheet, or roughly $0.11. The problem is that the machine produces very low quality copies. I walked back up to the office with the copies, and the woman then just photocopied the necessary passport pages on the copier like she always used to. I don’t know why I was sent to throw money away in a low quality machine if she was going to make the copies again anyway, but this is an aspect of Russian bureaucracy that I’ve learned to ignore.

After taking care of this business, I went and bought food, showered, and napped. I feel human again and am more or less ready for five and a half more months in Russia. Tomorrow I’m off to re-register at some archives. Stay tuned for more adventures in Mother Russia, as well as some ex-Soviet republics. I have plans to travel quite a lot around my research this semester.

This was my second time that I’ve spent Thanksgiving in Mother Russia, and this time I made up for the last time in a spectacular way. In Ulyanovsk, I had to spend the day teaching and taking classes. My celebration in the evening was to eat some chicken that I got at the rotisserie chicken stand near the dorm. This time, like a truly gluttonous American, I had two fantastic Thanksgiving dinners in Moscow.

As Thanksgiving is a national holiday back home, I took the day off from going to the archives. The real celebration happened in the afternoon, and evening. I have become friends with one of the undergrads spending a semester learning Russian here at RGGU. He is fortunate to live with a wonderful host mother named Alla. Alla went above and beyond to make a Thanksgiving dinner for the undergrad, one of his classmates, myself, and our adopted American Anne-Marie (who is Canadian, so she’s technically also American, but whatever). The others all had classes in the afternoon, but being free all day, I got to Alla’s apartment early to help her prepare dinner. This was slightly easier said than done because Alla’s apartment doesn’t have a working phone system to call the apartment from the outside. Luckily, a neighbor was entering the building around the same time as me, so she let me into the front door and I climbed up to Alla’s apartment. We then spent the next two hours continuing to get things ready for dinner, drinking coffee, and chatting. There really wasn’t too much for me to do to help, as Alla had done most of the work already. My help was cutting a few potatoes before they were boiled to make the mashed potatoes, cutting and peeling apples for the apple pie, and partially setting the table.

The complete spread for Thanksgiving No. 1.

The complete spread for Thanksgiving No. 1. It was like Thanksgiving at home, but with vodka.

Eventually, the other Americans showed up after their classes, and we continued to finish setting the table, mash the potatoes, and check that the turkey was fully cooked. I cooked the extra stuffing that did not go in the turkey on the stove top in a pan, and Anne-Marie carved the turkey. For the meal, we were also joined by Alla’s aunt as well as Alla’s cousin and his wife. After they arrived, we sat at the table and had quite the feast.

We started with an aperitif of sparkling wine, before we tucked into the meal. In addition to a lovely turkey, Alla had made stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, and a hybrid Russian-American salad of some sort. All of the food was spectacularly delicious, and we had a good time chatting the night away in Russian.

The dessert course was also spectacular. In addition to the apple pie that I helped to make, Alla had made a pecan pie. Both pies were scrumptious, especially with a healthy addition of Russian ice cream. Russia is well known for some of its dishes and staple exports such as caviar and vodka, but it is little known that Russia makes excellent chocolates, candies, and ice cream. Unlike in America, much more of the food in Russian is locally sourced and uses natural ingredients. The ice cream is a good example of this. Unlike in America, it is definitely made with cream and real sugar. The result is a decadent and smooth ice cream that is good to enjoy whenever. I may or may not be known to wander down the street in the heavy negative temperatures while enjoying a Russian ice cream cone or equivalent of a Good Humor bar. But back to Thanksgiving. The pies were great. Alla’s cousin and his wife decided that both were good, but they felt that the apple pie was better. I like to think that this was because I helped, or maybe it’s because Alla liberally splashed some cognac into apple, sugar, and cinnamon mix.

Dessert course.

Dessert course.

Then,  yesterday, I had Thanksgiving round two at Erin’s apartment with Slava and Anne-Marie. I met Slava and Anne-Marie around 12:00 at metro stop, and we swung by a shop to get ingredients and some wine to bring to Erin’s. We were basically responsible for cranberry sauce and an apple pie. Getting the ingredients was a little easier said than done. The night before, Anne-Marie got some frozen cranberries and the cinnamon at a store in a different neighborhood. We went to the nearest food store to Erin’s. It was a small, independent grocery store. It had almost everything we needed. We at first tried to find a different, chain grocery store across the street. According to Yandex, the Russian equivalent of Google, the store should have been there, but it didn’t exist. So we went back into the small store, and got the majority of the things before heading down the street to find a store that sold wine. We thought we found the place down the block. It said it was a universal store, and there were pictures of food items on the sign. We went down the stairs into the shop, which turned out to be solely a hookah and tobacco store. It turns out that the store we wanted was at the end of the block, hidden from our view by a flower store. While walking back, I noticed a bent wire with some tape over it on the ground at a parking area. It was a homemade slim jim, the tool used to break into cars. Generally, people in America use metal coat hangers for the same job. The idea is that you take a piece of wire, and slip it down a car door at the window seal. You then fish around the door until you find the wire that controls the door lock, which is then pulled up to unlock the door without a key. I’m going to assume someone in the Dinamo area is currently missing their car.

Someone is probably missing a car.

Someone is probably missing a car.

We then went from the store to Erin’s. We got in through the front door and spoke with the woman whose job it is to monitor who enters and exits the building. We said that we were going to Erin’s, and she told us to go around a few corners and to take the elevator, because if we took the stairs, we would not be able to find the apartment. However, when we got out of the elevator, we immediately found the apartment, which is across from the stairwell. Upon arriving at Erin’s, we got to work on preparing the meal. Anne-Marie took charge of the cranberry sauce, and Erin saw to the cheesy mashed potatoes, turkey breast, and beets. The apple pie was a team effort in that Slava peeled the apples, I cut them up, and Anne-Marie mad the crust from scratch and saw to adding the cinnamon, sugar, and lemon.

Feast No. 2.

Feast No. 2.

All of the food turned out phenomenally. We gorged ourselves in the dining room, and made sure to add ice cream to the hot apple pie at the end. The ice cream was a little funny in that the only vanilla ice cream for sale in the local shop was sold in log form in a plastic bag. None of us had ever seen that before outside of Russia, and even Slava was confused by it. Our solution was to slice off some hunks, and it worked out well.

Cutting the ice cream to adorn the pie.

Cutting the ice cream to adorn the pie.

We also had a surprise bit of entertainment between dinner and dessert when we heard the doorbell. It turned out to be a police officer, which surprised and scared us a bit. Apparently he was going around the apartments to do routine checks that the correct people were living in them. That is, he was checking that the people living in the apartments were indeed registered to live there. Thankfully everything was in order, and he left after about five minutes of doing some paperwork.

All in all, it was a great evening, and I had a wonderful time with my two Thanksgivings.