Wednesday, September 23, 2009, a summary of the last few days.

Well, it happend; I finally got sick in Russia. Now, I'd had a cold for the last five or six days, but nothing major...then yesterday, I woke up with a violent headache. God, it felt like there was a little man inside my skull whacking away at my brain with a sledgehammer. I probably slept close to fourteen hours yesterday, and had to drink one hell of a lot of ТЕРАФЛЮ (that's Theraflu in Cyrillic, haha). In any case, I woke up feeling much better today, and even my cold seems to be gone...mostly.

This weekend was considerably more interesting, involving a trip to Peter the Great's royal palace of Peterhof (nicknamed "the Versailles of Russia") on Saturday, despite the rotten weather. Sunday was considerably nicer, and I spent the day with a couple of new friends from the program travelling around the general area of Nevsky Prospekt.

Unfortunately, because I did NOT charge my computer battery, that's really all the information I have time for at the moment....I'll elaborate further on it tomorrow, I promise.

Here's a few pics of Peterhof to tide you over until I do:

Grand Cascade of Peterhof

Samson Fountain

A sample of Peterhof's elaborate landscaping

The Gulf of Finland, viewed from the terrace of Monplasir Palace

Because no Russian photo montage is complete without some onion domes :)

First, an apology....

Sorry it's been a little while since I last posted anything - it's just starting to get a little annoying with the wireless situation, having to charge up my computer before I go to class, and then stay at school for an extra two or three hours in order to take care of everything that's accumulated. Once I get my hands on one of these elusive wireless modems that everyone else seems to have, I'll post with a bit more regularity.

Also, please feel free to comment on anything I've posted. If you'd like to know more about any of the places/monuments I've visited, then please, go right ahead and ask!

Friday, September 18, 2009

My First Taste of Russian Cold.....

So the other day I went shopping at Lenta, which is the Russian equivalent of Walmart/ myself a pair of running shoes, some undershirts, a leather jacket and a beer (Byeliy Medved, which tastes like crud but came in a cool bottle) for approximately $130.00. I LOVE THIS EXCHANGE RATE.

...anyway, I figured that I'd try to get in some exercise to counteract all the butter I've been ingesting recently, and went for a run yesterday morning before class. BIG. MISTAKE.

You see, because the previous day had been warm, I assumed that yesterday would be similar, and thus I wore gym shorts. I was wrong; it was windy, overcast and absolutely freeeeeeeeeeeeezing...also, I was running in the city, which I've never done before, and spent half my time dodging pedestrians who gave me the strangest of looks...apparently, Russians don't go running in the morning, or at least they're smart enough not to do it in shorts.

Today, I might be going to the Russian Museum for a little....if they let me take photos, I'll be sure to post some for all of you!

Also, the picture at the top is from last wek's excursion to Peter & Paul Fortress...more about that later!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Weekend in Novgorod, Part II

Above, you see the Millennium of Russia Monument, erected in 1859, celebrating a thousand years of Russian history. It's a massive bronze sculpture, adorned with hundreds of brazen figures from Russian history. Here's a couple of the major ones:

Grand Prince Rurik, the first Viking overlord of Kievan Rus
Tsar Mikhail Romanov, founder of the Romanov Dynasty

Orthodox monks at the court of Prince Yaroslav the Wise

For someone as insanely into Russian history as I am, you can imagine how cool it was to see this thing up close and scrutinize the various little details. I was particularly interested to see Mikhail Romanov's statue; for the progenitor of such an illustrious family, historians tend to pay him very little attention, and I'm not entirely sure why that is.

After dinner back at the hotel restaurant, I was somehow talked into going to the Banya (a kind of Russian steam bath) by my friend Nastia, who is a Russian university student assisting our program directors with excursions like this one. About five guys and twelve to thirteen girls went on the banya trip, which would ordinarily sound promising, until one realizes that the Banya has separate facilities for males and females. Going to the Banya is kind of like going to a sauna, only a lot more alternate your time between a steam room and a cold room, where you rapidly cool down with buckets of ice-cold water (or, for the more adventurous, you can plunge into the Volkhov River across the street). Oh, and did I mention that you do all of this stark naked?

Let's just say that my visit to the Banya has been one of the more awkward experiences of my semester in Russia, and leave it at that. I tried my best to keep my neck craned far enough back to avoid viewing any unpleasant "scenery", as it were, but I still ended up seeing MUCH more of Russia than I am comfortable with seeing. Also, the "steam room" is a bit of a misnomer; "scalding oven of death" would be a more appropriate name. No sauna I've ever been in can hope to rival the Banya in overall heat intensity. You know how our bodies are supposed to be 75% water, or something like that? Well, by the time I exited the steam room for the fourth and final time, my body was down to 35%, and that's a HIGHLY optimistic figure. I'm all for keeping an open mind culturally, but the Banya is one aspect of Russia that I can't quite see myself embracing anytime soon.

I'll finish up my Novgorod tales tomorrow; for now, enjoy a few more pictures:

Cathedral of Saint Sophia

Volkhov River

Monday, September 14, 2009

Weekend in Novgorod, Part I

This weekend, the CIEE program took us to the ancient city of Novgorod, one of the most powerful Russian principalities during the Middle Ages. Also known as Velikiy (or Great) Novgorod, the city was one of the only ones to escape destruction by the Mongols, and later successfully resisted incursions by the Swedes and the Teutonic Knights. At the same time, Novgorod also became one of the major trading cities in the Baltic region, and established itself as a bastion of learning and culture in a relatively barbaric corner of the world. It was even semi-democratic, being ruled jointly by an elected Prince and a council of free men known as the Veche. Ironically, this prosperity came to an end not at the hands of foreign invaders, but fellow Russians. Tsar Ivan the Terrible, suspicious of the city's loyalty to Muscovy, had 3,000-12,000 of the citizenry massacred by his troops over a period of several weeks. (There's a reason they didn't call him Ivan the Huggable)

In any case, our trip to Novgorod was far less gruesome in nature. The bus ride took us about four hours, during which we saw the "real" Russia - endless stretches of field and forest, with the rare town flashing by on occasion. On Saturday, we saw the Court of Prince Yaroslav the Wise, as well as the Kremlin of Novgorod (not the same as the one in Moscow). Going inside the Cathedral of Saint Sophia was a particularly moving experience...outside, it's yet another large, white Kievan-style church, but inside...well, inside is completely different. Massive gllomy shadows abound, which makes it so much more shocking when you suddenly come across the bright golden gleam of the Russian icons. These, of course, are absolutely gorgeous, and there are hundreds of them, from floor to ceiling, throughout the cathedral. Sadly, I was not allowed to take photographs inside, but here's a picture of an icon from one of the other cathedrals I visited, just to give you a basic idea:

.....Yeah, you get the idea. The sheer splendour of the cathedral's interior, combined with the general feeling of extreme ancientness, is a potent combination; unlike a lot of the cathedrals I've seen in Italy, Saint Sophia had at least as many pilgrims and actual believers inside as it did tourists.

My computer battery is close to dead right now, so I'll have to sign off here. I'll continue this post tomorrow.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dining a la Russe

Above is pictured a Bliniy, one of the most popular dishes in Russian cuisine. It's sort of like a crepe/pancake folded over several times, with some sort of filling - it can be either sweet or meaty - stuffed inside. This particular one is an Apple Bliniy from Chainaya Lozhka.

This naturally raises the topic of what else I've been eating while I'm over here...better get comfortable; I could go on for quite a while.

Sir Winston Churchill once famously remarked that Russia was "...a mystery inside a riddle, wrapped in an enigma." He failed to mention that it was also slathered in about fifty kilos of butter. You see, the Russians love their butter, to the point where they will add it to foods that were never, ever meant to be buttered. I can understand butter on toast, or perhaps in an omelet, but in SOUP??? That's just wrong.

And speaking of omelets, Marina Vasilevna has made some of the strangest ones I've ever seen in my life...I can understand cheese and ham and even peppers in an omelet, but spaghetti and meatballs makes no sense whatsoever. Although the fried chicken-and-potatoes omelet she made the next morning was, if anything, even more ridiculous.

Marina Vasilevna also just cooks way too much...she routinely serves borsch in bowls that are nearly the size of my head, along with a healthy portion of sour cream. And by "healthy portion", I mean about a pint of it. Because it isn't just the butter; Russia takes their love of dairy products to a whole different level. I will freely admit that the yogurt here is fantastic, but I can only take so much butter in my food before I start to literally feel my arteries clogging.

I could go on and on, (for instance, I have yet to discuss the primacy of the cucumber and potato in Russian recipes) but I think I'll spare you the details for now. Maybe tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What is new?

Okay, a quick summary of Monday night's Russian Conversation Hour:

Well, turns out we haven't formally been assigned partners yet; what actually happened was more like speed-dating, with the Russian students (eight of them; three guys, five girls) sitting at different tables and the American students (nine of us; three guys and six girls) rotating slowly around the room (this all took place in a small restaurant/bar, I should add). I spent approximately five minutes or so with each of the Russkiy students, attempting to converse in a mixture of English and horribly mangled's sort of depressing to see how much better they are at English than I am at Russian. Oh, and we also had free drinks...the Nevsky beer was surprisingly good. At the end of the "speed-dating", we each had to fill out a card specifying which conversation partners we enjoyed talking with, and they'll match us up with one later this week. I'm personally hoping for either Yulia or Marina (not the same as my host-mother), since we seemed to have the most in common.

After all that was finished, I went and grabbed some quick dinner from one of the carts on the sidewalk....dinner was not provided at RCH, and the restaurant was a bit pricey for my budget. So I got a hamburger and a Coke from one of the street-meat vendors and went to eat it in the shadow of the Church on the Spilled Blood, listening to some nearby street musicians playing jazz for about thirty minutes or so.

Tuesday night was much less eventful. I did my homework and watched Russia's version of Sesame Street to help boost my vocabulary a little, (don't laugh, it actually helps!) then got bitten half to death in the night by, I can't WAIT until it gets cold enough for the damn little things to die.

Monday, September 7, 2009

PICTURES!!!! ....oh, and Pavlovsk too.

Okay, so here's my new Flickr account...hopefully this will allow all of you who aren't on Facebook to see what I've been seeing.

This weekend, we went to see the Imperial hunting preserve and palace of Tsar Paul, son of Catherine the Great. It was raining the entire time, so the gardens and park were more or less a waste of time, but at least the interior of the palace made the trip worthwhile. Paul was a relative failure as a Tsar, but he did a pretty snazzy job on his personal hunting villa...the Neoclassical decor is a bit overwhelming at first, but once you get used to it, it's really quite pleasing to the senses. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take pictures of all this resplendency, so there's next to no evidence of my visit, sad to say.

Tonight, I have conversation hour with a Russian student, which will be a chance for each of us to practice speaking in one another's languages. I've got my fingers crossed, hoping for a pretty young devushka...hahaha, well a man can dream, can't he?

Oh, for those of you who don't speak Russian, devushka means girl...although I imagine most of you could figure that out on your own, eh?

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Still trying to figure out how to get my pictures up on the blog, but for those of you who have a Facebook, I've uploaded the first album of my travel photos for your enjoyment.

I'll let the rest of you know when I get around to making them accessible for everyone.

Also, we went to see a Russian movie the other day - Kanikuli Ctrogovo Rezhima (Loosely translated, it means "Vacation from the Harsh Regime"...I think). The plot is basically that two hardened Russian criminals escape from a Siberian prison and go into hiding as counselors at a Russian children's day camp. Obviously, a rather slapstick comedy, but still fairly enjoyable to watch.

Do Svidanya!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Блокад муэей

So last week, we went to see Victory Square (Ploschad Pobedyi) and the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad. It's a rather interesting design, particularly for a late Soviet-era consists of a massive stone obelisk rearing towards the sky, encircled by a ring of stone that is broken in just one place - representing the liberation of the city. All along the circle walls are huge torches which burn as constant reminders of the sacrifices of the fallen. On either side of the breach in the circle are the words 900 Dyen and 900 Noch - Nine Hundred Days and Nights - which was the period of time for which St. Petersburg, or Leningrad, was besieged by the German Wehrmacht. From September 8th, 1941 until January 27th, 1944, the entire city was subjected to a lethal rain of bombs and artillery shells at all hours of the day and night. Over one million people died in that time period, both military and civilian, German and Russian. As they told us during orientation, you cannot hope to understand the city of Saint Petersburg without understanding what its people endured in the siege (or blockade, which is the term most Russians prefer).

Underneath the monument is a museum, full of somber plaques to departed heroes and various detritus from the war that has been dug up all around the city. There are also nine hundred burning candles lining the entry tunnel...except that each candle is made from the remains of German artillery shells recovered from the surrounding area. At each end of the exhibition room, one can see a gorgeous mosaic covering the entire wall; one depicts life before the siege, and one shows its aftermath.

You know how they often tell you that there's really no way to describe something to a person who's never been there before? Well, this is something similar. My words really can't do justice to the monument, the museum or the siege. It's just something that has to be experienced firsthand. If you ever have a chance to go to Saint Petersburg, in between visiting the gorgeous cathedrals and palaces, make sure you take a little time to travel down Moskovskii Prospekt and see this as well.