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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I'm Quitting Grad School

Cold Turkey.

I'd appreciate all those Christians out there who read this blog (there are what, 10 of you?) to pray that I have quick success in finding a "real job" with a decent salary.

Thanks muchly.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Friday's Post

It’s like drinking blood. I refused to buy myself vodka, despite the alleged health benefits thereof. I just can’t stand the stuff, and besides, consuming vodka in Russia is such a cliché. So—eschewing the 70R boxed wine—I bought myself a bottle of Argentinean merlot (Mina having assured me that we had a corkscrew), hoping that this would turn the trick on my suddenly diseased stomach. I just opened it and poured myself a portion of a mugful. Admittedly, I don’t usually drink wine out of mugs, but this stuff seems unusually thick and dark, like the un-oxygenated samples that a competent nurse pulls from your veins for tests. Maybe it will have that effect of “strengthening the blood” for which it was administered in olden days. I could use it. I don’t know whether I ate something “off,” or it was just the accumulated effects of the 8-10 hour days of concentrated effort that I put in every day this week, but my digestive system suddenly rebelled Thursday evening, an upset which has left me feeling weak and generally unsatisfactory since.

Monday, I threw myself into thoroughly examining the infectious disease drawers in the Military-Medical Academy Fundamental Library card catalog. There are more than 13, all a foot deep in index cards typed or printed or written out in lovely pre-Revolutionary cursive, and despite there being occasional sections devoted to this or that disease “in the army and navy,” these subcategories are—much to my disappointment—almost wholly given over to handbooks about recognition and management in case of an outbreak, not the history of such manifestations. Which leaves me trolling through the “Epidemiology. Struggle” sections, hoping for relevant entries.

Tuesday, instead of occupying herself with a physics translation (she is an on-call contractor with the local courts system, but she also does written translations for folks in other fields—this one was chockablock with electrical arcs and other boring but industrially-applicable terminology), Ira decided that it would be good if we got together to work on the Two Motherlands manuscript, and scanning samples of the archival material which contributed to it. I spent almost 12 hours there that day. And another 12 the next. And another 8 on Thursday. At which point the manuscript had been combined into a single, 758-page (that’s both the original Russian and the English translation) Word file, the end-notes properly numbered, the Celsius temperatures converted to Fahrenheit in-text (in brackets), most transliterated Russian words italicized, and the pictures (both photographs and documents) that we wanted to illustrate the publication scanned. And also I had scanned more than 200 other documents, including the correspondence from the first two years of the war. Or the War, as we are distinguishing it (like the Fall, it cleft the nature of human existence).

So, after all this intense effort [and devouring three English-language books while I was scanning—I believe in multitasking!—Bridge to Terabithia (first time I’d read this Newberry winner), Bone Dance (the Canadian author was enamored of First Peoples-themed dream sequences), and The Quality of Life Report (untranslatable, given its reliance on contemporary American cultural stereotypes—I found myself comparing the tone to that of the non-fiction Cancer Vixen)], I wasn’t entirely shocked to find myself feeling a bit dizzy (it was not unlike the sensation you get after you finish a high-stress university exam—your brain goes all to mush afterwards). I’d thought about going on a walk in the evening, but decided to lie down when I got home at 8:30. Slept until almost midnight, woke up, ate dinner, and then was grievously ill for the next couple of hours. Then really felt weak. Back to bed (or couch) without bothering to undress or shower.

Better this morning, thank God. Showered (I love hot water—that the building supply came back online on schedule was little short of amazing) and went off to the Fundamental Library, where Mark Alexandrovich had already left for the day, and Natasha (the nice blond Capri-pants lady) told me that they’d been discussing not having seen me all week. I started to explain, but she took one look at my pale face and said, “You got sick.” I simply agreed, saying that I felt good now.

It was not entirely so. I held out for almost 6 hours in the reading room, but I still felt odd, and I came home to chill, rather than recreate outdoors as the pleasant weather begged. Mina and I did go together to the nearby Diksi, where I got water, wine and basic bread (and insisted on paying for her basket, too—“But you are a guest!” she protested. “I’m not such a guest,” I returned, “You cook for me every night.” For pete’s sake, I had to do something to recompense her kindness!), and then I returned home to fall back onto my couch for another four-hour snooze. I told Mina I didn’t want dinner because of my queasy stomach, but before she went to bed (at 2:30) she beckoned me into the kitchen and showed me where the leftovers were in case I got peckish in the early morning.

Mina is trying to set me up with her nephew, the 25-year-old son of a university professor, whom she claims saw me on the stairs the other day and was enthralled. She knows how old I am, but she says he is very mature. Whether he is a Christian and a non-smoker I know not (I’ve certainly no objection to younger men in and of themselves). Speaking of romance potential, on Tuesday, a twenty-something Russian fellow helped me on and off the bus with my suitcase of washing (I thought it best to take it to Ira’s thus conveniently disguised and transportable) and un-pushily chatted me up (he thought I was a Petersburger at first, returning home), offering me his card so I could call him “if I wanted to get together for coffee.” I thought I would call, but first my busyness and then my health prevented me. I’ll email him. He’s a social worker from Yaroslav who went to college in Alabama. And the courteous gesture aiding me with my suitcase was definitely a positive first impression (folks here aren’t known for their public social graces—in the metro and the streets people shove past roughly with never an “excuse me” to mark the passage—and his action was more than many an American youth would have done, as my experiences hauling stuff across campus at Georgetown have shown me!).

So, just a week more here in Russia. Sunday is Navy Day in St. Petersburg, and there are supposed to be ships pulled up alongside the granite riverbanks during the day and fireworks in the evening. This is the third Russian Navy Day I’ve been here for, actually. I got a train ticket to go to Moscow on Monday afternoon so I wouldn’t miss it.

On Wednesday morning, rather than schlepping over to a railway station to wait in line for hours, Ira and I went to a travel agency across the street from her building to get the train tickets. There was a $7 service fee per ticket, but she felt it was worth it, and I was inclined to agree. Both going and returning are day-trains: Monday’s leaves here at 1:05 and gets to Moscow at 8:55; Thursday’s departs Moscow at 12:30 and arrives here at 7:52. Coincidentally, this trip takes almost exactly as long as the train-trip between Washington, DC, and Providence, RI. Though I won’t have my little niece and nephew waiting for me at this destination, I will have a friend, at whose apartment I’ll be staying (on her couch) for the three nights.

Things (besides the required two archives) I’d like to see on this visit to the Russian capital: Lenin’s body (I’ve been outside the tomb a couple of times, but I’ve never actually laid eyes on the famous embalmed corpse), and that Art Nouveau masterpiece of a mansion near the Arbat (I can’t remember the name offhand). I doubt I’ll have time (or money) for a show at the Bolshoi, or to see the Moscow Cat Circus (one of these days!), so I’ll just have to wait on those. And I’d really like to go outside Moscow to the several most famous monasteries and great houses that lie within a couple of hours of the city, but again, that’s not possible this trip. So little time!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Widgetcat Dreams, A Concert and A Scary Event

Every other cat that I’ve known just naps, its ears and whiskers attuned to its surroundings, ready to react if a threat (this is even among housecats who’ve known no greater danger in life than the roar of the vacuum cleaner) appears. So I wasn’t exactly prepared for what I saw Saturday evening.

I thought at first Widgetcat was having a seizure. His eyelids were slightly open, and his eyes appeared to be rolled back in his head, with the white “third eyelid” membrane covering the exposed part of the ball. His legs were spasming slightly. But his breathing wasn't distressed, and when I touched him and asked (somewhat idiotically), “Are you OK?” he slowly came around. Add dreaming to his list of peculiarities.

I nearly dozed off myself in church yesterday afternoon (the service starts at 12 and goes for about 2 hours). My notes got really tiny and illegible. I’d gotten little sleep the night before, and not entirely due to my nightowl ways—some teenagers started singing (one played a guitar) in the courtyard about 2 or 3 AM, and after they subsided, a man and a woman arrived and had some sort of discussion, whether about philosophy or dishwashing I couldn’t tell—I just wanted them to shut up! Mina told me later that they’d disturbed her, too, but since she doesn’t attend church she got to sleep in. The other thing that kept my mind wandering once sermon-time came round (the whole service is in Russian, and last week was simply wonderful—the Ukrainian-born pastor’s clear voice was easy to understand, and I could actually take notes on the message, and besides, we sang for a full half-hour. I love to sing!) was that the substitute pastor (the regular guy went on vacation with his family this week) had an absolutely awful Texas accent.

I’ve always claimed that we Southerners can pronounce Russian especially well, but this man was the dramatic counter-example. He’s lived in Russia for 12 years, is married to a Russian lady, and they have three Russian children, but his accent! Oh my goodness. How to convey its dreadfulness? For you French-speakers out there: it was the equivalent of “Juh parl lee fron-sayz tray bane.” And, he kept saying “da” interrogatively every couple of sentences. I met him afterwards, and he’s a nice man—I think he teaches theology at the little seminary that shares the church office-space—but his yee-haw Rooskee pronunciation just about drove me nuts. On top of my original fatigue, this aditory abuse was truly unbearable. I finally got up and went out (and there were only about 30 people in the room). I was going to leave entirely, go home and nap, but I ran into another American (whose Russian accent is quite good—he led the singing last week) and we ended up talking in the hall until the sermon was over. This other fellow also is married to a sweet Russian lady, but I don’t think they have any kids as yet.

I shared part of the post-service congregational snack (usually they have a full meal—everyone in the church eats Sunday lunch together, which I think is a wonderful tradition—but this is vacation-time, so it was just tea, sweets and bananas), and then went walking down the 6th Line (Vasilevsky Island’s older cross-streets are numbered “lines”) which has been turned into a pedestrians-only shopping area. And I found a great bookstore, one associated with St. Petersburg State University’s Philological Faculty, where a Russian book (the title can be translated “Feeding the Two-Headed Eagle”) that I’ve had on my Amazon.com wish list for years was in stock! Though this place was smaller than the other three big "popular" bookstores I’ve visited, to my mind they had a much better selection—much more serious literature. No romance or detective novels (or at least none encroaching on the history and language sections).

I took a bus home (almost door to door service—I was so pleased) and set my cell-phone alarm for 7 PM. The concert started at 8, and the theater was about a 10-minute walk from my flat. I’d wanted to do one cultural event (a concert, play or ballet) while I was here, and it came down to a choice between Britney Spears and the Buena Vista Social Club. BVSC was far less expensive than Britney (I had thought it would be highly amusing to go to a BS concert here, but the ticket prices were not funny at all). The ticket lady assured me that all the seats in the house were good, and so I bought the cheapest available—though I forgot until well after the transaction was completed that they may have had student rates, and so I could have gotten it for less—in the center balcony.

I got to the theater almost half an hour early, and when I asked a little old lady usher how to get to the balcony, she told me it was closed, and that I should take any free seat on the ground level. So, I plunked myself down in a really good seat, maybe 20 rows back from the stage (I wanted a full view) on the center aisle, and no one came to challenge my possession of it, though the whole ground floor—which seated about 2000 people (it was a big building) was packed. The BVSC folks ranged in age from 30s to 70s, and they all were crazy good. After one or two songs, a few audience members on the front rows got up to dance in the space in front of the stage, and they were eventually joined by about 200 others who streamed down the aisles from all over the theater, this standing crowd swaying rhythmically if not actually dancing for the rest of the concert. Most of us stayed put, tapping our feet and clapping our hands. One beefy fellow wearing a sleeveless shirt who joined the dancers had to be squelched by two pinched-faced security personnel when he behaved like an over-zealous fan at a football or hockey game, standing still with both fists raised above his head, hollering between sets.

The Club rocked for a full two hours, the portly old trumpeters blowing like Dizzy Gillespie, the young man on the piano tearing up the keyboard, the fortyish female vocalist working her black-clad curves for all they were worth, and-in the middle of the stage-a 60ish fellow who looked like a Spanish don pulling symphonic melodies from a 12-stringed guitar. They did two more songs as an encore, and then we all drifted out into the early sunset light of 10 PM.

There was a drunk fellow passed out on the granite steps to the parking lot, a brown glass bottle of beer a step below him and a battered wooden accordion on the level above.

Today, I walked to the Military-Medical Academy, and spent 6 hours pawing through just 4 drawers of the card catalog under the subject “Infectious Diseases.” It poured rain the last few hours I was there (the river outside the reading room resembled a stormy lake), mostly subsiding before I left (yes, I had my umbrella, but the wind almost carried it away). I got home in time to enjoy a few minutes of wireless Internet access thanks to the low cloud-cover, and read an email from my mother that said my dear Granddaddy had almost died at lunch Sunday—he’d suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed in the kitchen while all three of his daughters were visiting (he always insists on going last in the food line, and they heard a crash around the corner as they were all sitting down to eat). Thank God, Daddy was there—he immediately performed CPR and got Granddaddy breathing and conscious again. By the time the ambulance my aunt called via 911 arrived, Granddaddy was alert and actually strong enough to walk over to the stretcher. But he’s currently in the hospital suffering from bruised ribs (he hit the kitchen floor pretty hard) and awaiting a pacemaker. I think he’s going to be OK, heart-wise, at least.

I’m ready to be home, even without this less-than-welcome family news. I’ve enjoyed myself here (the weather this weekend was beautiful--I must have walked 10 miles), and accomplished a lot, but I’m lonely, and it makes me unhappy to be separated from friends and cut off, communication-wise, from my relatives. I haven’t been melancholy, but more than 5 weeks away from loved ones, and I would be! I’ve been blessed in having at least one friend here, a good church to attend, and Widgetcat (whom I will sorely miss—he can’t appreciate email communication!), but I need to be home writing grants begging for money to fund my next trip!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Improvements, Efforts and Encounter

I enjoyed a substantial improvement in my standard of living Wednesday night. Mina figured out how to stabilize the bathtub and so prevent it from leaking. I’m still bathing out of a plastic dishpan, but at least I don’t have to mop up the floor afterwards. Mina’s also scraped off the worst of the leprous plaster and peeling wallpaper around the tub, which is another considerable step up, cosmetically. Mina is a household improver extraordinaire. There are lace curtains on the window in the kitchen, which has had its multi-decade crud quotient considerably reduced (I started to scrape off the hardened cooking grease that had encrusted the side of the cabinet by the stove, and she finished the job while I was off at the library). The other day, she bought a plastic bag printed with butterflies and cut them out individually, dotted the backs with liquid dish soap, and thereby pasted them onto the kitchen walls. It’s cheered things up, even if it’s a little odd. And she continues to feed me, which means I’m not living exclusively off carbs and dairy products—or rather, the carbs and dairy products which I am consuming are prepared in varied and tasty ways.

Observationally, I’m occasionally obtuse. You all know this. Sometimes the synapses don’t grasp the obvious (who knows, perhaps I already have a workable plot for a novel—but the bare-bones one I shared with friends before coming here just doesn’t strike me as sufficiently compelling). I finally clued in to why Russia doesn’t seem really “other” to me like it used to. Walking down the street this evening (I went on an hour’s stroll around my neighborhood—desperate for exercise and fresh air, and of course I chose to walk down streets where the weekend road-resurfacing crews were setting to work, which meant I was inhaling even more crud than usual), it suddenly occurred to me that all of the teens and many of the young adults I see don’t remember communist Russia at all—they were either born after the Soviet Union collapsed, or in its final decade. They’ve never known what it is not to be able to travel, to read what they want—the under-16 set’ve grown up with the Internet and cell phones and fully-stocked grocery stores and credit cards and friends who have cars. They’re just as aware of fashion trends and prone to get tattoos and piercings and dye their hair weird colors as their contemporaries all over the globe. They’ve read Harry Potter and the Twilight Series, they listen to rap and rock on their ipods and skate around on roller blades and laugh in public. It’s no wonder that Russia feels so different to me now—this new generation has (at least to a certain extent) started participating in shaping society, and in so many ways, they are totally unlike the ones who proceeded them, and so the whole environment feels altered. Mina’s 22- and 17-year-old sons were, right as I was typing this, on their respective computers in the rooms on either side of mine. At least one was in the middle of a multi-player web game. The other is probably still on GoogleChat, interfacing intensely with his friends a few blocks away.

And, of course, this technology-adoption hasn’t skipped older generations, either. Mina Skypes with her daughter in Holland at least once a day. Ira is on the Russian version of Facebook, and she took me on a tour of her whole network the first day I went over to visit her. She’s a moderator on at least one discussion board, and the Ukrainian photographer fellow with whom we went to the Russian museum two Fridays ago was someone she’d been corresponding with online—he’s not a Christian, but they both are part of the non-Creationist side of the debate in the Evolution/Creationism group on the “Bible” forum. And there plenty of wireless networks (all secured, unfortunately) within range of my computer when I sit on my sleeping couch to type. Even the dentist’s office across the courtyard has one—I’m assuming “zubi” is theirs, considering the word means “teeth” in Russian.

I spent 5.5 hours at the Academy library today, scanning yellowed papers the whole time. The noon cannon-shot from Peter and Paul Fortress was fired just as I stepped into the building (the entrance to which is also, I observed, the ambulance drop-off point: medics have to carry stretchers up a flight of 10 steps to get the poor souls into the ER), and I was pushing through the doors at the Finland Station/Lenin Square metro at 5:45.

I realized, going through the metro doors, that I recognized the person right in front of me! It was Ira. She has to take an electric train from Finland Station out to her dacha, and we just happened to run into one another—me coming from the library (two blocks away from the metro, several miles from my apartment), she from her house (a bus ride and two metro stops away). Cue chorus of “It’s a Small World.” Well, at least a small city. Of several million people.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Meeting With The Director

I was expected.

A slender, dignified man with grey hair and a full mustache met me at the entrance to the Military-Medical Museum archive, gently descending the unnecessarily-wide stairs. The foyer where I waited could have accommodated an entire wedding reception (if brides went for “Soviet Grim” as a decorative motif). The ladies at the security desk/coat check smiled as I was ushered past, said my name. He introduced himself: Sergei Matveievich. Vladimir Markovich awaited me upstairs.

Up two flights of the stairs we went, into a central hallway crowded with banks of large index-drawers, pieces of random sculpture, large oil paintings with their lower parts concealed by stacks of printed material. Into a spacious office with two wardrobes on the left, and on the right, tables layered with papers, boxes of tea, baskets of biscuits and other assorted flotsam. Above these, a photograph of a Russian missile submarine, another oil painting of Pirogov in wintertime surgery—in the position of anesthetist, at the patient’s head, a gowned woman sat on a stool. Further along the wall, a portrait of a nineteenth-century doctor, and beneath that two desks, also heaped with paper, and in the corner a desktop computer with a flat screen monitor, two printers.

Vladimir Markovich resembled a middle-aged Orson Welles. Big belly. Deep booming voice. Suspenders. He waved me to a chair and looked over both my letters, reading them aloud in a carrying bass usually reserved for kingly declarations. Then he looked at me and started telling me about the collections, what they had, what they didn’t have, and ticking off what steps I needed to take in order to actually access the materials I needed. I must write the Ministry of Culture in Moscow. I must write the Head of the Main Military-Medical Administration of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation [this was the point at which he made a gratuitous reference to the CIA (which I found thoroughly confusing—was he saying this Russian government agency was like them, or teasing me to see whether I worked for them?)]. Here was the address. I must tell the Ministry and the Administration what I was specifically interested in researching (like the director at the Military-Medical Academy Library, he thought my introductory letters too general). I must request formal access to thus-and-so collections. Then, I could email him personally, and the staff at the archives could start pulling materials for me, “Even before [I had] overflown the Atlantic.” It would cost money. Did I have an assistant? Professors usually have “little dogs” they could to delegate to. It was just me? When would I be coming back? What grants was I applying for?

VM exuded an affect of likable efficiency. While asking me questions and giving me directions, he fielded calls on both his land-line and his cell, answering with an abrupt, but serviceable: “Slushayu Vac!” (“I’m listening to you!”), and (being a sort of Jupiter with many moons) handled multiple queries from assistants revolving through the office—how to accommodate a film crew from the Zvezda television channel tomorrow, telephone calls that needed to be returned.

Maybe forty-five minutes into our tête-à-tête, he swept up my letters in one meaty hand, inquired, “Tea, coffee?” and departed, leaving me in the care of his mustachioed Dr. Watson.

Tea, please.

Sergei Matveievich beckoned me over to a chair in the corner and gave me a disposable plastic teacup with a little hook for a handle. I took two briquettes of sugar.

We made small-talk. What did I think about the death of Michael Jackson? Sad. Strange man. Some remarks about my research. He said World War I-era diseases all arrived in Russia from Europe, not Asia. He hopped up to point to a physical map on the wall, next to the wardrobes. Mentioned malaria had been endemic to the American South. I responded that I was from Georgia. He paused diplomatically, bridled a bit before posing his question: “It might not be possible to answer exactly.” What? “How are things with the black-skinned people there now that Obama is president?” Um, normal? “Were people at the inauguration really happy, or just pretending?” Happy. Had I seen Frank Sinatra in person before he died?
IP returned. “Masha will show you some parts of the museum that will be interesting for you. You can leave your things here.”

Masha wore soft flats and a long, suede-finished cotton skirt. In my heels, I towered over her. She was perhaps in her late 20s, but her tiny lower teeth were badly stained and rotting. We went down stairs, through a long hall with creaking wooden parquet floors, a lopsided red rug running its length, a dozen closed office doors on either side. Back up stairs, past the plaster busts on the landing. The other was indeed of Galen.

Familiar faces of the museum personnel, just opening the gates at 11:30 (the sign had said it opened at 10). “What have you already seen?” Masha asked.

Again into the Pirogov gallery. The painting of Pirogov’s arrival in Moscow and the bronze bust of the famous physician are both works by Repin. The gnome-like doctor was, prior to Lenin, the first well-known person to be embalmed for public display. His body can still be seen in the family chapel, now on Ukrainian territory. In a glass coffin. Like Snow White.

Another room, this one with displays on the Red Cross in Russian history. Surprising exactitude of record-keeping during the First World War—as far as was possible, every wounded person from all combatant countries had a card, telling name and address, so that mail and food parcels could be sent. Cards were neatly filed by lady clerks at Russian Red Cross Headquarters in a building near the Summer Garden. Soviet Union’s Red Cross and Red Crescent was not a part of the international society, probably because of Stalin’s distrust for such organizations, so Soviet soldiers in enemy hands didn’t get such Red Cross aid, like their American and British allies. The Florence Nightingale medal, accorded by the International Red Cross, has been bestowed on some forty-seven Russians since 1961.

We moved from case to case, room to room, Masha repeating, “This is also of some importance.”

The First World War and the Civil War. First Aid guide posters. Foreign doctors in service of the Tsar. Aprons of Sisters of Mercy. Letters of the same. Photos of nurses and soldiers. A display contrasting the pharmaceuticals available to the White forces (items with English and German labels confiscated by the secret police) and the home-remedies that the revolutionaries used.

The period between the Civil War and the Great Patriotic War. Pictures of medical personnel who were victims of repression. A map of the smaller intermediate military conflicts: Kalin-Gol, other clashes on the Chinese border. Masha pointed to a blood transfusion kit: “Vitally important to saving the wounded during the war with Finland.”

The World War II gallery. Medicines were “a valuable part of Lend-Lease Aid.” A large tin labeled “Pork” represents the food sent. The concentration camp artifacts are “part of the materials which Red Army medical personnel assembled as evidence for the Nuremburg prosecutions.”

The St. Petersburg gallery. Local contributions to science and practice highlighted. The imperial dress uniform—the layered silver embroidery on its deep blue wool cuffs tarnished but still beautiful—of Dr. Opel, who “could be called the father of modern Russian military medicine.”

Concluding our tour, we returned to the landing with the classical busts and the marble plaques. The Hippocratic Oath I knew. What was the other? The contemporary oath that Russian doctors take at the end of their medical schooling.

Back to Vladimir Markovich’s office (after a stop in a smelly restroom with no toilet paper, no soap). He waved me to a chair again and reviewed his systematic directives: “You need to write these people and this is what you need to say.” Suggested also that I go to the public library and the Library of the Academy of Sciences, find this particular periodical title for that particular range of dates. Our meeting ended: “We’re happy that you’re happy.” SM saw me downstairs to the front door. We shook hands. Mission over.

How to proceed?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Drunkenness and Injury (Museum Thereof)

At the outset, it’s frequently difficult to tell the difference between inebriation and simple stupidity. Some people need no chemical hindrance to make less than optimal use of the brain they’ve been given, and it’s only after seeing someone who is so encumbered that the difference can be ascertained. So as he stepped out into the road against the pedestrian signal, I thought at first that the man in the business suit was just one of those willing to play chicken with multiple lanes of oncoming traffic. Besides the cars, a tram was approaching, and those things can’t stop on a dime. But he didn’t even glance in its direction—I think it was at that point that I considered him more than foolhardy. Russian trams don’t have horns, just mild warning-chimes, and when he crossed the rails with just a few yards to spare, the woman at the controls chimed angrily at him, mouthing some remark about “idiots” as her vehicle thundered past. He’d been pretty steady on his feet to that point, but when he had almost reached the island in the middle of the road (where I was standing), he started to reel, and some previously-latent self-preservation instinct prompted him to pause before attempting the second half of the thoroughfare. On the curb opposite us, a neatly olive-green uniformed Russian Army officer holding a briefcase watched the spectacle, silently disgusted. I also watched the drunk out of the corner of my eye—if he started to stagger in my direction, I wanted to get out of the way, traffic or no. But he seemed too preoccupied with embracing a lamppost to pay me any mind, and then the signal changed and I continued soberly on my way.

I’ve noticed few obviously intoxicated people the two weeks I’ve been here. I’ve seen hundreds of locals strolling with cans and bottles of beer in their hands—public drinking is not against the law—but only a couple exuding a visual or olfactory aura of excessive consumption. I have skirted a dozen or so effectively-homeless alcoholics—all men, their condition obvious from their permanently reddened faces—in disheveled pairs leaning up against city buildings, hands outstretched for drink-money, or sitting in groups on park benches, little fraternities of the self-destroyed. Near Dostoyevsky metro station a woman who I’d say was a drug addict in an advanced stage of HIV-infection—emaciated, bruised, and sore-spotted—had propped herself up on a windowsill in the shade, but the few female beggars elsewhere have been old-age pensioners, grandmothers in felted coats and head-scarves, holding little cups for change, some also clutching tiny icons, their ancient faces suppliant.

I’ve been approached by only one obvious boy-beggar, this one a senior waif of about thirteen with a well-practiced whine of misery (“I’m hungry—give me money for food”), lurking around the court of Kazan Cathedral, accosting the numerous passersby. His shoes were too big for him, his trousers were too short, and he was dirty from head to toe. I wondered how long he had been on the street, if he were in the employ of a senior criminal (which is common), and how much he was able to secure on an average day from the sympathetic. Ira, who is a compassionate person, shoved past this adolescent panhandler without responding to his pitiful cries or permanently unhappy expression, saying, “He’d just use the money for vodka.” Ironically, one of the people in Russian history who had the most success (or at least whose successes were most publicized) with reclaiming such young lost souls was “Iron Felix” Dzerzhinsky, founder of notorious KGB predecessor the Cheka. For better or worse, there is none like him now, although I recall seeing a TV spot on a Russian station six years ago that featured a GRU-run program for ex-besprizorniye, so perhaps the descendent-organization is trying to emulate his example.

I encountered the drunk on the way to the Military-Medical Museum, which the discreet sign on the door said was open until 5. Not in practice, it seems—the ladies who keep an eye on the visitors in each room start closing up shop just after 4. So, having entered at 3:20 (late start, what can I say!), I had only 40 minutes of relaxed browsing (in the “Ancient Times to Peter the Great” gallery, and the “17th and 18th Centuries” room) before I began to be herded from “zal” to “zal” by clockwatching employees. Which, given that all the captions, signs and so forth were only in Russian (the major art museums now have English translations for everything, but not so with this inconspicuous collection—even though it’s a large one, you’d have to know about it to find it—I doubt anyone just happens by, and certainly few foreigners), meant that my quick-comprehension ability was taxed to the limit.

I quickly glanced through the Pirogov exhibition (he’s the most famous Russian military physician, having developed all sorts of innovative techniques for wounded-treatment during the Crimean War, from a triage system to a professional nursing corps—is he known at all in the West?), and then the room dedicated to military medicine end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The last thing I was really able to notice there was a Civil War era poster calling on Workers and Peasants to aid the Red Cross—I was kind of rushed out into another section of the museum that the guard-woman considered more important to my visit—that of the Great Patriotic War.

The World War II section was larger than any other. Immediately to the left of the door was a nook dedicated to the concentration camps, many liberated by the Red Army—the care of the starving survivors left to the Soviet military medical workers. That nook was where the captured Nazi flag was displayed, and no one would be tempted to romanticize the Third Reich in such grim company. High in one case, stretched like the fur of a hunting trophy, was a tanned leather hide—made from human skin. A couple of hanks of shorn women’s hair were in other small boxes. A long-handled metal tray, used for shoving bodies into the crematoria, was propped up between the cases—you could have touched it. Reproductions of grainy photographs what Red Army soldiers found when they came to camps were also there.

In the center of the room lay a quartet of white marble slabs into which had been carved (and painted in gold) the names of medical workers who had received the highest honors the Soviet government could bestow. I was only able to hurriedly copy down some of the decorated institutions: the Kronstadt Military-Naval Hospital, 1 Leningrad Military-Naval Hospital, the Central Military Hospital named after Mandryk, 358 Kuibyshev District Military Hospital, 43 Military-Naval Hospital, the Sanitary Train “Lvov,” the Main Hospital of the Black Sea Fleet, etc. Hanging next to the door was another plaque, lettered on glass, that said Soviet medical workers had saved more than 17 million people during the war: 72.3% of the wounded and 90.6% of the sick.

In the last minute or two before the guards closed up (they were literally locking the gates behind me as I went through the rooms, turning off the lights in the display cases), I was waved into the Afghanistan/Chechnya room. It was unusual in that the artifacts displayed were primarily color photographs of the dead and wounded. Corpses with their faces blown off, a Russian officer with the right side of his throat gashed (I couldn’t tell from the picture if he was dead or not—his face looked quiet, but whether from shock or mortality wasn’t clear). Bright bloody wounds in legs, buttocks, faces, chests, arms. Horrible burns, close-ups of flesh shredded by shrapnel. A picture of a pair of gowned surgeons in the middle of a leg amputation. Beneath the photos, there were examples of the military hardware that inflicted the damage. I didn’t get to examine it all, or any in as much detail as I would have liked. Next time, I guess.

As I went back down the stairs toward the exit (the museum is on the 3rd floor of the archives building), I observed that the handrail was supported by a grand wrought-iron lattice, so overpainted that the details of the design are obscured. Looking closer, I could see that the main focal element was the 5-pointed Soviet star, but it was less clear that centered on each was the hammer and sickle. These were quite indistinct because of the decades-accumulated layers of yellow-beige paint—at first I didn’t notice them, I just thought the stars were a little lumpy.

The first landing overlooked an unkempt yard, all weeds and what I still think of as “Communist dirt”: the combination of physical decay of concrete structures and pollution, which coats everything in a filthy layer of sticky grey dust. Flanking the window were two classical busts made of white plaster—the one, next to a marble plaque bearing the Russian translation of the Hippocratic Oath, I assumed to be Hippocrates, but the other I couldn’t identify (maybe Galen?) as the marble plaque by it bore either an effusive dedication to Russian doctors in general, or a statement of their guiding philosophy (I was in a hurry and didn’t stop). But I did stand still at the bottom of the stairs, when I saw that a small printed icon had been hung over the set of unremarkable double doors there. I copied the text on the sign next to them: Chapel of the Introduction to the Temple of the Most Holy Virgin Mary. I wonder if this is the Museum-Archive’s particular chapel, for its employees and faculty, or if it is simply a small Orthodox worship center now occupying rented space in this Stalin-built granite fortress?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

We ate earlier than ever yesterday evening. Lyuba has taken to feeding me, bringing me a plate when she cooks for her family, tapping on my room door and presenting me with my dinner. I laugh, take the food, and scarf it down in a trice. It’s delicious. It’s also interesting how many ways there are to fix chicken and potatoes, to make them mouthwateringly appealing night after night.

Tonight, the meal arrived at 11:30 PM, which is 2.5 hours earlier than it had on Tuesday (or, to be precise, on Wednesday). Yes, I am sharing an apartment with people who are even more night-owlish than I. At home, I usually eat supper with Susan between 7 and 8. She retires to bed at 9:30, and I habitually linger, reading, writing, making jewelry or watching a movie (or some combination thereof) until 1-2 AM, winding down in solitude from the day’s excitement. I may have a snack an hour or so before bedtime, but 99 times out of a 100 it’s sugar-centered, not nutritious, and it’s never large. So to eat something nourishing—the main meal of the day—at an hour well past what would be (in lesser latitudes) sundown has been odd, to say the least. And in order to be able to sleep, I have to downshift in silence (for some reason, I like to know everyone else in the house is abed before I am), and for me this is not an immediate process, but a move from digestion to relaxation that eats up its own fair portion of time. Which means that I have been going to bed late even for me: 3 AM, 4 AM. Fortunately, nothing official opens until 10, so I’ve time to sleep in and arrive at museums and libraries in a timely fashion, but the last few days I’ve been exhausted in the afternoons, too. My irregular sleep has been salted with strange dreams, stranger and more detailed than I’ve had in a long time, and this may be contributing to my tendency to want to crash in the evenings before supper.

Saturday afternoon I determined to go out on a long walk, one of my semi-directionless perambulations with nothing fixed but my determination to see more of the city and ideally locate the Military-Medical Museum, which my guide to archives told me was on a lane near the Pushkinskaya Metro Station. The lane was not listed on the map Ira had lent me, but as this map is missing a lot of the minor roads—and the main one near Pushkinskaya was still labeled “Dzerzhinskaya”—I expected that even had the lane been listed, the name might have been changed in the meantime. The weather was too pretty to be taking the trip underground, so I put on some sunscreen and strode out past Moskovskaya Vokzal down Ligovsky Prospekt. Vehicular and foot traffic is much lighter on Saturdays than on weekdays—people leave for the country—and so there were not the asphyxiating clouds of automobile exhaust which choke the city Monday-Friday, or the crowds clogging the sidewalks (which on Ligovsky were half torn up—there seems to be some sort of pipe or cable system being laid). What drew my attention was the fact that construction work—both on the sidewalks and on the several buildings rising around Moscow Station and Victory Square—was proceeding briskly on a Saturday, the cranes swinging around behind the decorative scrims of the facades of the former imperial-era buildings that stood on the sites (the facades to be restored to the original appearance on the new), the pipework men laying reels of dirty hose and shovelfuls of hot, moist tar with no weekend lassitude.

The US dollar is creeping up in value against the ruble. When I arrived the best “sell” price was 30.90R, now it’s 32.00. I’ve still got about 500R left, so the rate it may increase before I have to change more money next week.

I stopped for a moment in a tiny grocery to buy 2 liters of sparkling water (31R) and then continued down the prospekt, going with my gut (as is usual on such exploratory trips) rather than consulting the map, to decide how long I would stay on the one road. At a large intersection I turned right and paused on a bench in the sunshine. A man walked by with his dachshund. Russians have as many pets as Americans do, but I’ve seen more Chinese Crested dogs here in the past two weeks than I’d previously seen in my lifetime elsewhere.

The farther from Nevsky you travel, the less fixed-up the buildings are, the more frequently the sidewalks remain the old splotches of uneven, cracked asphalt, so potholed and patched that you have to watch every step for fear of tripping. There are also more graffiti, broken windows, old locks on the stairway doors (with metal buttons to punch, rather than digital keys), dirt, dilapidated rusted cars, altogether a slightly sketchy-looking environment. I soon turned right again, back toward Nevsky, on Borovaya Street. I passed several of the ubiquitous “Diksi” groceries and then a Soviet-era market with giant concrete statues of worker and peasant flanking the doors. “WE’RE OPEN” read giant banners hung on the outside. “YOU’RE INVITED!” A small used bookstore looked more appealing, and I stepped in, but they didn’t have any books on the history of medicine. Crumbs.

At a large intersection outside the Dostoyevsky Metro Station (posh area, lots of people, a freshly-renovated Orthodox church and lines of beggars and small sellers on the surrounding sidewalks), I turned left again, onto Zagorodny Prospekt, which I knew would eventually lead me to Pushkinskaya Station, in which neighborhood I intended to wander, looking for Lazaretny Pereulok and the museum. I think every third person in this city must own a small business or work for one—all up and down the street there were clothing stores, shoe stores, restaurants, money exchanges, tool shops, cell phone and computer technology outlets, jewelry stores, and so on. I even saw two sex shops. Which reminds me…when I was in Dom Knigi Friday afternoon, looking for books on the military medicine, I found myself in the History of Medicine section, which was a pitiful top two shelves in a case. Having exhausted the medical histories (nothing relevant), I glanced down the case and discovered that the lower shelves were stuffed with sex manuals, some with flashy covers. Sigh.

I’d walked for about ten minutes down Zagorodny when I had to wait at a crosswalk, and I suddenly realized that I had been on the spot already. Fourteen years ago, just a few days before the conclusion of my first trip to Russia, I went with a Russian girl whom I’d befriended at Herzen University to visit a dear friend of hers, a Russian Jewish girl who, with her mother, was shortly going to be emigrating because of prevalent anti-Semitism in Petersburg and attendant lack of job prospects. This friend had lived in a communal apartment in one of the buildings across the street from where I now stood. She and her mother had shared a single tiny room, but they had feted us with bliny, sour cream and honey before she brought out her artwork (she’d graduated from the premier art institute in the city) to show me. The pieces I bought from her then are now framed and hanging in my parents’ home in GA.
Pushkinskaya Metro was just a block down from her old building, across the street from a MacDonald’s Express. Where to go from there, I wasn’t sure. I briefly thought about asking for directions, but spotted a large “You Are Here” visitor-oriented map on the other side of a park, and went to consult it. I stared at the thing without success—it didn’t list Lazarenty Pereulok either (but I noticed that the name of Dzerzhinsky Street had indeed been changed). I glanced up, frustrated, and on the corner of the building right in front of me was an old sign: “2 Lazarenty Pere.” I’d come straight to my object. The museum was closed—it only works weekdays—but now I know where to find it. There was no marked entrance to any associated archive—I hope I can access it through the museum. Monday’s project!

On the way back to Nevsky (right on the street-formerly-known-as-Dzerzhinsky’s and then left at the Fontanka Canal) and home, I played an ongoing mental game of Spot the American. Fourteen years ago, this was impossible to lose. Six years ago, it was more of a challenge. Now, it’s virtually impossible. For one thing, Russian women in general are no longer dressing like tarty half-starved models in fashion magazines. Not to say that there aren’t quite a number of beauties still, but they look attractive-pretty, not slutty-sexy. And most women have a little meat on their bones—anorexia must not have the popularity that it once did. In fact, I have seen some honest-to-goodness fat people, people that I would have sworn were Westerners, but no. I’d even hazard that half of all young and middle-aged Russians wouldn’t draw a second glance if they were dropped into the middle of the average American town. I’ve seen girls with tattoos, guys with earrings, and public grins on a lot of faces (foreign visitors used to comment on the grimness of the Soviet expression). And the physical distance between people holding conversations seems to have opened up. Used to, when people were talking, they’d be breathing into each other’s faces (probably a caution against being overheard), standing on neighboring steps on the metro escalator leaning towards one another, for example. Now, most people I’ve observed chatting in public have been standing 1-2 feet apart or more, exhibiting none of the reserve that used to be conventional.

I watched the first quarter of the Soviet-era version of War and Peace last night (it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar back in 1968, plus a host of other domestic and foreign prizes). Not having read the book and with no subtitles to assist me, I didn’t follow it as well as I had hoped I’d be able to. I am increasingly frustrated by my halting and lame Russian. And despite Lyuba’s kindness (not only does she feed me, she’s been supplying my room with anti-mosquito plug-in disks of dubious worth), I am just lonely. I’m not even getting out as much as I would otherwise because I don’t have anyone with whom to share my adventures in person. Blogging is a poor substitute for companionship. Human companionship—Widgetcat has been a Godsend in many respects, but his sphere is necessarily small.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Belated Postings

I've just posted to this blog three times--I haven't been within Internet-range in five days, and yet I've had some adventures I wanted to record, so I'd typed them up earlier and they just got uploaded. So don't stop reading at this post!

I'm at Ira's--we're supposed to finish the basic manuscript revision today, while I'm washing my laundry in her machine (the one in the apartment where my room is doesn't work, not a huge surprise) and re-charging my cell phone battery.

I spent 5 hours at the Military-Medical Academy's Fundamental Library yesterday, scanning stuff. Thank God for modern technology.

Post for Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I’ve never liked claw-foot bathtubs. Claw-footed furniture of other varieties I do like, but to me, bathtubs ought to be firmly grounded, not perched on little stalks above the floor. I know there are a lot of girls out there who disagree with me, but they might well see my side if they’d had to deal with the bathroom situation with which I am living at present.

The tub here is not precisely claw-footed—maybe claw-feet were too bourgeois for the Soviet manufacturer—but it is that style. It’s metal and stands on six-inch v-shaped legs. You have to really hike up your leg to get into it. I don’t know if it’s the fault of the floor or of the legs, but it does not rest solidly, but rocks when you are in it. The rocking motion, far from being soothing, is jerky, and has disrupted the plumbing, which was probably never good in the first place. Of every spoonful of water that goes out the drain, half leaks onto the floor. There’s an old grey rag-mop in one corner of the bathroom, and so after I’m clean, before I step into my taputchki (house slippers), I have to try to swab the giant puddle off the floor—or spread it around evenly, since a rag mop isn’t the most absorbent thing on the planet—without getting myself or my fresh clothes dirty.

This is bad enough, but last night when I was in the kitchen scrubbing dishes I discovered that there was no hot water. I turned on the tap with the red dot, and there was a loud hissing and gurgling sound, but nothing came out the faucet. The cold water did still work. I habitually bathe (shower) right before bedtime, but I just couldn’t bring myself to deal with chilly water, so I sponged off the salient details (as my mother would say) and went to sleep semi-dirty, hoping that things would have resolved themselves by morning.

Morning came, but the hot water stayed off. I felt icky, and my hair needed washing besides, so I boiled an entire kettleful of water and borrowed two of the larger pots from the kitchen. Balanced across the back part of the tub is an old warped board, about 10 inches wide (there’s only a European-style spray nozzle on a hose instead of a real showerhead, so I suppose the idea is that you could sit on the board while you are rinsing off—not that I would), so I put the pots there and filled them with the boiling water, and then mixed in cold from the nozzle. Then I washed myself, and my hair. It was a callisthenic process. Every time my weight shifted, the tub rocked, and the water sloshed over the sides of the pots and over the side of the tub. And the drain leaked more than ever. Positively oceanic puddles.

When I’d finally finished tidying the bathroom, returned to my room, dressed, and was brushing out my (clean) wet hair, I overheard my apartment-mate talking on the hall phone, expressing frustrated disbelief. I opened my door, she replaced the receiver and turned to me.

“The hot water’s off.”

“I know,” I responded. “I had to boil water to bathe.”

“It’s going to be off until July 20,” she said.

Well, crud.

At least it’s supposed to be back on in two weeks. The last time I was here in St. Petersburg, staying with Maria, her building managers cut off the hot water for a full six weeks (allegedly for “remont”). But then, I had a 10-liter bucket to fill with water from two kettles (rather than a single kettle and two glorified saucepans), and the tub didn’t rock or leak.

I’m looking forward to proper plumbing (and my apartment’s having its own hot water heater) when I get back home to Virginia. And not having to worry about putting on house-slippers to trot between bathroom and bedroom—if I didn’t wear them here, the soles of my feet would be filthy by the time I got to my bed. Eww.

Post for Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I did do something useful and scholastic today. While I was listening to Stephenie Meyer’s The Host (which I enjoyed--all 23+ hours of it), I continued to type up the handwritten notes I’d made at the library—almost everything in Russian, so it was excellent Cyrillic-keyboard practice, if nothing else. That ate up several hours, so I didn’t feel quite as guilty about my laziness as I would otherwise. The more information I get into the computer, the better. And The Host was the last bit of distraction I brought with me—I’ve long since erased all the games from the hard drive, and there is no internet access here (I immediately had dumped the dialup connection information which the youthful hackers had punched in to my laptop Saturday evening—I just didn’t feel right using it), so it’s research or nothing.

I thought it was going to be nothing when I showed up at the bibliographic section of the library Monday afternoon and was immediately taken downstairs, ushered through the Harry Potter stacks and down a long corridor to the far end of the building by Natasha, a nice 40ish ash blond woman who wears Capri pants. She ducked into a low apse, knocked on the plain, thin wood door there and humbly asked—using name and full patronymic—if she might be allowed to enter. She then waved me through, into the Inner Sanctum. From the world of JK Rowling, I felt as if I had time-warped back into that of Dickens, with a bit of Soviet caricature tossed in for good measure.

The room which we entered was long, tall and narrow (about 30 feet long, 14-foot ceilings, 8 feet wide), giving a disorienting sensation of immense space after the almost-crouch required to get through the door. The sudden change in scale made me feel small, magically reduced, like Alice, from being practically too big to fit through the entrance to being a dormouse in a giant’s room. And, I was dazzled—the only light came from a huge double-framed window, at the far end away from the door.

The furniture of the room seemed likewise designed to enhance visitors’ insignificance. A large heavy old desk of some dark wood was set under the window, perpendicular to it. Shoved up along the other two walls was an assortment of antique chairs, a stiff horsehair sofa tucked in among those on the right. The chairs were built for majesty, not comfort, their arrangement such that anyone in them would be awkwardly exposed, all fidgets obvious. The middle of the room was a bare avenue leading up to the desk, where a slight, neat middle-aged woman sat. On the window sill by her left arm, a radio played 1960s Russia music. She watched us approach without a word.

Having shepherded me this far, Tatyana quickly bowed out, and I was alone. Not sure of the protocol, I hesitatingly introduced myself—my Russian rusty and my voice squeaking—and opened my backpack to retrieve my paperwork. The woman still looked at me, saying nothing. Slowly, deliberately, she removed her glasses. Shaking slightly, I laid my letters on the corner of her desk—the hard-won letter from the European University professor which was inadvertently addressed to her deceased predecessor, and the letter from my former Georgetown University advisor. This done, I retreated backwards to perch conspicuously on the edge of the sofa, while her icy eyes surveyed me critically, like I was a bit of common bacteria on a petri dish.

Then, picking up one, then the other, then the first again, muttering, the director looked at my letters. Clearly dissatisfied, she fixed me with a razor-edged stare, barking something about “specifics.” This question took me aback, a second of processing was necessary. I fumbled with my backpack, although nothing more illuminating was to be found there. “What—specifically—do you plan to look at here?” she interrogated me. I must have resembled a frightened rabbit while I stuttered out in ungrammatical Russian, “It’s just my first look—I don’t know what you have…” She cut me off, reached for a red phone at her elbow. She barked into the receiver. “Pavel Alexandrovich, come to my office!”

I filed away the patronymic for future use—on Friday, the man had introduced himself to me only as “Pavel,” and I hadn’t known if it was proper to ask his patronymic right off, or if that would be rude, though to address him simply as “Pavel” also sounded incredibly casual, Western, impolite. At the same time as I was cataloging this personal data, I was relieved. Pavel was a pleasant man, probably in his mid-40s, short, slim, dark-haired, with rimless glasses and a friendly manner—he had been patient with my slow Russian statements and clear in his explanations of how the catalog system worked, tossing a heavily-accented English word into his rePavels every now and then. English or no, I got the impression that we were communicating clearly, that he understood where I was coming from and what I was after. So, to have him summoned down to face the formidable woman at the desk—at least somewhat on my behalf—made me infinitesimally less nervous. A tap on the door, and he entered.

Pavel Alexandrovich seemed as comfortable as it was possible to be given the architecture of the office. He sat down in a chair on the wall across from my sofa, one seat removed from his boss. She grilled him as to what I had seen on Friday, what exactly I was looking for. I kept silent, looked suppliant, and sent hasty prayers for mercy heavenward. And for a moment or two, I was able to see the humor in the situation. A tiny part of my brain remarked that this was a somewhat ludicrous scene, in the absolute sense. Here I was, in this picturesque Victorian mausoleum across from a woman who seemed to have been lifted from a bad Cold War novel, red phone and all, wondering whether I would be permitted to read books in a library. It was pretty silly to get worked up about it all.

Pavel repeated what I had told him on Friday. The director still didn’t look happy, referring again to the papers I had given her—“It doesn’t say that here.” There was a pause. More apologies and explanations were evidently in order. “I am sorry that the letters weren’t more precise,” I began. “The next time, I’ll make sure—“
She cut me off. “I have given you access to the collections.” And she actually seemed to smile kindly at me.

Uh, ok.

Practically genuflecting, I picked up my letters—which she pushed across her desk in my direction—and followed Pavel Alexandrovich out the door.

“I felt like a chicken with a cat,” I confessed to PA as we went back in the direction of the catalog room. I hope that I was not butchering a traditional colloquial expression.

“I don’t understand this women’s business,” he responded. Irrelevantly, in my opinion.

Since my way was now clear to read at the library, I decided to start asking PA questions as we walked. “Is there a copy machine?” I wanted to know. He grimaced, “We have one, but it’s broken.” Two lady librarians, sitting on either side of the corridor, overheard. “There’s one in the gynecology department,” they grinned. “I am not going to the gynecology department,” he retorted. Whereupon they burst into laughter, and I chortled (I was going to say "giggled," but those who know me would probably say such a delicate sound is not in my range).

Upstairs, PA showed me the reading room. It’s a large salon, clean and military-neat, with perhaps 40 two-person desks in rows, the space lit by fluorescent bulbs and a trio of giant paladian windows that look out over the Neva River. We crossed the room to the nearest window and he told me to look out. The view was stunning—you can see all up and down the wide section of the river, from Palace Embankment (the Hermitage), the Admiralty’s golden spire, the domes of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, to the Rastralnyi (Prow) Columns on Vasilevsky Island, down to turquoise-blue Smolny with its white baroque trim. A lovely panorama of the city. I wished I had my camera with me [I haven’t been carrying it lately, particularly to the Military-Medical Academy, as I wasn’t sure what the security would be like, and didn’t want to be toting something questionable. But there are no metal detectors, no security other than a fatigues-clad teenager at each of the two entrance-gates who is seemingly responsible only for controlling vehicular traffic. And PA told me not only that I could bring a camera (and use it to photograph library materials), I could tote in my scanner. There were a couple of young guys on their laptops in the reading room—no concern about high-tech gadgets here. I’ll have to bring my camera for river-view pictures on another sunny day].

The library request desk was in a salon adjacent to the reading room. It was crowded with potted plants and glass-fronted bookcases. A largish middle-aged woman with deep magenta hair sat behind the circulation table at the front. “This is our colleague from America,” PA introduced me. I felt as if I were being given a better title than I deserved. He turned to me. “You give her your request slips,” he instructed, “And your passport, and she gives you the books and keeps your passport until you return them.” Not sure that I immediately wanted to check out books—although the call slips were filled out and in my hand—I hesitated over giving her my passport a second or two until she looked at PA in frustration. “Does she speak Russian?” she asked. “Yes,” he responded. “Well, thank God!” she said. “That’s a relief.” I immediately made up my mind—rather than look any more mentally incompetent than I already seemed, I’d check out the two books (though I wasn’t finished going through the card catalog yet, and I had wanted to tackle one project at a time). I forked over my passport and thanked the lady gravely.

Then I went back to my spot in the catalog room and sat down to scan the first book I’d been given. I was happy to see that my written comprehension has decidedly improved over the last 6 years. I’m not to the understanding-every-line point yet, but I could scan the book rapidly (in true advanced-graduate-student fashion) and get the gist. I took almost 4 pages of notes, including copying down the bibliography (Russian scholarly works don’t seem to have the same relentless footnoting and endnoting that is common to those in the West, and so it was actually a relief to find a list of sources at all, though none of these were specifically tied to any charts or quotations in the manuscript). It’s a start—this book on the diseases that afflicted the Russian Army during the WWI Caucasian campaign was published this year by a medical doctor, and the references included a couple of fond-numbers in the Central Military History Archive in Moscow, which I hope to visit on this trip.

When I went back to return my checkouts and retrieve my passport, the magenta-haired woman at the circulation table had decided that I was nice and intellectually competent after all, because she began asking me how I liked St. Petersburg, and what my field of study was. I told her I was researching for my history dissertation. “What do you want with us here?” she wondered. I explained. That opened the floodgates. Like many Russians, she is a history buff, and she proceeded to talk about the horrors that her people suffered over the 20th century, from Stalin’s arrests of millions to the countless numbers lost in World War II—“The Americans and the British didn’t defeat fascism,” she said firmly. “The Russian people did.” She went on, “America is young, it didn’t have war on its soil—we’ve been overrun constantly, ever since the Tatars.” She recommended a book about the Leningrad Blockade (she said it captured the truth about the events, whereas PA, when I showed him the title afterwards, dismissed it as “50% artistic”). She seemed pretty upbeat about the future—“Putin was one kettle of fish,” (her gestures spoke volumes), “But Medvedev is young, liberal.” She was pleased that he and Obama had met this week and seemed to get along well. “We need good relationships around the world.” I just kept nodding and listening. I liked her, and it was good to hear someone talk to me in an uninterrupted stream of Russian with the expectation and assurance (not entirely misplaced) that I was able to follow what she was saying.

Back in the catalog room, PA told me that he belongs to the Science House, a society housed in a former palace, to which he would be happy to take me on a nice day—tomorrow (today) after he got off work. I did try to call him this afternoon to tell him that I was not going to be coming over, but the cell phone number that he had given me on Friday rang and rang without an answer.

Thus far, everyone at the Fundamental Library has been thoroughly nice. Even the scary Soviet dragon lady was pleasant in the end. I hope that I can make myself get moving early tomorrow and take advantage of that happy working situation. After all, one should get the Fundamental over with first…

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Cats and Archive

Just as Nature Abhors a Vacuum, it is an equally true law of the universe that Cats Abhor a Closed Door. Unbeknownst to many Oblivious Persons, going about their lives in ignorance, the Cosmos As We Know It would crumble were cats unable to migrate from one side of a door to the other (either by persuading a human being to open the door for them, or by somehow figuring out how to open it for themselves). That this is a Law unto the Infinity of Space was demonstrated last night by the unexpected appearance of a Feline Extraterrestrial in the apartment, who proceeded to enter and nose about in my room.

This exploration was observed and resented by the Cat Who Fetches Widgets, and confrontations ensued. Having battles royal in my bedroom when I am trying to get some shuteye is not my idea of fun ‘n’ games (particularly when I am not being paid to keep an eye on the participants), so I risked the Safety Of All Creation for the first time last night by locking my door, thereby preventing the natural process of feline migration from occurring. I had tried first using a 5-liter bottle of water as a doorstop, but this proved ineffective—a furry shoulder shoved aside both door and doorstop, and in seconds my makeshift bed was co-occupied.

The new Martian cat is big and ginger, the long fur on its body shaved off because it had developed horrible mats, but its tail, head and feet left unclipped. When you run your fingers over where it has been shaved, it feels like warm, thick-pile silk velvet, but to the eye it is a bizarre-looking creature with a sagging potbelly, feathery tail, skinny neck, and fuzzy mukluks. The Widgetcat does not seem too territorial—he only asserts himself when Martiancat messes about in my room. The implication is clear: this is My Person, who Plays With Me. I could tell what was involved in the sibling rivalry when I lay down last night (before I determined that I had to lock the door to rest properly) and Widgetcat jumped up beside me and dropped a widget next to my arm and meowed. We played several rounds of fetch-the-twist-tie before I put him out.

Yesterday I went to the Military-Medical Academy for the first time. I walked up and asked the uniformed teenager at the gate where the library was. He told me to go ask the officer up the walk (who was deep in conversation with another young man. I interrupted them shamelessly—it’s amazing what blisters on your big toes will motivate you to do), probably figuring that if my way was to be barred, it might as well be by someone higher up the pecking order. The officer waved me down the street and to the right, and once at the end of those directions’ usefulness, I stopped a woman who looked like she knew where she was who pointed me to a red sign on a nearby building. St. Petersburg people are nice about giving directions.
So I went in and upstairs to the third floor, where a woman directed me back to the second-floor landing, to an unmarked steel door with a buzzer next to it. I buzzed three times before another little woman answered and beckoned me inside. It was like a storehouse. There were heaps and stacks and cabinets of dusty books and magazines everywhere. I explained, haltingly, who I was, and showed her my documentation.

“What books do you want?” she asked. I told her I didn’t know yet, and she said, “Let’s go to the catalog,” leading me off. The gallery through which we then passed looked like something out of Hogwarts, three stories tall, with layers of floating catwalks between bookshelves which soared into dim space dozens of feet overhead. I couldn’t help but gasp, saying “It’s like paradise!” (Ok, for me as a bibliophile, it would be.) “Nineteenth century,” the lady remarked.

We went out through a side door and up a regal staircase (there was a fountain playing in the vestibule below) to a fluorescent-lit room lined with classic wooden card catalogs. The bibliographer, a short dark man who introduced himself as Pavel, asked me to sit down and tell him about my research interests, and did I have any questions? There were several card catalogues, hundreds of drawers of typed and handwritten index cards, in the room—only acquisitions after the late 1990s are online (computers were next door)—one by subjects, one alphabetical by author, and so forth. Pamphlets with lists of new acquisitions (I noticed one of those listed was a book that I had managed to get through Georgetown ILL—doubly reassuring to find that the Military-Medical Academy also considers it worthwhile!) were in a box on the wall. Pre-Soviet dissertations are in their own, separate card catalogue. Soviet-era dissertations are catalogued with the rest of the library’s holdings. Pavel pulled out a drawer with the label “Military Medicine” and showed me that it was grouped chronologically by war, most recent conflicts first. Civil War, then World War I—the latter section much larger than the former.

Pavel was just leaving (it was 2 PM Friday afternoon), but he said that during the academic year the library is open until 7:30/8 PM every night (the term lasts through the end of July), and I could stay and use the card catalogue even though he was gone. If I had more questions, here was his cell phone number. He’d be back Monday afternoon. So, I plunked myself down at one of the three desks in the room and started hand-copying the cards from the “Military Medicine” drawer.

It was simultaneously comfortable and weird to be sitting there working in the catalogue room. Comfortable, because card catalogues were part of my 1970s/1980s childhood library life, and I still like to squirrel myself away in the LOC alcove with the same neat little wooden drawers (retained, but not updated) forming a protective wall around me. Familiar, because the 30-foot ceiling had the same new, square foamboard tiles that were recently installed in the Georgetown ICC. It was welcoming, even, because the staff was all thoroughly pleasant. But it was weird because the college-age students were in Russian military uniform, as was a trim green-clad officer of about my age who came in to consult the library holdings on plastic surgery, establishing himself at the desk behind mine.

This juxtaposition of the familiar and the strange continued when a young cadet came out into the hall (an adjoining room was apparently a reading area) to have a long heart-to-heart with his mom on his cell phone, and a couple of boys in blue we-just-stepped-off-the-set-of-The-Hunt-for-Red-October sailor suits (complete with the striped shirts with the large square collars) walked through carrying backpacks. And there I was, an unsupervised American, wearing decidedly civilian garb, getting writers’ cramp from copying off card after card on the subject of Russo-Soviet Military Medicine.

After about four hours, I thought my wrist was going to be irrecoverably damaged, and I decided to leave, first thanking Natasha (another librarian who’d been rushing around in and out of a room at the far end of the corridor the whole time I was there), and telling her I’d be back on Monday. She took another look at my documents and remarked that the person to whom the European University letter of request for admission is addressed—whose name I’d found on the archival ministry website—had, unfortunately, been dead for several years! The woman who is now in charge will be in on Monday, to decide my fate (that is, whether I will be given a reader’s card and allowed to see the actual books I request). I hope that the error as to the name of the library director will not prejudice her against me!

Getting out of the building proved more challenging than getting in. I couldn’t go back through the Harry Potter library (the door was locked, the employees probably long gone home for the weekend) so I descended the stairs to the first floor, by the fountain, where a gaggle of young women in bright surgical greens and fresh white lab coats was gathered in front of an ATM. I looked around: no obvious exits (the courtyard-side door next to the fountain bore a sign that said something like “electrical closet”). There was a sunny palatial atrium through a large arch to my left, so I went that way. And stopped. Other than the original antique entrance from Pirogovskaya Naberezhnaya—which was obviously blocked—there were probably six doorways leading from the foyer, and all seemed to go off into other parts of the building, through which I had no desire to wander. Nothing to do but ask (again) for directions. I turned around and approached the women at the ATM. “How do I get out?” They looked at me like I was nuts (I mean, I had gotten in, didn’t I?) and gesticulated down and to the left. So I followed two short flights of stairs into what looked like a basement, where I again didn’t see an obvious means of egress (don’t these people believe in “exit” signs?! What would happen if there were a fire?).

Another group of young medical people was standing there, and I asked them the way out. Again, I got odd looks—“Just go that way!” Away into a labyrinth of close, blind, tiled rooms I went, turning left, then right, then right and left again before eventually emerging into the outdoors behind an ambulance. Apparently, the library is cheek-by-jowl with a hospital. It’s possible that I left through the morgue! Happily, from that point, I knew where I was, and I limped painfully to the metro station and home.

Tomorrow, I think I’m going to wear tennis shoes to church. Both pairs of heels have given me blisters—they are comfortable as dress shoes go, but clearly not designed for the urban hiking I’m doing—and I expect that after the noon service (that’s one thing I like about Russia—at least in St. Pete, people are late to bed and late to rise, like me) that Ira and I will do something recreational, like visit the Hermitage or some other lovely spot. Maybe we’ll just go back to her apartment and work on the Two Motherlands manuscript—she text-messaged me yesterday that she’d finished revising the final chapters I’d sent her, and it would be nice to have the last bit done.

I had hoped that the American Consulate here would be having an Independence Day event, but this evening I called the main number and the message said, “You have reached the American Consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Consulate is now closed. If you are an American citizen who has been arrested, or are in a life and death situation, please hang up and call…” At which point I decided to hang up and not call anybody. My sweet little semi-toothed apartment mate is apparently cooking chicken and potatoes for dinner, and has already pressed tea and goodies on me. It’s overcast outside. Why not stay indoors?

Friday, July 03, 2009

I'm Legal

A nice guy at Ira's church let me print out the document just now (it's on my email, Mums, if you ever need to access it). Now, it's off to the archives.

I didn't go home last night. I ended up sleeping on the loveseat in the kitchen of my old tutor. She and I met up about 8:30 PM, went grocery shopping and then to her house, where the computer guy finally showed up to fix her crashed laptop at 9:45 PM, then two girls from Finland arrived, and we sat around drinking tea and eating sweets until 1 AM. Whereupon it was bit too late, white nights or not, to go home alone.

Must scoot. All well. Got asked for directions again, in Russian, so I think I'm starting to blend--or at least appearing to know where I am.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Wednesday’s Post: Досведания Бублики

I’d forgotten one aspect of the middle aged to elderly Russian character (or at least of those dear persons with whom I am most familiar) which could be irritating were it not so perversely amusing: the constant yammering about “preserving the strength of the organism”—that is, the various and peculiar practices that one must follow in order to stay healthy. And there are some odd ones out there: Never sit down on a stone step (even briefly) because you will get chilled. Do not drink cold liquids from the refrigerator, because you will fall ill—drinking cold liquids to cool off on a hot day is dangerous. If you get a runny nose, stop eating immediately and lie down, so that your body will devote its energies to healing itself, rather than to digestion or other activities. Don’t sleep for long periods if you don’t move, because it is not good to remain in one attitude for too long—instead, arrange to wake up mid-sleep and rearrange your position. And yet, so many of the Russians I know are not in the best of health. I think it’s because of germs and pollution and poor overall nutrition, if not uncomfortable habits such as the aforementioned health practices.

The air pollution was terrible today. I walked only about 4 miles, but my lungs were stinging by the end. It’s not just the automobile exhaust and that almost everybody is smoking cigarettes, it’s the grime and the airborne fluff from the molting trees that you inhale with every breath. The purpose of my exercise was to go to the local travel office which has a relationship with GoToRussia.com (the folks who issued my preglashennia and arranged for my visa processing), to have them register me with the Federal Immigration Service per Russian law. I went there on Monday by metro and bus with Ira, but when I’d told the girl in the office (who was really nice) that I’d already paid for the registration through the GTR people, she’d said to wait for them to send her a voucher confirming the transaction before she processed the paperwork. Well, today she emailed me to say that the GTR people had *not* confirmed my payment, and that I needed to come by to fork over R1200. Another few hours of unregisteredness, and I’d be illegal. So, to enjoy the sunshine and get some exercise while I was squaring myself with the authorities, I decided to walk over. Plus, I wanted to test my geographic memory, which thus far has been working beautifully (Homing Pigeon “Я” Moi).

Since I’ve got blisters from yesterday’s 7-mile stroll in heels, I put on tennis shoes and loped off. The shortest way was right by the old Bolshoi Dom (the “Big House”), as it was colloquially known, and yes, it is what it sounds like—the Stalinist former KGB building that looks as forbidding as its reputation. Ira told me that she never, ever, thought she’d go in there under happy circumstances, and then last year, when she was translating legal documents for a computer hacking criminal case co-prosecuted by the American FBI and the Russian FSB, she ended up being asked up to the offices of the computer fraud police (for whom she was working), which are in that building. She said the people who work in the fraud office are really nice. The building still looks scary, though. Very 1984-ish. And the fact that you know that quite a few people were executed in the basement (and/or temporarily incarcerated there for “political” crimes back in the bad old days before being shipped off to the gulag) certainly makes for an unpleasant aura.

I made it safely to the travel office having only once been addressed by a stranger, and that in Russian—a skinny blond girl asked me if I knew where a certain restaurant was. I didn’t. I’d take her question as confirmation that I looked local, only the student manning the desk at the European University of St. Petersburg (where I stopped to get my archival-admittance documents yesterday afternoon) addressed me in English without hesitation, and I was wearing almost the same outfit then as I am now. But I’ve seen more women in skirts and dresses today. And today I wasn’t wearing lipstick, just like most of them aren’t, so maybe that helped.

I could kick the GoToRussia people. Not only did they not do the needful as far as corresponding properly with the travel office here about my registration pre-payment, it was their likely failure to shred my faxed request to charge my credit-card for the same a month ago that resulted in the number being stolen the week before I left.

I navigated back home by bus and metro—no problem. Still, I’ve noticed another thing from the old days that is gone which I sorely miss—the buluchnaya, or bread shop. Now, in Soviet times the food shops, what there were of them, were split up by type—there was the meat and fish store, the dairy store, the candy store, the cake store (all the same flavor, very socialist), the drinks store, the vegetable store. You had to stand in long lines at each one, and you never knew what or how much they would have. The payment system was obnoxious, too—you’d struggle up to the counter (there weren’t open shelves where you could grab stuff yourself) and tell the harassed, short-tempered woman there how much of an item you wanted, then take the chit she gave you up to the bored-looking, usually rude cashier in another little booth, where you would pay, and then the cashier would give you a receipt, which you would take back to the original counter to retrieve your purchases. It was still mostly like this in 1995, when I came to Russia for the first time. But the bread was wonderful, cheap, and plentiful—fresh baked daily at one of the city factories. There was bul’ka, which was a white bread, khleb, which was the classic strongly-flavored black bread, and other tasty baked goods like the glazed pryaniki (great with tea!), sushki (little skinny dry bread rings—so much better than pretzels) and—my favorite—bubliki (fat soft lightly-sweetened bread rings, less chewy than bagels).

The indirect ordering and payment system had mostly vanished by 2003, when I came back to St. Petersburg, and a couple of the buluchnaya on Nevski Prospekt had disappeared, the premises taken over by expensive boutiques (more’s the pity). But there were still bread shops off the main road, and bread kiosks on the corners where I could get my carbs fix. Well, now there doesn’t seem to be a buluchnaya left! And though there’s a small “Diksi” supermarket (or the equivalent) on almost every street where you pop in, carry a basket or push a shopping cart through the aisles, paying at the register (yes, they even have discount cards, that scourge upon the face of grocerydom) for all your self-served purchases (bananas to bliny, soup to nuts), the great bread is gone. You can get little pre-packaged bags of pryaniki and sushki, but the loaf bread’s all sliced stuff like you see in American stores and nary a bublik have I seen! I’m going to suffer from major withdrawal. For Peter-and-Paul’s sake, what *is* Russia without bubliki?!

Quick Post

Tomorrow (Friday), after I am finally able to get my registration printed out (it was sent as an attachment via email, but the only ink Ira has in her printer is a very pale yellow, which is totally illegible), I plan to go to the first of the archives. I wanted to have some notion of what I was getting into, so I scanned in a book on my subject prior to leaving the US, but I hadn't read much of it, and so have dedicated the past day to scanning through the thing. I have also slept a good bit--the jet lag finally catching up, I suppose.

Ira's two daughters are here, and so I need to go to the kitchen and be sociable!