Sunday, January 25, 2009

Recycling? In Moscow?

Most days I close my eyes, hold my breath, and throw away my glass and other recyclables because as far as I can tell, there is no way to recycle here. There has to be some way to recycle, though, because very very occasionally I will see a бабушка (babushka: grandma/older woman) collecting aluminum from the few garbage cans around the entrance to the metro or from the ground. None-the-less, at work, at home, and in restaurants, recycling is something that is not understood or cared about in Moscow, by most people. Which begs the question, why? Why don’t the 15 million people who live in Moscow care about recycling? Don’t some of them live by a landfill or understand how many tons of waste (toxic and non) they throw out every day? The solution here is “out of site out of mind.” Muscovites are not concerned about the tons of garbage they accumulate because they throw it away, or throw it on the ground, and never see or hear of it again. The waste is shipped out to Siberia and the litter is picked up by immigrant workers – only when you take a маршрутка (marshrutka: minivan that is basically a cross between a taxi and a public bus, but the ride is closer to the price of a public bus) out of the city do you see the litter that has accumulated because immigrant workers aren’t hired to clean up the sides of the highways. Really, it’s appalling. At first I thought it signaled some sort of lack of pride or lack of respect for Russia’s largest city, but it’s more like displaced responsibility and who knows which came first – the workers whose job it is to pick up the trash or people littering without care?

Regardless of how much I try to close my eyes and hold my breath and recite the “out of sight out of mind” mantra, I am continually disturbed by new evidence of waste. Yesterday I was told that the copier’s drum cartridge would probably be thrown out, after which I tried to politely inform that there is a recycling project for this type of “waste” and all you have to do is sent it back to the supplier. Then I let it go – it’s out of my hands right? Or is this the attitude that has led to a lack of recycling in Moscow?

There is some hope – I believe. While I haven’t yet translated the flier I was handed two days ago, it looked like it was appealing to people to start recycling and to get a recycling project going. Time will tell if Europe’s largest city takes responsibility for its waste.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Godless Russians: A Cold War Myth

I am not sure that my generation fully internalized the Cold War concept of Russia as a Godless country full of heathen, Communists, though I have heard smatterings of comments concerning this rhetoric from previous generations of Americans. It seems that from the 20s to the 80s generations of Americans were saturated with this rhetoric concerning Godless Russians. The bulk of the propaganda hit the American populous during the 1950s via Hollywood. While I understand that this American propaganda rested on some truth about the Communist doctrine and the official, governmental rejection of religion, the thought of Russians as Godless really contradicts the hundreds of years of history deeply saturated with Russian Orthodox Catholicism. Most stereotypical images of Russia involve onion domes which top every Orthodox church -- and there are tons of them -- the buildings and monasteries survive all around Moscow, in surrounding cities, and throughout Siberia. The reverence people show emphasizes the fallacy of the idea that Russia is a Godless country – in monasteries photographs are highly discouraged, as they are holy places, the Russian icons are magnificent, and the religious are extremely pious.

Additionally, I have found that my students are very sensitive about religion and do not appreciate humor related to religion or breaking any sort of religious tradition. One week, the unit was on religion, so I picked a few BBC news articles for my students to discuss. Out of the five, they randomly chose two of them. One article was about a comedy/documentary made about religion that was meant to challenge people’s perceptions of religion or atheism – it was supposed to be humorous, but my students did not think that religion was something that should or could be challenged, questioned, or made light of. They thought the film was inappropriate, and they maintained a fairly conservative stance – not something one would expect from “Godless Russians.” The other group grabbed an article about a woman leading Muslim prayer, once and for a special occasion. Again, my students did not think this was ok and saw it as a challenge to and a diversion from tradition. They saw the woman as completely stepping out of line and didn’t care that it was a onetime occurrence. Out of my ignorance, I hadn't realized that my students would be this sensitive about religion and challenges to traditions. Overall, the lesson provided me with a huge learning experience – it’s better to give students specific articles rather than randomly picking two of five because even if you have a balance of viewpoints in the five, extremes could show up in the two chosen. Also, Russians are in no way, shape or form truly “Godless” and I doubt they ever could have been because of deeply rooted traditions and beliefs.

My flatmate’s father, of the Baby Boom generation, talked about how blown away he was when he attended a Russian Orthodox service while visiting Moscow. He mentioned the Cold War rhetoric and how he had thought of Russians as Godless, but after attending a service, he no longer holds this belief. I have not yet been to a Russian Orthodox service, but just in my few months of experience here, it is difficult to believe that Americans could ever have believed that Russians were Godless. I guess it just shows that no matter what comes from the top down in government, it’s really the people who make up a country, its culture and beliefs.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The New Tretyakov Gallery and early 20th Century Russian Art

Yesterday I saw Black Square, an icon of modern art.

Malevich, Black Square, 1915 (New Tretyakov Gallery)

It is touted as the first, truly non-representational painting, and therefore holds a significant place in history. My feelings about seeing it in person remind me of the stories I have heard about seeing the Mona Lisa in person -- only I didn't have to fight with a line of people. (I could stand and stare. I could easily come back three or four times.) Unfortunately, because the painting has begun to crack, it is being preserved behind glass, which means light reflects off the glass and the true presence of the painting is encapsulated. While I did much research on this piece and really looked forward to seeing it, my perusal of the 4th floor at the New Tretyakov Gallery led me to rediscover artists that I had previously pushed aside.

I found that I actually like Kandinsky - seeing his work in person makes a huge difference! The colors, lines, and shapes are dynamic, they seem to pulse and move. Kandinsky's paintings are usually of music -- he painted music -- and the painting seemed to communicate that music with the help of my imagination. Now I'm curious to know more about his methods, the music he used, etc.

Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913 (New Tretyakov Gallery)

Also, I am much more interested in Tatlin than I previously thought. Tatlin and Malevich are usually pitted against each other in the early 20th Century Russian avant-garde race. Previously, I thought that Malevich won, hands down, but after seeing some of the select works of Tatlin that still exist as well as seeing some incredible reproductions of his work which bridge the divide between painting and sculpture - between 2D and 3D - the race seems closer.

Tatlin, Counter Relief (Material Selection), 1916 (New Tretyakov Gallery)

Unfortunately, the New Tretyakov Gallery has a small selection from each artist of the early 20th Century, some were not in the exhibit and others are presumably spread out all over the world. I spent all my time on one floor and will have to go back to look at the art from other time periods another day -- good thing I'll be in Moscow for a while!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Analysis of three months in Moscow

When I first arrived, I was fascinated by the old buildings, by the size of the city, by Red Square (which I don’t see that much). I was open to experiencing new things (and still am) but my excitement mostly sheltered me from the actual Moscow and the differences between here and the U.S. (aside from the language). I didn’t yet realize how spoiled I was in the United States with a car, wide open spaces, not to mention the language, income, safety. I would like to say that three months in I understand Russia better than I did before, but I know there is quite a bit that I am still missing.

I realize that I have a skewed view of things because much of my communication and insight into the culture is coming from those who speak English. My progress with learning Russian is painfully slow – part of this is my own fault and lack of willingness to study. But there are, of course, cultural quirks of Russia that come through occasionally – the lack of tipping (10% is considered more than enough), the patience of the ladies in the shops putting up with my attempt to ask questions and decipher answers, decentralized shopping, a love for white, flavorless sauces (sour cream and mayo especially), a love for dill. Then there are the things that continue to fascinate me about Russian culture: the lack of motivation to talk openly about politics – the conversations are usually short and either full of praise or full of hate – and the perplexing lessons that come with common fairy tales.

While the West has often characterized Russians as having an enigmatic soul, I think it has more to do with the culture being vastly different from what we have in the West than the culture being enigmatic. Russia has a rich history of literature, music, art, and poetry that lends insight into the character of the nation – and it is difficult to come to a conclusion about what the messages mean. For instance there are many fairy tales that seem to end with the “moral” or conclusion that life isn’t fair, so you might have to cheat your way through things … or don’t ask for help, be tough and you will be rewarded. They are difficult lessons, and the Russian historical experience seems to have given “Russians” a very cynical outlook on life. It is possibly this surface layer cynicism is often seen as coldness.

But I think there is something deeper to Muscovites that these stories tell and that the faces of the people on the metro tell. Though people say Muscovites are cold, because they don’t often smile at strangers and the everyday person isn’t particularly interested in your well being as a tourist, they aren’t zombies. I have seen just about every human emotion on the metro. Most days everyone is in their own sphere, but occasionally I see emotions: laughter and gossip, fights (both physical and verbal), make-out sessions, drunk teens singing the Beatles. Even in the “blank” faces of the everyday person on the metro there Is life, depth, and humanity shown especially in the older women deep crow’s feet or frown lines. These people have lives that go far beyond their commute on the metro (perhaps that is the enigmatic part).

After three months do I feel like I know the “real” Russia … no, but I continue to enjoy and be fascinated by Moscow and its people.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy 2009!

Fireworks are continuously being set off in Moscow, but yesterday was exceptionally noisy, especially right after the clock struck twelve. The noise reminded me more of the fourth of July than New Year's. The fireworks here are huge and everyone has the fancy bottle rockets that explode like miniature real fireworks. Luckily I don’t know what war sounds like because I don’t think I would like this tradition if I did. The bangs and booms were constant and loud -- I'm not sure if I could have escaped the noise if I wanted to. Fireworks continue to be set off at about 5:30 PM on New Year’s Day – the noise and beauty is contrasted with a multitude of dead fireworks I saw lying around this morning. I have no clue how or when the garbage will be picked up, but at least at my apartment complex it WILL be picked up, just like the road through the complex WILL be shoveled with a single man and his snow shovel.

While I don’t believe we celebrated a typical New Year’s in Russia, no burning wishes into our champagne classes and drinking them down at midnight, no plethora of Russian salads (though we did have two!), no vodka drinking the entire night (we stuck to the champagne), bringing in 2009 was a celebration with eating, drinking, dancing, music, Russian MTV, Medevdev’s speech and two people who knew the Russian national anthem singing it! The party consisted of four Americans, an Irishwoman, and a Russian – so we had quite the cosmopolitan crowd.

Rachel and I at Ryan's on New Years

In Russia, they count the twelve bongs of the Kremlin clock tower and on the twelfth they celebrate by toasting and singing the Russian national anthem – this is quite a to-do as many Russians don’t know the newest words (I believe I was told they changed about 5 years ago). Counting up was confusing, and we all toasted when the clock began to strike twelve instead of waiting until the twelfth.

Happy New Year all! I hope 2009 treats you well!