braulickjim – Moscow 2018 Sat, 02 Jun 2018 18:12:44 +0000 en hourly 1 Wonders of Baikal Sat, 02 Jun 2018 18:12:44 +0000 I have to admit that the first time I saw Lake Baikal, I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I expected. We got off the bus after a few days traveling through steppe and walked down from the road to a rocky shore. I was very happy to be there, but my first thought was surprise at the lake’s resemblance to familiar Lake Superior. It was beautiful, but it didn’t seem much different from home.



However, the awe came on more gradually. The more time I spent with Baikal, the more I realized how unique it is. That night, I went down to the shore near Ust-Barguzin, the village we were staying in. There I saw real, snow-capped mountains for the first time in my life. The lines of the snow branched down in continuous whiteness from the low-hanging clouds.



The piece of shoreline where I stood was almost deserted, and it took my breath away. If I didn’t make any sound, all I could hear was the sound of the cold wind and the waves lapping. I was sick, so I didn’t wade in that day, but the water was mesmerizingly clear.


The views just got more amazing, as we saw Baikal from different perspectives. This photo was taken from a boat ride we took near Irkutsk.



I did get to wade and even drink from Baikal once, when it was sunny and we went to a sandy beach. The water tastes like nothing, (as far as I could tell being congested). It is so clear that at this beach I could wade up to my knee and see the sand ripples on the bottom perfectly, even as I disturbed them. And the water is pure, so safe that we filled our water bottles there.



I had around a dozen encounters with Baikal in all, and I saw some of its many moods. Baikal can be a sunny beach for swimming, a clear shore where it’s easy to find rocks under the water. It can be frigid, or it can be inviting (though I doubt the water is ever warm!) Some of its little bays belie the immensity of the lake, but when you can see distant mountains and the only thing separating you is water, you know how mighty Baikal is. It is a magical place.


My experience of Baikal was enriched by the tour we were given at the Baikal museum in Listvyanka. Its name is incredibly long (abbreviated БМ ИНЦ СО РАН), but essentially it’s a museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences. They have an aquarium where it’s possible to see typical fish from the lake as well as Baikal seals up close. Our guide at this museum, Tatiana Serafimovna, knew the place backwards and forwards, and she radiated enthusiasm for the natural and human history of the lake. I appreciated the chance to see some of the animals that I wouldn’t be able to see in the wild, and the reminder that Baikal isn’t only water and rock. There is life hidden throughout the lake, even at great depths and in such pure water–just another of the wonders of Baikal.

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Siberian Foods Sat, 02 Jun 2018 18:02:44 +0000 During our week and a half in Siberia, we got to experience a very different part of Russia from the metropolis of Moscow. We traveled throughout Buryatia and to Irkutsk in a bus, visiting as many places of interest as we could. With this different setting came a very different routine and diet for us. Since we were on the road all the time, we often just ate all together.


Very often, the group would go to a restaurant where you could call ahead and order a meal. Here’s an example of a typical lunch.



There was kompot or fruit drink, cucumber-tomato salad, borscht, bread and sour cream to start with.



Next came the Buryatian specialty of buuzy.They are delicious meat dumplings, with a hot oily sauce inside that will spill out if you’re not careful. Our guide, Rada, showed us how to eat them with your fingers by taking a small bite, sipping out all the juice, and then eating the meat and the dumpling.



The dessert was fried sweet dough, with sweetened condensed milk for dipping. I’m sorry to say most of it went to waste since we were all full from the savory treats.


We ate this meal at a restaurant in the tiny town of Novoselenginsk, where several Decembrists were exiled after taking part in the political uprising of 1825. To all appearances, it was the only restaurant in the town.



But this kind of food was what we ate during most of our time in Siberia. It’s hearty, heavy, fresh food that seems meant to sustain people who work hard and shiver a lot. I definitely haven’t eaten a meal like the one above anytime in Moscow, but Buryatian food is still undeniably Russian. The cucumber-tomato salad pictured above is something I ate many times at MSU, but in Buryatia it was often the only salad on the menu. The stolovaya form of restaurant, which is similar to a buffet, seems just as popular in Ulan-Ude as in Moscow or St. Petersburg. I’m guessing that its ubiquity is a Soviet relic. And, as everywhere I’ve been in Russia, food is heavy and comforting. It will be strange to go home and suddenly return to a mostly mayo-free diet!

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City of Sleight-of-Hand Wed, 16 May 2018 15:43:53 +0000 The bridges over the Neva River in St. Petersburg go up every night to let oceangoing ships pass. I’d heard that staying up until 1:30 a.m. to watch them was a magical experience. But the night I went, we were inexplicably out of luck. There were plenty of other people standing on the embankment, also waiting for the bridges. But, we stayed up until almost two and nothing happened. The two bridges we could see were covered in beautiful lights, but refused to open. Every car seemed like a cop car, every pedestrian seemed like the one who would open the gates. But eventually, we gave up and went home grumpy, only to wake up for class 6 hours later.

I felt like this was a fittingly anticlimactic experience, right in line with the St. Petersburg literature I’ve read. Without exception, these narratives are about illusions and broken dreams. In The Bronze Horseman, The Overcoat, Crime and Punishment, Nevksy Prospekt, and The Double, things are not what they seem. The heroes chase an image of St. Petersburg, which always turns out to be just a front for a flawed reality. This seedy underbelly drives characters like Akaky Akakievich and Katerina Marmeladova to insanity.

In St. Petersburg this city’s dual nature is apparent–in contrast to Moscow, which is less dazzling but with (quite literally) firmer foundations. When you visit St. Petersburg, you can feel its unique character and its history. We stayed in the center of old Petersburg, in a hotel where just climbing the stairs made me feel like I’d traveled back in time.

We took a boat tour of the canals at sunset that was truly amazing.

But the colorful, light-filled magic of the city center isn’t the whole story. We also saw a different reality of this city, when we saw the museum and cemetery dedicated to the blockade of Leningrad during the Second World War (in Russian, the Great War of the Fatherland). More than half a million people died in the 900 horrific days of the blockade, of starvation, bombing, disease, and every possible cause. In this cemetery are interred 500,000 bodies in mass graves, like the one below.

Our few days in Petersburg were fun, but I think it was a thoughtful time for a lot of us as well. The sequence of my experiences fell into an interesting arc, from tsars’ gilded palaces to the bridge disappointment to the blockade memorials, from superficial to deeper aspects of the city. I think I got a taste of St. Petersburg in all its complex glory.

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Trees at Last Mon, 14 May 2018 16:30:51 +0000 As a small town kid, living in the city has been pretty different for me, not least because I’m used to being surrounded by trees and grass all the time. I was excited when I heard that Moscow State University has its own botanicheskii sad or botanical garden. (MSU also has another botanical garden farther out from campus, which I’ve seen on a map, but the one I visited is right across the street from my dorm.)


I’ve walked through only part of the botanic garden, since I didn’t figure out where it was until last week, but it’s clear from their map that there’s a lot to see.

I had a little trouble getting to the garden in the first place. The entrance on Mendeleev Street looked closed at first, but I realized that the bolt was easy to slide open. As far as I could tell, the sign said that people associated with MSU were allowed, and besides it was a Monday afternoon, so I felt all right about slipping in. What I thought was a coat in the yellow guard’s hut turned out to be an actual security guard, though, and he wasn’t particularly happy that I’d just walked in without showing him a student ID. But once I showed him the ID, he let me enter for free, so it all worked out after all.


I immediately felt a rush of happiness on being surrounded by leafy trees. The first garden I came out into was the ornamental garden, which had a good view of our dorm in the background.

Many plants by the path have labels beneath them, for educational purposes. There’s even a garden with medicinal and herbal plants. (I heard a rumor that they make tea from some of these plants, but I can’t say for certain.)


I spent the most time in the forest part of the garden. It’s a wonderful microcosm of all the northern latitudes, containing plants from Europe, North America, and Siberia, as well as European Russia. But I particularly wanted to walk around the “Trees and shrubs of Siberian and Altai forests” area, because our group will be going so soon to Siberia. (The Altai is a region of southern Siberia that borders Kazakhstan and Mongolia.) I’ll be interested to compare my memory of this taste of the Siberian forest with the real thing in a couple of weeks. The trees’ names were foreign even when I translated a few of them: Tibetan barberry, whole-leaf fir, Siberian linden.


Below are a few pictures of the Siberian-forest part of the garden.

I guess this speaks to the preconceptions I have about Siberia, but I was surprised how few evergreens were in the “Siberian” woods. As the above photos show, the trees were mainly deciduous, some with extravagant flowers at this time of year. Maybe this woods is modeled after southern Siberia more than northern regions. If so, the forests near Baikal may be more deciduous than I expected. I’m really looking forward to making the comparison.

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A Slice of History in Suzdal Wed, 02 May 2018 16:50:07 +0000 Coming from gigantic Moscow, which you could live in for years without seeing all of, Suzdal was another world. Suzdal is so small that you can easily walk across the whole town, and our four-hour walking tour covered most of it while stopping frequently to look at historical sites.

There are five monasteries in Suzdal today, and ten thousand people in the town. There used to be fifteen monasteries in pre-Soviet times. The residents are clearly proud of Suzdal’s history as a pious city. There is a regulation that prevents new buildings from being raised more than two or three stories, so that they don’t block the view of the innumerable churches and bell towers, many from medieval times, that still dominate the skyline.


We got to walk to the top of one of these bell towers.

This tower belongs to the Rizopolozhenskii women’s monastery. The view from the top of the tower, as shown in the photo below, was incredible. It was a nice early spring day, and I could see the fields and forests surrounding the town on all sides. There was a part of the town with modern (though still short) buildings, but for the most part it was easy to imagine past centuries when you look at the modest dwellings and golden domes.

What is hard to guess from the peaceful, touristy atmosphere of Suzdal today is that it was once a political center. The rulers of Suzdal were connected by blood to powerful Kiev in the 12th century, and later the princes of the Suzdal/Vladimir area overtook Kiev in prominence. In the 13th century this Rostov-Suzdal Principality would move its capital to Moscow, where the concept of Russia was born.


All this is evidenced by the presence of a women’s monastery (Pokrovsky Monastery) in Suzdal that was specifically for aristocratic nuns. Looking at its gleaming white walls, I thought that probably many of them were unwanted wives, daughters, or dowagers of contemporary princes.

But today, Suzdal is filled with tourists instead of former princesses. The day I was there, there were only a few stalls lined up on the market square in Suzdal. Most of it was empty.

That was enough to satisfy my craving for a meat pirozhok, but it must have been much busier when Suzdal was the capital of a principality in the 12thcentury. Still today, though, a million tourists visit Suzdal each year, according to our tour guide. It’s clear that Suzdal is one of a kind, combining symbolic and historical significance with quaint tourist appeal.




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A Skyscraper for a Dorm Mon, 09 Apr 2018 10:39:04 +0000 After a couple of weeks at Moscow State University (MGU in Russian), I still find it crazy that I live in a skyscraper. Our dorm rooms are in the massive 31-story “Glavnoye Zdanye” (GZ), or Main Building, of the university. I was convinced for the whole first week I was here that the path between my room and my classes took me through the main entrance of the building.

Why wouldn’t I think that? The entrance and exit are both manned by guards and protected by a fence. An ornate gold-touched clock and barometer hang from the exterior. But I discovered, as soon as I wandered around to the back of the building, that the façade I’d been so wowed and intimidated by was actually just the back door.

On the other side is a fabulous viewing platform offering a view of Moscow. (Spot the golden onion dome in the picture below!)

This brick and stone platform at this real entrance is flanked by bronze statues of serious students, two victory columns with hammer-and-sickle medallions, and two paths curving down to street level. With all this, the impression that the GZ gives is one of grandeur. More than anything else, it looks like a center of government. It definitely doesn’t fit the usual image of a university dorm.

The interior is similarly surprising. Many of the hallways are so cavernous that they are almost like streets in themselves. There are several dining halls and snack stands, the bookstore, and even a shop that fixes broken objects. There is also a geological museum on the uppermost floors, and of course, a lot of living space. I haven’t been able to find a figure on how many people live in the GZ, but I can assure you it’s enough to fill a small town in Minnesota. I’ve even seen couples with dogs coming out of certain sectors of the building more than once. I don’t know who they are—maybe graduate students—but there must be a variety of living quarters within the GZ, not only doubles for undergraduates like me.

It’s been a little intimidating coming from a small college like Carleton to study at the university of a world capital, but I feel like I’m learning my way around. As with the city of Moscow itself, I’ve been learning my own accustomed routes and favorite places. Things like which dining hall is better for what, how to find the laundry service, even which door handle is loose and has to be turned differently. I appreciate the chance to get used to this cosmopolitan environment, because the longer I inhabit it, the more I feel at home here.

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