01 July, 2007

Russia, June 2007

A strong wind announced the arrival of a much-needed rainstorm to Dyerbishky at 11·15pm. The residents who remained awake, including ourselves, hurried to shut windows and bring in clothes hung on balconies. Large black clouds rolling in overhead finally extinguished the last, faded blue vestiges of what the Italian writer Eugenio Corti once described as i sterminati tramonti russi (the interminable Russian sunsets). We're not so far north here that we have the white nights that residents of St. Petersburg enjoy, but if I wake at three in the morning—and there's a good chance that I will—the eastern sky will shine with the morning light. Unless, that is, these clouds are more than a squall.

Dyerbishky (Russian: Дербышки) is a suburb of Kazan, an overnight train ride east of Moscow. Half a century ago, the place was probably no more than a village, but during the second world war the Soviet authorities relocated many factories away from Hitler's advancing armies in the west and to the more secure regions of Kazan. I suspect that today Dyerbishky alone is larger and more populous than most American cities.

I'm staying at my in-laws' apartment. At three nice-sized rooms, it's not very small even by American standards, although with seven people and one dog things are a bit crampled at the moment. (I'm not counting the kitchen, the bathroom, and the toilet room, which are far smaller.) Earlier this evening, I sat in the kitchen and looked out the window. At first a power line had caught my eye, and I wondered if it connected to a smokestack that rises above the treeline in the north. Before long, my gaze settled on a tall birch tree that rose above me. It dawned on me that the tree must be quite old, considering that its upper branches lie well above our (sixth) floor of the building. It would be a shame if this tree didn't survive the storm.

It sounds rather banal now, but the realization that this tree must be quite tall, and therefore quite old, gave me no small amount of wonder at the time. I sat there in the kitchen for several minutes looking at the tree, puzzling over this. Why this should have mystified me so is rather mystifying in turn. Maybe my brain was just tired.

Trees are everywhere in Dyerbishky. They lay ample shade on the many sidewalks, fields, and paths. I don't know if the locals appreciate how much beauty these trees lend to their area, but they more than make up for the drab construction materials, the peeling paint, the dirt paths that go wherever sidewalks don't, and the thin layer of dust that seems to cover every car and sidewalk. Kazan's historical center may enjoy stunning architecture and bright colors, but I prefer Dyerbishky's trees.

My wife and children arrived here a month before I did, and once here, my daughter learned her first word. Was it Mama? Nope. Papa? Of course not! No, her first word is ЛадаLada in Roman characters. Who is Lada? The in-laws' dog. Traitor of a daughter...

Lada, for her part, learned very quickly that whenever the girl comes into sight, it's time to find somewhere else to lie down. This doesn't appear to offend my daughter, who watches wide-eyed as the dog recedes down the hallway and repeats, Ла-да!. Then she looks around and finds some other trouble to get into.

There are not yet enough cars in Dyerbishky to concern traffic engineers, but Kazan proper has turned into a veritable nightmare of congestion. My wife wasn't kidding when she warned me that drivers don't stop for pedestrians here. We visited a mall the other day, I observed people pause while crossing a road by waiting on the stripes that separate lanes. That doesn't look healthy; cars fly by and change lanes at a disturbing rate. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I'd swear it was a Hollywood stunt.

Buses, trams, and trains remain the choice mode of transportation in Russia. A rail line passes near my in-laws' apartment, and the high-pitched whistle of approaching trains toots at least once every half-hour. I suspect that these are mostly passenger trains. They seem to run reliably and on time, either of which is more than one could say for Amtrak, but I'd have to ask my wife to be sure. On the other hand, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a diminishing of the massive subsidies for mass transit, so Russian trains are several times more expensive now than they used to be.

Credit cards have finally arrived in these parts. My wife has tried using her card at a few stores to buy diapers and food, and for the most part things have gone quite well. The one exception was when the cashier at one supermarket asked her to show her passport to prove her identity. My wife didn't have her passport with her, and the question surprised her; she had visited the store twice before and no one had asked. She didn't have cash, either, so she had to leave the purchases there.

This didn't bother her so much as the attitude of the cashier, who dismissed my wife rather condescendingly, without so much as looking at her. My wife asked for the manager, but he wasn't much better. These aren't Soviet times, my wife exclaimed to him; you don't have to rude. What's the point of capitalism if you don't care about your customers? She hasn't returned to that store.

Mentioning passports reminds me of the recent passport debacle in the States. I suspect that such a debacle would be unimaginable in Russia, if only because every Russian must have at least one passport as documentation presentable to a uniformed officer upon demand. This is a strictly internal passport, and is not valid for travel outside Russia. For that, one needs a second, distinct, "external" passport.

Another reason that I say such a debacle would be unimaginable in Russia is that my travel visa application was processed within 3 weeks. By contrast, the American Department of State dawdled over my daughter's application for an American passport for more than a month, and that was with express processing. Having said this, dealing with the Russian bureacracy is less pleasant than dealing with the American bureacracy. Russian clerks make a point of holding petitioners in disdain. You're not a client; you're an annoyance.

Visitors to Russia must register at a local office of ОВИР (OVIR) within three days. OVIR has always made this affair brief and efficient for me, but they treat some foreigners much better than others. A large number of visitors is always standing outside the Kazan office and crowding the windows inside. My wife tells me that they are from former Soviet republics, either people who have temporary work and need to register, or people who want to bring their families here.

These days I take my documents to a new office in the same building. In past years, uniformed officials would escort me to the front of the line, cutting in front of all the others who were waiting. At the time, the office was open only 4 hours a day, two or three days a week, so I'm sure the people in line gnashed their teeth over having to wait yet some more for some foreigner. The lines for those windows are still there today, but they aren't as long now that people like me aren't cutting in front.

I was surprised to catch a moment of the formerly independent television station НТВ (NTV) this evening. Western media has made great hay of the takeover of the station a few years ago. The story goes that the government crushed the station's management a few years ago with trumped-up charges of tax evasion. There may have been other charges as well, but tax evasion has been the government's favorite instrument for a few years now. The station was then acquired by a gentleman who just so happens to have connections with the current administration. Westerners presumed that this would have a negative effect on the stations' investigative journalism.

Perhaps it has. I don't know enough Russian to comment on it, but I saw an advertisement today for an upcoming news report on police brutality, an item that has received some attention in the Western press lately. The advertisement included some fairly graphic images of Russian citizens bleeding from blows inflicted by riot police. My son told me that the same station recently interviewed someone connected with the spy who was poisoned in Britain; that is, Alexander Litvinenko. Whatever they're actually saying about these issues, you can't say that the media is simply ignoring them.

Another surprise when I arrived was that my in-laws had lavishly refurbished their toilet room and bathroom. (Long-time readers may recall that these two rooms are separate in Russia, and in my experience are usually the ugliest rooms in the house.) They purchased beautiful ceramic tile, new fixtures, and new ...well, everything seems new. Not only are they unrecognizable, I've never seen such nice bathrooms in my life. The decorations are lovely. I'd like to include a photo, but my wife probably wouldn't allow it, and besides I have no way of connecting the camera to the computer.

I've been able to make time for research, and I've even made some headway, although I never make nearly as much as I would like. My headway tends to be rather fitful as well; today, for example, I realized that although my proof of a theorem some days ago was valid, it was fairly stupid and wasted effort on special cases that do not, in fact, exist. This insight allowed me to whittle the proof down from four pages to one, and add a corollary that I didn't have before.

Unfortunately, the rest of the day produced no useful insights, and parts of it were downright depressing. This is likely why I was in such a mood to contemplate a birch tree, which hopefully won't suffer from any of the occasional lightning bolts flashing about.


Scott said...

Interesting post. How long will you be in Russia?

Isn't Kazan the old Tatar capital that Ivan the Terrible conquered? Seems I remember that from the old Eisenstein movie where Ivan is urging on the troops "A Kazan!"

So far all you have missed over here is Bush commuting Libby's sentence. Great fun on the internet.

Hope you find time to post some more.


jack perry said...

I'll be here through July.

Yes, as I understand it Ivan the Terrible dug a tunnel under the walls of the Kazan fortress and placed enough dynamite there to ensure the ground would collapse. Russian historians view that as a sort of payback for the Tatars' role in the terrors of the Golden Horde (immortalized in the Tarkovsky film Andrei Rublev—less artistically depicted, but more amusingly, in the recent Russian cartoon Alyosha Popovich).

Tatars claim that this story was made up by the Russians to justify an insane religious fanatic's war of expansion. My wife tells me that some Tatars are now claiming that the entire Golden Horde was a tool of the Russian princes to attack each other. I find that just a little incredible.

Haven't seen the film you mention.

Clemens said...

I saw Andrei Rublev and was fascinated by his vision of the Tatar raid.

There is something to be said for the Tatar interpretation - every great conquest is carried out with the help of at least some of the people being conquered. There is a lot of revisionist history being written about the Mongol empire in general and the conquest of the Russian states in particular.

One or two of the Russians who now teach at my university are Tatars, or at least Asian in appearance. The one who looks most clearly Asian says that he is not aware of any Tatar blood - he's just your typical Russian.

Anyway, it is a part of the world I would like to see someday.