Is anyone else out there glad it’s Friday? Economist husband had his first week of work this week, and I’m excited to get him back for the weekend. Also, it’s almost Easter! Muscovites, look out for pussy willow branches showing up outside your metro stop. Here in MN, we are headed outside this morning to find some in the woods near our house (it’s like подмосковье here)
David Greene was NPR’s bureau chief in Moscow for a few years (he now hosts Morning Edition). I actually met him and his wife Rose a few times when we were there. This book follows Greene and his colleague, Sergei, on a journey along the Trans Siberian Railroad. It’s full of anecdotes, meetings with Russians of every age and background, and endless cups of tea.
Greene says just about everything I would like to say about modern day Russia. He obsesses over the question of why Russians don’t seem to want democracy in their country. Here are a few quotes I really liked:
“The trip has been grueling, frustrating, exciting, with unexpected twists at every step…often I’m in the dark because I don’t know the language. …what a metaphor for how Russians approach their lives. In a way I feel that’s how the Russian government keeps citizens in the dark – laws are never clear, courts are unreliable, punishments are arbitrary – it’s like living in a place where the people in charge are speaking a language you never understand. And consider what that does to any impulse to speak up.” -David Greene
“For seventy years this was a country where the government could come to your rescue. But rescue from what? Maybe that was Stalin’s magic. He created the feeling of chaos, fear, and confusion so people – from Central Asia to the streets of Moscow – needed him, needed government. They had no other choice.” -David Greene
“I just stood there, gazing out into this vast, white Siberian landscape that was lit by the moon at midnight. I felt melancholy, this feeling that Russians are living in some sad darkness, unable to see the future that could await them if they only fought harder. And yet something about the poetry of the place, the pain people have been through, the laughter and strength and kindness from so many I’ve met, all made me want to smile.” -David Greene
“This is a country where, for years, people were taught that if they had a mundane problem – the electricity or water service went out – they could call the local Soviet authorities and the problem might be promptly fixed. But if they saw something unjust or awful, the wisest choice could be to simply ignore it or move past it. People were not taught to raise questions – because doing so could be dangerous, and really there was nowhere to turn for answers anyway. A foundation of Communist ideology and Soviet power was keeping people convinced that they had to accept their fate as it was – and that, in the end, this would be better for everyone. But this philosophy remains in the DNA, passed from one generation to the next…” – David Greene
Will you read it? I can definitely recommend it.
What are you reading at the moment? Any recommendations for the rest of us?
I came across a photo project the other day, and thought you’d like to see it. Keen Heick-Abildhauge, a Dutch photographer who has lived in Russia took pictures of people aged 1-100, and arranged them in chronological order. When he took the pictures he asked people what they thought about and dreamed about.
The project turned out to be a powerful one. You can check it out here.
Moscow, Facebook tells me, is dripping wet and cool. I remember those long, gray spring days – revolted by the garbage, carcasses, cigarette butts under rotten snow. The calendar told us it was spring, but we kept getting slapped in the face by surprise snow storms. After a few years I realized it was no use hoping for real spring until the first week of May!
Hang in there – sun and green will be here before you know it!
A few links to brighten up your early spring weekend:
Friends, it’s been almost a year since I’ve been in a Moscow newsroom. It was my home for almost five years, and I miss it a lot! Miss Anna Grace is getting older, and we are beginning to settle down here in MN, so I’m beginning to look for a journalism job here in the U.S.
There are some things, however, that I will forever miss about my news agency job in Moscow:
THE PEOPLE – cranky cameramen, sweet-toothed photographers, scatter-brained fellow producers, and all the brilliant minds, hard workers, and even big egos at the office.
THE COLORFUL WILD EAST NEWS: weasels in the Ukrainian sewer system, elks in Moscow, dog-sled racing in Siberia, Kyrgyz gold mines, Moscow hipsters, Russian road crashes, and asteroids falling from the sky.
THE GIGANTIC CIS PERSONALITIES: Putin, Lukashenko, Onischenko, Zhirinovsky, Lavrov, Astakhov, Kadyrov. These people make news like nowhere else in the world.
ACCREDITED BACKSTAGE PASSES: getting to go to all these interesting shoots with a license to ask questions, and stick my nose in places it wouldn’t normally be welcomed – backstage at the Bolshoi, in Russian courtrooms, outrunning riot police in the middle of a street protest; interviewing performance artists in dark alleys at 2am; staking out the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; sitting on on human rights pressers.
It’s honestly really hard to move on – I won’t ever get to sit in on a news desk like this in the U.S. But that’s the hard homesick lie of moving to a new country, isn’t it? That your new life will never be as interesting as your old life.
It is, in the end, a lie, however. So, here’s to the NEW interesting life, and whatever work and people it brings.
What about you, friends? Is there anything you’re having a hard time saying goodbye to? Are there any ways you’re afraid of what the future will bring?
You know, one of the hard things about Minnesota, and the U.S.A. is the small talk. Have you noticed? Beginner conversations are all about the weather, or the clothes you’re wearing, or what you do at your job. Does anyone actually enjoy small talk? Granted, it can be socially disarming, but no one wants to stay in a conversation about the weather for very long. No one goes home at night and thinks about the great conversation they had about the weather that day.
I’m as guilty as the next person of wallowing in small talk. Small talk can be a great way to start a conversation, but more often than not, I use it as an excuse; a wall; a stalling technique to keep things from getting too deep and personal.
But how do you move beyond small talk? How do you get to the good stuff? The conversations that help you really get to know someone? The conversations that help you connect? This is something I wonder; information that could be really useful to someone like me who’s just moved to a new city.
Brandon Stanton, the guy who runs the Humans of New York blog/feed is an EXPERT at moving into deep conversations.
Here is his advice for getting past the small talk into a meaningful conversation. This is the technique he uses when interviewing people:
1) Approach someone from the front (i.e. don’t startle them from behind), and get down at their level. Don’t creep them out, and don’t lord it over them. Also, try to be relaxed/comfortable in your own skin – this will subconsciously help the person you’re talking to be relaxed.
2) Ask them an intro question (he asks if he can take someone’s picture, but you could just as legitimately ask about the weather, or about where you can get a glass of water)
3) Then follow up with a broad question. Some of the questions Stanton asks include:
What is your greatest struggle right now?
What has been your saddest moment?
What has been your happiest moment?
Who has had the most influence on your life?
When was the moment you felt most afraid? Most let-down? (all these emotion questions are usually attached to pivotal moments in our lives, and come attached to great stories)
Give one piece of advice
4) The first answer people give is usually a broad, non-specific answer (There’s safety in answering generally – you don’t really reveal anything.). Use this answer as a jumping-off point to go into a deeper conversation. For example, if the advice people give is to “be optimistic”, or “take risks”, ask them about a time they weren’t optimistic, or a time they didn’t take risks that they really regretted.
5) Enjoy the conversation you’ve started, and the new person you’re getting to know! Have the guts to answer questions yourself, and keep the conversation going…
Stanton uses this interview technique to great success. He recently interviewed President Barak Obama. Here are the answers he got:
Have you seen the trailer yet for The Russian Woodpecker? It’s a documentary about a radar at Chernobyl that some people think is responsible for the meltdown. It looks weird, and good at the same time. A friend of mine recently interviewed the producer, and she said they were interesting.
The Guardian said it was “a rollicking ride of masterly narrative construction unlike any other documentary in Sundance.”
Will you see it? There are screenings in the U.S. (in the Midwest!), UK, Australia and Ukraine.
Let’s not go into specifics of how many times I’ve ventured outside in the last three months. It’s a bit embarrassing. Minnesota has been SO COLD lately! We are aching for spring. Thankfully, we were able to take advantage of a short thaw last weekend to get out and rid ourselves of a bad case of cabin fever.
Did you realize that since Russia invaded Ukraine the ruble has plummeted, the Russian economy has tanked, BUT Putin’s popularity is higher than ever?
People are always surprised to hear this. I myself am always surprised to hear this. How can this be? A recent article by Gary Shteyngart explains the phenomenon well: it’s Russian TV!
“What a powerful weapon Putin’s television is. How skillfully it combines nostalgia, malice, paranoia and lazy humor; how swiftly it both dulls the senses and raises your ire.” -Gary Shteyngart
“This is geopolitics as middle-school homeroom. Like an ambitious tween who longs for social success, Russia wants to be both noticed and respected. The invasion of Crimea and the bloody conflict in Eastern Ukraine got the world’s attention, but now the cool nations are no longer inviting Russia for unsupervised sleepovers, and the only kids still leaving notes on Russia’s locker are Kim Jon-un and Raul Castro.” -Gary Shteyngart
I’ve always talked about Russia’s current leadership being similar to a bunch of pubescent teenage boys with Napoleon complexes. Gary Shteyngart says it with a bit more eloquence. Fantastic article, and well worth a read!
P.S. metro photo, which so perfectly encapsulates the Russian mentality by Ilya Varlamov found here.
Have you been following the news out of Ukraine? It can all turn into a wash of distant information, don’t you think? Politics, prejudice, and stories like a geopolitical football game you’d watch on TV, or some unrealistic giant game of Risk you hear about on the radio. It’s hard to get a grasp on the truth of what life there really tastes like.
A friend of mine who’s a journalist working in Ukraine recently posted a link to the work of a Donetsk artist. The art is captivating – such a realistic glimpse of the post-Soviet reality in the CIS. Looking at the paintings made me feel instantly transported to the gritty neighborhoods, grocery stores, and courtyards of Donetsk. These look like scenes I can actually remember from the bus or electrichka, or walking to get my shoes repaired in a Moscow suburb.
Have a look:
Such strange and lovely post-Soviet moments, don’t you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Do you have any favorite artists from the CIS?
P.S. please check out more of Angela Dzherikh’s work here and here.
Friends, there’s been a lot of nostalgic sniffling for Moscow around here. Feeling homesick for Russia definitely happens, but that is by far not the full picture. The truth is that life is pretty great here in the U.S. Of course there are good days and bad days, but slowly, slowly life is starting to take shape here.
Some of the developments are loud, like economist husband getting two job offers in one week (!) just recently. (How very helpful and stabilizing!) Mostly, though, it’s quiet things that blink silently into our lives, and then stay put, growing into substance and shape, filling our lives with texture and rhythm. These are things I’m thankful for. These are things I delight in. These are things that make me feel rich.
As proof, I present to you a list of recent American favorites:
Finding a few babysitters that are sweet, and near by, and totally affordable
Mom, sister, brother. Always. They’re the best. And now they live just minutes away
Almond flour (impossible to find in Moscow) + salted butter (you used to be able to get it. Has it been banned now?)
Writing work that keeps me thinking, growing, creating. I love writing. I love working. I love hashing things out with smart people
Bible Study Fellowship. Why have I never heard of this before? They’re so organized. So great. I get to go on Monday nights for a lesson, and then have little homework assignments all week. This is learning and devotion I’ve been craving.
The library. I love the library so so much. I’m not sure there’s anything that makes me feel richer than leaving the library with an armful of FREE books!
Dark salted chocolate. Mandarin oranges.
Friends that have let me back into their lives. Phone calls. Lunch dates. Long talks
Anna Grace. She’s giving hugs now, you know. When she sees me come into the room her face lights up, and then, when she’s in my arms she nestles her fuzzy little head into my neck. Be still my heart! So THIS is what it means to have a daughter…
Economist husband likes it here. He’s found tennis lessons near by. He’s found not just one job, but two. It’s only been two months, and he’s beginning to feel comfortable in his own skin. The other day he told me he didn’t want to go back to Russia. It’s big stuff, people.
What about you, friends? In the midst of whatever difficulty you’re facing, what’s developing? What’s taking shape? What’s bringing gratitude to your days?
As a last aside, don’t you wish you had more faith and trust sometimes that God was going to pull you through? Looking back, I can see that He has always come through. And now, I can see Him piecing things together, building our lives. If only I would have more faith ahead of time, and in the thick of things…
What, my fellow internationals, makes a place feel like home for you? Family? Friends? A favorite pillow? A place to prepare breakfast? A drawer in which to store your socks? A wall on which to hang your favorite prints and postcards?
I’m sure you, like me, know home is much more complicated than that. It involves memories attached to streets and buildings and certain shades of light. It involves friends you can call up for adventures and favors. It involves work you are pursuing. It involves investing in banks, and in relationships, and in homes whose walls you’ve painted.
I’ve been struggling with feeling at home lately. Minnesota does not feel like a place I want to be right now. I miss the buzz of twenty-thirty-something ambition that you get in cities. I miss the arts, and the history, and the shock of the foreign unknown we had in Moscow. I miss my job. I miss my multi-lingual friends, and all their dreams and plans.
I miss my old life. Is it possible my life here will ever be as interesting as it was over there?
There was one day, early this month, when Minnesota felt like home. We went to an art museum filled with Ojibwe beaded vests, and Sioux robes, and plastic Matisse cut-outs for baby to play with. We invited friends over, and burned our Christmas tree in a bonfire, and drank hot cider in the back yard. We talked about a big life decision, and we were brutally honest, and the conversation made my heart pound. Then we watched a movie, staying up late into the night, talking politics, religion, family histories.
It was a day full of bright colors, and purpose. It was a brief flash into what I hope a life here will look like. Because, for the most part, while I hate to sound whiny, life here feels boring and swampy, like I’m half-alive. It’s the combination of joblessness, parenting a toddler, and feeling smothered by a new life that doesn’t quite fit. It’s like trying to wade through mud. I’m desperate to get going, to work, to engage with something, but am unsure of where to invest, where to work.
Coming back home is very much, in the words of Robin Pascoe, “…like grieving. You’re grieving the loss of a life. It doesn’t mean that the new life you’re going to create for yourself isn’t going to be a marvelous life… (it’s just that) like the stages of grief, you need to go through them…”
I wish there was some sort of short-track to feeling at home again, but I’m afraid it’s a process that just needs to be lived through. Repatriation, they say, is something that takes between 18 months to two years.
What about you, fellow re-patriates? Any advice for adjusting to life back at home?