atkinsj – Moscow 2018 Fri, 01 Jun 2018 06:40:16 +0000 en hourly 1 From the Banya to Baikal Fri, 01 Jun 2018 06:40:16 +0000 “Respected Guests, please conserve water.”

This was written on a sign hung above the sink in one of the hotels we stayed in near Lake Baikal.  It has two purposes: one is to save money on a water bill, the other is to not waste water in a world where fresh water is limited.  In short, economic and environmental purposes.  At first, my roommates and I considered it a typical sign to be hung in a rural hotel.  After our experience in the Russian banya, or bathhouse, we openly laughed at it.

The banya is typically a smaller building, although it can be large, which is built for the purpose of both bathing and for relaxing.  The pictures I have are from an old banya, without any chimney.  Without the chimney, smoke would sit at the top of the room under the ceiling while the heavier wet air would sit beneath the smoke, heating up the current inhabitants.  As a result of there being two windows in the old style, light was minimal, and legends surrounding mischievous and evil spirits living in the banya grew.  But, you are probably wondering how the system works.


First, a fire is lit in the fireplace, the pile of rocks you see.  Our banya experience involved a traditional Russian pech’ which is bigger, and a thus gets hotter.  This serves to heat the room and also to heat water for washing oneself.  Also, to get a sauna going, you toss water onto the oven, or the hot stones, to create steam.  Another traditional aspect of the banya are the clumps of birch branches.  These are first let sit in warm or hot water to make them suppler, and then you beat each other with them.  Yes, six young men stood around in a sauna hitting one another with tree branches.  I will not defend our actions as mature, only as good-natured fun.  But the branches do massage you, and I can attest to there effectiveness personally.  Such escapades in banyas can last two or three ours.  It gets quite hot.

So, for a banya with six strapping young Carls, we had a tub of hot water, two trash cans full of cold water, two buckets of cold water, and a large jug, about four feet tall, of cold water as well.  We used all but the large jug of cold water.  We spent almost two hours in there, hitting each other, washing, sweating, and having a riot of a time.  Perhaps now you see why we laughed at the sign in the bathroom.  Conserve water there so we might waste water in the banya.  As an economics major it reminded me of the tradeoffs we all face.  Worth it.

The next day we lunched on the shores of the mighty Lake Baikal.  The locals call it a sea.  Standing on the edge of the deepest lake in the world, you understand why.  The lake is surrounded by snowcapped mountains, despite the sun shinnying brightly, and while you were almost overheating in the morning away from the lake, the 4-degree Celsius water keeps the shoreline temperature in the fifties at the highest.  The lake itself is a mile deep at the lowest point, contains almost 20 percent of the world’s fresh water (23,000 cubic kilometers), and has numerous endemic species to its ecosystem, including the only fresh water seal in the world.  I’ll let the pictures show you the lake.  Words can’t do it justice.


After spending several days playing on the shores of Baikal and standing on boats sailing on the waters, I thought back to my laughter at that sign asking me to conserve water.  I was ashamed.  Gazing at the sea of Baikal, all I could think about was the shimmering water, clear enough to see 40 meters down, far enough to give some people vertigo.  I couldn’t help but think how horrible it would be to lose such a natural treasure.  Baikal is a world unto itself.

And that’s the purpose of the sign.  Yes, the banya used a lot of water, but one doesn’t go to the banya every day.  The sign is a small reminder that every tiny action counts.  It reminds us to do whatever we can, however small to protect what we have.  The Baikal was here before us, and if we all work hard enough, it will be here long after us.

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What is a Buuza? Fri, 01 Jun 2018 06:26:31 +0000 On the southern and eastern shores of Lake Baikal is the Republic of Buryatia, one of the subjects of the Russian Federation.  The Buryat people are closely related to Mongolians, so much so that Mongolians refer to Buryats as Russian-Mongolians.  Buryatia has its own distinct language, culture, and history, distinct from other nearby tribes and Mongolia.  While the culture and history surrounding Buryatia are fascinating, my favorite aspect of Buryat culture in our two-week escapade there was a little dumpling full of meat: the buuza.

 All pictures, due to a lack of foresight are not my own and are pulled from internet searches. Fortunately, none of them are copyright protected.

The buuza (sounds like booza) is not a difficult food to make, nor does it consist of exotic or numerous ingredients.  It is made of ground meat, traditionally pork, diced onions, salt, and pepper, all wrapped in a thin layer of dough with a little water inside.  The slight difficulty in preparation comes from folding the dough.  Whether or not the attractive folds falling diagonally away from the top are necessary is another question, but the whole at the top is important for even cooking and the special way you eat it.  To cook the buuzy (transliteration is hard with plural Russian), it is best to steam them, given that boiling foils the whole purpose of preparation and baking wouldn’t cook it properly.

So, we come to the eating of the delicious dumplings.  This is no easy task.  First, one must grasp the small, slippery dumpling with both hands, holding it at a slight downward angle.  Then, you must bite a small drinking hole in the bottom edge of the buuza—remember the water in the ingredient list?  The water helps the meat produce a little more juice, and the dough surrounding the meat is loose to create almost a miniature bowl from which to drink.  And so, before biting into the meat, you must drink all the juice from the hole you just made.  The juice warms your mouth, washing over your tongue with all the warmth of hot chocolate on a cold day and the taste of a celebratory dinner.  It entices your taste buds into seeking real meat, making the first real bite into the dumpling all the more satisfying.

The buuza is not a complicated dish, nor is it one of complex flavors and gourmet sauces.  But it is delicious.  And this simple truth describes most of Russian cuisine in my opinion.  Last term I took a class on Russian cooking, and while Soviet food is marked by a lack of ingredients and improvising based on what was available, Russian cuisine more broadly has a lot to recommend it.  A plethora of soups that are both delicious and simple, pies that can be complicated beyond measure or just be a pile of cabbage inside bread, and little baked pirozhki with almost whatever you want hidden inside.  Russian cuisine is not generally considered high-brow, most high end restaurants in the US are Italian, or French, or steak houses, and the quintessential Russian home cooking restaurant Teremok only has one store in the entirety of the US.  But the more I eat Russian cuisine, the more I feel that these dishes all have the same feel of homemade cooking.  We all have that memory of the old family recipe we ate as a kid.  I can’t help but recall Anton Ego’s sudden flashback to eating ratatouille as a child in Pixar’s Ratatouille as being a perfect representation of this.  Food is not always about exploring eccentric flavor combinations.  Sometimes food is more about the company around the table, the satisfying of hunger, and simply tasting good.  Buuzy are simple, tasty, and filling, and frankly are a good enough reason on their own to trek to Siberia.

This photo is mine. Lake Baikal.

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A Not So Gentle Man in Moscow Part 2 – In the Kremlin Fri, 18 May 2018 11:31:08 +0000 “The Kremlin released a statement today…” “Sources close to the Kremlin…”

The Kremlin.  It’s a dominating presence overlooking the Moskva River and Red Square, housing the upper house of the Russian parliament, a presidential residence, and numerous cathedrals and museums.  In American news, the above statements are quite frequent when referring to the Russian government or President Putin and give the Kremlin, to paraphrase Pushkin, an austere, comely visage.  I was both scared and excited each time I was on Red Square and nearby the fabled fortress, and despite oversleeping the official meeting time, giddy with excitement for our excursion within its walls.


After purchasing your ticket, there is quite a long line stretching out of the Troitskaya Tower that can be circumnavigated if cutting in line is not against your morals.  Once you pass through security, you walk along a bridge over Aleksandrovskii Garden into the Kremlin.  On your right stands a mighty concert hall, in which just a few weeks ago we attended a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.  To your left is the Russian Senate, the building surrounded by cannons preserved from the Patriotic War of 1812 (when Napoleon invaded Russia).  Quickly, traffic officers wave you onward toward the main museum area of the Kremlin where all the churches and cathedrals are clustered.  Much of the space inside the walls is occupied by an open square where cars can move about.  As you walk toward the Tsar Cannon and Tsar Bell, there is a large and quite beautiful garden with a view of the river.  But that’s not the most interesting part of the Kremlin.


The Tsar Bell and Tsar Cannon were constructed not to be functional and regularly used but to show the wealth and industrial capacity of Imperial Russia.  The cannon was cast in the 16th century under Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich and is the largest of its kind in the world.  The bell went through three different castings, as fire destroyed the first two.  It has never been rung and serves as a monument to Russian piety and the industry behind it.

Speaking of piety, there are several churches inside the Kremlin.  One houses a historically powerful icon, the Vladimir Mother of God, another houses the coffins of tsars and princes (Ivan the Terrible included) from long ago, and another has the immense bell tower of Ivan the Great.  These churches bring to mind the days before Peter the Great when the church was superior to the state, when the most iconic (pun intended) image of the Russia nation was a secular fortress, with a church in the middle of it.

All around, the Kremlin is a fascinating place.  Inside, without any prior knowledge, you might just think it was a museum.  But the gorgeous, enormous, palace-like building below has a small reminder that you are within the heart of a global power.  You can’t see from the angle of the photo, but a Russian flag was flying atop its roof on the day we were strolling about the grounds.  That means the President is in.  It’s an odd feeling, knowing that between you and one of the most powerful people in the world were just a few walls…

So for those news headlines about Kremlin statements or sources, they’re not wrong.  The Kremlin is a powerful force, reminding us all of the power, beauty, and history of the nation it rules.

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Khramy – Places of Worship and Museums Thu, 17 May 2018 14:23:48 +0000 Everywhere you go in Russia, there are khramy.  In Russian, this word means “place of worship” and is differentiated from the word for church or cathedral because one khram can contain multiple chapels or churches, as St. Basil’s on Red Square does.  Many have onion domes and bell towers to distinguish them, others are behind monastery walls.  Most still have services either weekly or on important holidays.  Some serve as both museums and places of worship, and a few, like St. Basil’s, are just museums now.

There are a few defining characteristics of khramy.  Almost all of them have a bell tower separate from the central onion dome and often a completely different building unto themselves.  The churches and cathedrals all have iconostases, large structures separating the congregation from the altar.  These are generally covered with icons, one identifying the church, others to assorted saints, and are crowned with a crucifix.  In the oldest khramy, the walls can be painted with biblical scenes or yet more icons.  In newer ones, ornate decorations and possibly gilding adorn the iconostasis, walls, icons, candlesticks, and chandeliers.


An iconostasis in St Basil’s

These gorgeous decorations may harken back to when a Russian prince sent out a group of nobles to research different religions in order that he might decide which was best to convert his kingdom to.  The nobles returned with the information that Islam was impossible (for one could not drink as a Muslim and drinking was important for an induction ceremony for some warriors) and Catholicism seemed too cloistered.  However, they described Orthodox services as one of the most beautiful events they had witnessed.  Thus, Orthodoxy was chosen.

But what does this beauty and grandeur evoke?  To me, they inspired little.  Admittedly, I have not attended an Orthodox service and all the khramy I have been in served at least partly as museums.  But the buildings themselves, while impressive and built with the fervor of zealots, did little to instill piety in me.  I should say: I believe in God.  But the grandeur and icons made me feel as though they were expressing more the grandeur and wealth of those who built them.  See the chapel from the Winter Palace below.

If anything, the ornateness of the khramy detract from the religious experience.  One marvels not at the glory of God but at the masterful painting of icons, intricacy of the carvings, and immensity of the building.  To me, the khramy dotting the landscape of Russia signify more the power of the Orthodox Church in Russia than the power of God.  But there is one exception: Bogolyubovo.

A tiny little khram built in a large field that floods frequently.  One must walk more than a kilometer from the railroad tracks just to get there, and then, only if the path is not submerged.  Why on earth would someone build a place of worship there?  Faith.  The faith that inspired its construction is the kind of powerful, personal faith that reminds one of people’s belief that their faith will help others and should be spread.  It gives one hope that there is still a desire to do good in the world.  That the wealth invested in all the other khramy and cathedrals in the world was not for nothing.

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A Return To Lefortovo Wed, 16 May 2018 10:34:57 +0000 If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to read Ma’ila’s earlier post about our first trip there.  It focuses mainly on the Vvedenskoye cemetery, and it’s a good read.  Our second trip back did not take us back to the cemetery, much to my relief.  I found the cemetery crowded, the graves almost piled on top of one another, and while people seemed to semi-regularly clear dead leaves from their ancestor’s graves, the cemetery seemed more a monument to observing propriety than revering and remembering the dead.  But on our return to the old German quarter, we walked to new places.

When you get off at Baymanskaya station of the metro, you are met by various statues as those above lining the central area on your way to the street.  At first, you might think this station is in an affluent neighborhood, but after you get out on the street, the neighborhood is quite clearly not the wealthiest or poorest neighborhood in Moscow.  It lacks the old architecture and Mercedes-Benz’s of the city center, but still has well maintained buildings and new-ish apartment buildings, and this atmosphere is far less Soviet and patriotic than the metro station décor would imply.

After walking around a little, we found two churches that perfectly contrasted with one another: the Church of Peter and Paul and the Yelokhovo Cathedral.


The Church of Peter and Paul is not too large.  It stands on the corner of an unassuming intersection, fenced off and screened by trees.  Outside of the fence’s gate stand a couple of beggars, a not uncommon sight by churches in Russia, and as Muscovites walk in and out of the territory they cross themselves facing the church.  Walking up to the white walled church with sky blue onion domes, we saw first the particular shape of the crosses on top of the church.  After the victory of Ivan the Terrible over the Kazan Khanate crosses on many Orthodox churches were built with a small upward facing crescent at the bottom signifying the dominance of Orthodoxy over Islam.  The next notable feature are the icons painted on the side of the church to various saints.  In short, the church is a quintessential orthodox place of worship.

Much closer to the metro station stands the Yelokhovo Cathedral where Pushkin was baptized.  As its name implies, it is quite a bit larger that the church.

It was built by Russian architect Yevgraph Tyurin, making catholic looking façade all the more unique.  It dominates the neighborhood surrounding it, the bell tower dwarfed only by the enormous central dome of the cathedral.  We were unable to go inside the cathedral (it was closed the day we were there) but the blue green walls and golden domes create an imposing image to look upon.  During part of Soviet history, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church was seated here, it being the largest open church in Moscow at the time.

These two churches serve as an interesting architectural juxtaposition.  One is more the traditional idea of what a Russian Orthodox place of worship looks like while the cathedral lacks the tell-tale onion domes of Russian churches and far larger.  But the two serve as an important reminder of the importance of Russian Orthodoxy in Russian society throughout history.  While the architectural styles varied, the underlying religion stayed the same, and as with many Russian churches the bell tower stands apart from the main building at both places, even if a little connected.  While much has changed in Russia, much has stayed the same.

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Saint Petersburg – Not a European City Tue, 08 May 2018 16:05:18 +0000 If you recall from my first post, this is my first experience abroad.  However, this inexperience did not stop me from having a preconception of St Petersburg as a European city separate from the rest of Russia—which is not definitively European.  And, to some degree, I was right.  The canals evoke ideas of Venice, there are no towering skyscrapers blotting out the sun (although Gasprom is building one away from the city center), and old gorgeous palaces are on almost every street corner.  The admiralty spire orients you wherever you are, guiding you back to the city center and then sending you off down one of the main thoroughfares going to and from it.  Suffice it to say Petersburg, or Peter in the vernacular, is gorgeous, especially on a clear day.

But, my title gives it away, something about the city stops you from considering it European.  Like many great European capitals, there are tourists everywhere, museums, different languages spoken, and a cosmopolitan attitude.  But, still, something about it is different.  Perhaps it’s the climate, as the city is so far north, during the summer for a time there are “white nights” where the sun doesn’t descend far enough below the horizon for darkness to set in.  A day in Peter could begin with warm sunlight rousing you from your bed and then descend into a gray drizzle in the afternoon—although from what I’ve heard that describes London too.  The climate likely contributes to a unique culture and atmosphere in the city, and undoubtedly shapes the people who call the city home.

But for me, it was the aspect of the city that I most liked that made it different from almost all other city.  It’s planned.  Wherever one stands, finding where one needs to go is a simple task.  The rivers and canals pose some challenges, but sooner or later one finds one of the major avenues leading to the admiralty and one is no longer lost.  Every city has landmarks, but most cities are more akin to Moscow in how they grew: organically, almost circumstantially.  Cities grow out of necessity of population, defense, any number of reasons.  But Petersburg was built in a time before most big cities were planned, in a swamp.  And I think that the unstoppable will of the tsar who created the city still influences it today.  Peter the First built the city to show the wealth and power of Russia to Europe and tens of thousands died in the process.

Later on, when the Nazis besieged the city, for almost two years, hundreds of thousands died.  Citizens within the city would eat broth from boiled leather, nursing mothers would prick themselves so their babies could gain nutrients from their blood.  Yet, by force of will they survived and saw the city liberated.  Much like the stern visage of the Bronze Horseman, the city itself seems to have developed its own face, sculpted by the founder of it, and the people who protected it.  I think it is that force of will and loss of life shown by the people of the city lends the city a surreal ambiance to this day.

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A Not So Gentle Man in Moscow – Part 1 Mon, 09 Apr 2018 19:49:34 +0000 I have never been abroad before, so as I flew over the Atlantic on FinnAir, there were many things on my mind.  Chief among them was my language ability.  Having not taken an intense Russian language course in over a year, I was worried that upon arrival I wouldn’t understand a word anyone said, that accents would be too thick and I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone.  Nothing could have given me more confidence than hearing people speak Finnish.  I know nothing about Finland, no words in Finnish, and had never flown FinnAir.  But, being unable to comprehend even the slightest inkling of sentence structure or vocabulary made me realize that I know at least a little Russian, and so my journey to Moscow began.


“Moscow is supposed to be a dirty city isn’t it?” – Every American I talked to who had never been to Moscow.

In a sense, yes, Moscow is a dirty city.  But so is every city in America with tons of cars spitting grit as they zoom around to their destinations.  Beyond the lingering banks of cleared snow and the soot sprayed on most cars, the city is as clean as any in America, and the metro is cleaner.  Having been here two weeks and having wandered about the city, I’m struck by Moscow’s beauty.  I was expecting some dystopian socialist city filled with square, bland, and essentials-only buildings, but instead discovered a city filled with beautiful architecture, gorgeous metro stations, and palaces like the one below.

Above is just one tower from the sprawling Tsaristino palace and museum in the southern part of Moscow.  Its a little hard to get to from our dorm, but well worth the metro trip.  It was built over 21 years, started by Catherine the Great, but no tsar ever lived there.  Catherine’s son, Paul I, took one look at it and thought St Petersburg was better (at least that’s what the talkative docent in the museum told us).  The museum inside has been open for only ten years, but what a museum it is.  Historic jewels like the Tsaristino museum fill the streets of Moscow and make any trip here worthwhile.

For all its grandeur and beauty, Moscow is not for the faint of heart.  It is not laid out in a grid like New York City, and while a lot of places have signs in English and staff who speak English, it is a decidedly Russian place.  In New York, you can here five different languages in five minutes by just walking down the streets.  Here, you only hear Russian.  Some cafes and restaurants have menus in English and Russian, but most only have Russian.  And, ironically, this is probably Moscow’s greatest similarity with American cities.  It is unabashedly Russian, much like American cities are unabashedly American.  I’m quite glad this is my first experience abroad.  Moscow is like no where else, and frankly, should be on everyone’s bucket list.

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