jonlinc – Moscow 2018 Sun, 03 Jun 2018 13:49:15 +0000 en hourly 1 The Sounds of Siberia Sun, 03 Jun 2018 13:49:15 +0000 To accompany a previous post, The Sounds and Songs of Moscow, I have compiled a collection of the sounds I heard in Siberia. These sounds portray the peaceful, magical atmosphere found on Lake Baikal, the light solitude of the woods, and the rickety chugging of a train on an old railway. More than that, however, these sounds capture the spirit of the region of Siberia surrounding Baikal; this spirit is breathing, pulsing, full of life and constant movement.


  1. Ringing the bell at a Datsan (a Buddhist monastery), with Anna Mikhailovna cheering us on
  2. Icy southeastern shores of Baikal
  3. Baikal at an empty swimming beach near Barguzin
  4. Perched above the Angara River at sunset, near a family eating ice cream
  5. In the woods, birds and quiet
  6. Rhythmic footsteps on a wooden trail
  7. Train passing through Tanhoy


You may notice that none of these recordings come from our journey in the steppe region south of Baikal, near Kyakhta and the Mongolian border. I found this land to be dark and lifeless, even while the sun was shining or light flakes of snow melted into my hair on the top of a hill. To me, the sound of the steppe is an uninviting silence.

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Connecting the Trans-Siberian Railway Fri, 01 Jun 2018 13:08:08 +0000 Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway began at the turn of the 20th century. Today, the map is quite extensive, carrying passengers and supplies across Russia, central Mongolia, and Manchuria.

rr map

Constructing a railway was no easy task, and at first the map did not look like this. Lake Baikal, covered in ice for six months of the year and surrounded by steep mountains, stood in the way of a completed Trans-Siberian line. Desperately needing to transport soldiers and provisions from one side of the country to the other during the Russo-Japanese war, Russia strained to connect the lines between Irkutsk, on the western side of Baikal, and Ulan Ude, on the eastern side of the lake. Under the guidance of Tsar Alexander III, who is remembered by a statue in central Irkutsk, the Russians built two ice-breaking ships.

good ol' alex III

Tsar Alexander III in central Irkutsk

The first ship, the SS Angara, is now docked in Irkutsk as a museum. It is named after the Angara river, which is the only river that flows out of the lake rather than into it. This ship carried passengers and supplies across Baikal between mid-April and late December. Three different eastern ports were attempted until Tanhoy was established as the shortest route to the western port of Lestvyanka, and, depending o=n the amount of ice on the lake, the journey took approximately 4.5 hours from one side to the other. The second ship, the SS Baikal, carried not only passengers and supplies, but also train cars. The SS Baikal was destroyed by fire during the civil war in 1920.

ss angara

SS Angara

At 9 pm on our last night in Irkutsk I was lucky enough to catch someone still at the museum, a docent named Stass. He offered to give me a brief personal tour of the ship, in Russian, with his five-year-old grandson trailing behind and proudly stating the facts he already knew. First, Stass brought me below decks to the engine room. He told me that while the boat was still in use, the main engine was powered by three stoves worked by 18 men at all times. Some essential engine parts were made in New York, and experts from London helped to engineer the ship, including the ice-breaking hull. I liked that Stass mentioned Russia’s openness to international cooperation, because the country’s current climate sends a message of “every man or country for himself”.


Stoves in the SS Angara


SS Angara engine room

The lower and upper decks of the ship were spacious and included four small life rafts. The main cabins were also quite comfortable, with a piano and pleasant upholstery. By 1947, the SS Angara was no longer used for transportation, as the railway line through the mountains on Baikal’s southern shore had been completed. The boat was used for a short time as a research vessel before being converted into a museum. Today, the cabins serve as museum exhibitions, containing models of boats, old navigation equipment and maps.

upper deck

Upper deck

maps of lake

Maps of Baikal

I thanked Stass for the tour. He said he was glad to talk to me, and was interested how I, a young American, had ended up in Irkutsk, as most tourists are Chinese or Korean. He apologized for not knowing a single word of English – like many Russians I’ve talked to, Stass thought of English competency as an essential life skill, a skill that he was embarrassed not to have.

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Zoom Bump Bounce Fri, 01 Jun 2018 12:44:15 +0000 A trip to Buryatia, Siberia (see feature image) is incomplete without spending hours upon hours bumping and bouncing in a bus. A bus takes you through multiple climates, ecological zones and types of existence. After nine days of long bus rides, one day of which eleven hours were spent on the bus, I gained an understanding of Buryatia and what goes on there. This blog features the things I saw on the side of the road, caught in fleeting moments as we sped by in our beloved bus.

  1. Torn up roads. We were lucky to encounter the number of paved roads that we did, but a large portion of roads are still made of dirt, with plenty of holes and bumps. Our driver, Ruslan, kept us safe and sane, avoiding the worst of the car-sickness-inducing terrain.torn up roads
  2. Trash and tires. Waste is strewn over the ground everywhere – bottles, plastic bags, you name it.trash
  3. Animals. Cows and dogs frequently block traffic, and on the sides of the road they are joined by horses, birds, cats, and goats.cows block road
  4. Potato man. This Mr. Potato Head look-alike stands by the road between Ulan Ude and Kyakhta, waving at passers-by. Photo credit: Julia Preston.potato man
  5. Shamanistic spirits. This carved log is stuck in the ground among the trees, with an owl-like face and arms folded in front, reminding me of No Face in Hayao Miyasaki’s Spirited Away. It is a shamanistic spirit, several of which I saw around Buryatia.spirit
  6. Burnt forest. Dark scars made by wild fires appear across the region, bringing into contrast the whiteness of living birch.burnt forest
  7. Graves. This picture was taken in a graveyard of exiled Jews, but single-person burial markers dot every road in the region.jewish grave
  8. Tanks. A couple dozen tanks sit lined up on the side of a mountain in the steppe region southeast of Lake Baikal. Why they are there, I cannot say, but it may have to do with the nearby border crossing into Mongolia. Photo credit: Maya Costales.tanks

It’s surprising how much one can learn simply by looking. I can’t say I’ll miss sitting for hours in a crowded bus, but I am glad to have seen Buryatia in all its beauty and diversity.

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The Sounds and Songs of Moscow Wed, 16 May 2018 16:32:06 +0000 Do you ever stand still in a city, close your eyes, and simply sense? What do you hear? What do you smell? Are you cold, is there a breeze, are you holding someone’s hand? This is one of my favorite exercises to do when I go to an unfamiliar place, or when I want to defamiliarize a familiar place. Unfortunately, I am unable to digitally capture all five senses, so here is a compilation of my favorite sounds in Moscow. Sounds too subtle for my brave little iPhone – footsteps in the Pushkin Museum, cars swishing by on the bridge over Park Kultury, echoing laughter that travels up the walls of MGU, conversations in different languages layering on top of each other in Red Square – will have to remain only in my memory.

Please close your eyes when listening to each clip. Feel the train rumbling beneath your feet and the scrunching in your toes as you try to balance. Sense the vibration of air that weaves between crowds of people around you. Touch the smooth, cool marble walls of the tunnel. Moscow has an energy like no other city, and I share this with you in hopes that you feel its energy too.


Train from Moscow arriving in Vladimir:


Metro car stopping at Frunzenskaya Station, with Moscow’s famous “Ostorozhno, dveri zakryvayutsya” – “Caution, the doors are closing”:


Busking in the passage between Ohotny Ryad and Teatralnaya metro stations:


Chistiye Prudy neighborhood on a sunny afternoon:


Easter 1 – this song is sung for “Krestny hod”, the religious procession taking place during Russian Orthodox Easter celebrations. This clip was taken during an Easter midnight mass on April 8th, but I have heard the song in various religious spaces since then. The loudest male voice is the priest:


Easter 2 – also taken during midnight mass, singing about Christ rising:


Music in the crowd above Sparrow Hills before the fireworks on Victory Day, May 9th, which celebrates the Russian victory over the Nazis. A slightly drunken affair:


Out for a nighttime walk through Sparrow Hills:

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Tickets to the Bolshoi Theater Tue, 15 May 2018 20:38:07 +0000 To see a show at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater you can simply go online and buy a ticket at the official website. But where’s the fun in that? And why pay such a hefty price? Here’s the story of how I got my ticket to the best ballet in the world.

When arriving in Moscow, I heard murmurings of a mysterious method for students to acquire tickets to the Bolshoi Theater by showing up in a line somewhere at 3:00 in the afternoon. Last Friday, Oliver, Julia B. and I decided to do just that. After class we took the metro to Охотный Ряд/Ohotny Ryad station, which lets out right in front of the Bolshoi. To the left of the theater we spotted a building with a sign in front that read кассы/kassy, or “ticket office”.

The касса is in the yellow building ahead, and the theater is off-screen to the right.

The касса is in the yellow building ahead, and the theater is off-screen to the right.

It was 3:00 exactly. We approached the ticket office, and a sign on the door told us that the office was closed until 4:00. No one was around except for an older lady and a young woman who looked to be a college student, dressed in every-day clothing. As Oliver, Julia and I discussed what to do, the young woman asked us, “Are you students?” We answered affirmatively, after which she handed us a torn-out piece of notebook paper. “Write your name on this,” she told us. On the sheet of paper were already written 31 names, scrawled with different pens in a range of illegible Russian handwriting. Shrugging, we added our names, numbered 32, 33 and 34. The young woman told us to come back at 4:00. What?!?

We returned at 3:55. Student-age people milled around in front of the ticket office, chatting. The young woman we’d talked to still sat where we saw her earlier. At 4:00, the young woman stood up at the top of the steps leading to the ticket office, and the students in the area gathered around her. Muttering that she had a quiet voice, the young woman gave the list of names to someone standing nearby, and that person proceeded to call out each name on the list. Everyone duly formed a line in front of the steps after hearing their name.

When all names were called, a security guard came out of the ticket office, and he began to allow students to enter, eight or ten at a time. Finally, someone official! When Oliver, Julia and I entered the ticket office, we were happy to discover that the rumor was true, and these tickets only cost 100 rubles. For context, that’s a mere $1.61 at the current U.S. exchange rate. All it took was a quick flash of my Moscow State University student ID, and the ticket seller handed me my golden ticket.

I got a ticket!

I got a ticket!

With tickets in hand at 4:15, we killed some time at a café and returned for the ballet at 6:45. It took us a little while to realize that the “seats” listed on our tickets as стоячее место/stoyacheye mesto, “standing place”, really did mean that we were about to stand for the three-hour ballet. However, we didn’t mind at all; the ballet, Легенда о любви/Legenda o lyoobvi or “Legend of Love”, was INCREDIBLE. The performance was easily the best dance I’ve ever seen. Perched atop the highest row of the highest balcony (of which there are six), we had a view of the whole auditorium, the orchestra pit, and, of course, the ballet itself. Binoculars purchased for a whopping 150 rubles allowed us to see the dancers as if from the front row.

Julia and Oliver got styleeee

Julia and Oliver got styleeee

Who the young woman was who handed us the list of names, we’ll never know. My recommendation for future students who want to go to the Bolshoi Theater – which should be every student who ever finds him or herself in Moscow – is to do what I did. Show up at a ticket office and go with it. Non-students may also be able to acquire tickets in this manner; I saw several adults in the ticket office who seemed to be waiting for all the students to get tickets before they could vie for their own. Overall, the process was in fitting with a common theme I have discovered in Russia: even if something happens circuitously or unintuitively, it happens nonetheless, so give it a go and you won’t be disappointed.

What a view!

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Murom – a Place for Learning Tue, 08 May 2018 13:41:15 +0000 A few weeks ago, I partook in a 24 hour trip with five other Carleton students to Murom, a small town southeast of Vladimir. The purpose of this trip was educational exchange; we spent the day with first-year students who study English at the Murom Institute, a branch of Vladimir State University. We (Carleton students) began by giving presentations in English about aspects of American culture that interest us, then spent time in the Murom Institute classroom to get to know the students.

Marly, teaching a song from a Minnesotan summer camp.

Marly, teaching a song from a Minnesotan summer camp.

Afterward, the Murom students took us on a tour of town. We started in the Murom Institute museum so they could tell us about the history of the school, then we hopped on a bus to the center of town where most historical sites are located. The students brought us to over a dozen locations, and at each location, a Murom student gave a small presentation about the history and significance of the place in English. My favorites are shown below.

Inside the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Monastery, the oldest monastery in Murom

Inside the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Monastery, the oldest monastery in Murom

A building containing old bells, backed by the Oka River (the building was unfortunately closed to the public during our visit)

A building containing old bells, backed by the Oka River (the building was unfortunately closed to the public during our visit)

Statue of Ilya Muromets, the town’s namesake, featuring students from Carleton and the Murom Institute

Statue of Ilya Muromets, the town’s namesake, featuring students from Carleton and the Murom Institute

This trip proved to be educational in a manner that Moscow has not yet been able to offer. First, it was interesting to experience the role of language-knower rather than language-learner; we spoke slowly and simply in English in order for the Murom students to understand, and when they could not think of a word during conversation, we suggested words to help them respond. This must be the same process that Russian speakers go through when we struggle to keep up in a complex conversation in Russian (although everyone’s language skills have noticeably improved in the last six weeks).

Second, these students were fun and easy to talk to and connect with, and I don’t think this was due to our speaking in English. These students were open and friendly, speaking about their hobbies and life experiences more freely than I have encountered in Moscow. I speculate that this has to do with the slower pace of life and small size of Murom as compared to Moscow; in order to keep busy in Murom, people do not have the option of eating at one of thousands of cafes or walking through museum after museum. Instead, they turn to each other, drinking tea on a dormitory balcony or spending time at home with family. This may be obvious to those who grew up in a small town in the U.S., but coming from a big city, I was struck by how much Murom as a place was tied to the people who live there.

A big thank you to Diane and the Philology Department at the Murom Institute for organizing this incredible experience.

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Saint Petersburg Inside and Out Sun, 06 May 2018 18:57:48 +0000 The historical city center of Saint Petersburg is indisputably gorgeous. Sparkling canals are crossed by artfully curving bridges, and the skyline is peppered with cathedrals, spires, and monuments that pay tribute to the city’s rich history from 1703 onward. Strolling along Ekaterininsky Canal after sundown, one is struck by the reflections of timeless architecture and gold streetlamps on smooth water, and it is impossible not to relive the passions and tragedies of the city as portrayed by Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky. However, after spending over a month in Moscow, Saint Petersburg felt strange to me. I felt as though I was living inside a bubble of Europeanness and surface-level wealth, a place where dreams might only remain as dreams. Saint Petersburg’s city center lacked the true, passionate, deeply Russian atmosphere found in Moscow.

Ekaterininsky Canal near our hotel

Ekaterininsky Canal near our hotel

Several years ago, I visited Saint Petersburg with my family. One distinct memory I have is of riding the metro far from the city center to an area dominated by Soviet-style apartment blocks and endless concrete. On our last day in Saint Petersburg this time around, I wanted to take a similar trip to the outer reaches of the city in order to confirm my memory that Saint Petersburg is more than just palaces and golden domes, and to break out of the European bubble.

My quest was successful. I rode the purple line northwest to Staraya Derevnya (Old Village) Station, where there were no more balconies overlooking upscale cafes and souvenir shops, or signs in English pointing thousands of selfie-snapping tourists to the Hermitage. The district was distinctly Russian: multi-lane streets, American chain restaurants in need of fresh paint, people in comely clothing that went out of style a couple years ago in the United States, and a few well-mown green spaces that looked inviting but were entirely empty. Apartment blocks stood tall and boxy, but they were new and well-kept. A short walk from the station granted a view of the not-yet-complete Lakhta Center, which is to be the tallest building in Europe, and I passed by rusting train tracks located in front of an industrial smokestack and the frame of a building of crumbling concrete. Although Moscow contains much more than these features, this district fit with the perception of “Russianness” that I have gathered since arriving in March. It felt homey.

The Lakhta Center, disappearing into cloud

The Lakhta Center, disappearing into cloud


Smokestack and building frame

Smokestack and building frame

After walking past “School Number 64”, I stopped to talk to a young woman walking her dog and asked about the relation between the area we were in versus the center of the city. This woman has lived in Saint Petersburg for sixteen years and rides the metro to the city center when she has time, mainly to go shopping on Nevsky Prospect. This woman spoke about the city center casually, and I got the sense that she did not share my (rather inexperienced) perception that the city center is spiritually disconnected from the city outskirts.

School Number 64

School Number 64


Persik (Peach), the young woman's dog

Persik (Peach), the young woman’s dog

Although I greatly appreciate the beauty, history, and poetic soul of Saint Petersburg’s city center, I was glad to have experienced a normal district that is not immersed in literary mystique and tales of Peter and Catherine the Great. The greatest distinction between the center and this outskirt district fell in line with Saint Petersburg’s famous clash between East and West: Staraya Derevnya had the architecture, city planning, language and general atmosphere of the East, while the city center had that of the West. Visiting this district also served as a reminder that, like any city, Saint Petersburg is a place ordinary people call home.

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Who Are You? Mon, 09 Apr 2018 14:15:58 +0000 “Where are you from? Why would you ever want to study Russian? Do you like Moscow? Who are you?” These are the questions I’m greeted with each day as I make my way around the city, talking to servers at restaurants, coaches at gymnastics gyms, Russian students who live on my floor at МГУ (Moscow State University), and anyone else who will patiently listen to my slow and broken Russian speech.

As an American student who since high school has been dying to study abroad, I came here full of curiosity – curiosity about culture, language, politics, city planning, social roles and expectations, moral pursuits, perceptions of inequality… the list is endless.  The sociology major in me is excited by observing patterns in social behavior and by finding differences between Moscow and my hometown (Seattle) or other U.S. cities. I take notes on sights, sounds, smells and flavors – even at Pancho Villa, a Mexican restaurant in the heart of Moscow where six of us ate dinner last night, and where we spoke to the waiter in a combination of English, Spanish and Russian. What a strange experience!

pancho villa

Pancho Villa

But somehow, upon arrival in this magnificent city, I was not prepared to respond to the curiosity that Russians experience when they meet me. Russians cannot tell by first glance that I’m a foreigner; I am sure of this because, today alone, three people have stopped me to ask for directions. However, my wonky Russian speech quickly gives me away. Once it does, people assume  a half- smile, at once curious, restrained, and tactful. This is quite often followed by “Where are you from?” in accented English.


Crowds at the Victory Day Parade. Here, I talked to a man who works at a nearby bar.

By attending gymnastics classes by myself, I have had the opportunity to converse more extensively with Russian speakers. My coach has asked me many questions that he knows may be sensitive, and he is obviously restraining himself from asking them all at once or in an impolite manner. “What do you think of Trump? How about Putin? What’s your opinion on Ukraine, and gay people, and diplomatic sanctions?” I attempt to answer truthfully, but neutrally, often repeating that these matters are complicated, and part of why I’m here is because I want to understand these issues from more than just an American perspective (not that there’s only one). I ask these same questions of my coach, and by doing so I am slowly starting to better understand his mentality.


Angar18, one of the gyms I went to

In this way, cultural exchange seems effortless. People are naturally curious about the lives and countries of others, especially when two countries such as Russia and the U.S. have a history of dissonance. On a personal level, people can interact, relate, and learn from each other without the veil of bias found in the news, social media, and television. It is natural to assume difference, even if, as I’m finding, Muscovites and Americans are not so different. So, to answer the question “Who are you?”, I can do nothing but tell the truth. “I am a student who is studying your country and is learning to speak your language simply because I’m curious about you, just as you’re curious about me.”

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