Posted by: peripateticone | 2 January 2010

The art of gulyatz-ing

Masha, what did you do last weekend?

I walked with friends.

What did Dmitri do yesterday?

He walked with friends.

What do your friends like to do?

We like to walk with friends.

You might get the impression that Russians spend all their time walking places. Further leading questions (Where did you walk? Did you walk to the theater? Did you walk to school?) doesn’t help clarify anything. To be fair, Russia is a much more pedestrian-inclined country (for social and economic reasons) than the comparatively car-dependent America. But my beginning EFL students weren’t going anywhere- they were really just trying to express the fact that they like гулять (gulyatz). Translated most literally, it does mean to walk, stroll, promenade, but the emphasis here is on really the process, not the destination. This was most obvious when I noticed that I’d left my group of gulyatz-ing friends behind in my American tendency to rush, walking briskly to a specific end. Too often we get caught up in getting somewhere, going there for a reason; going for a stroll seems quaint, if antiquated. Even on a chilly winter night, Russians (though fewer of them) will be out, walking casually along snowy streets. Others may join and leave a group at will. Of course, it’s much more pleasant to gulyatz during the early summer, when daylight stretches into the early hours of the morning in the northern part of the country.

Гулять can also be used more loosely to mean “to hang out”. While gulyatz-ing, I’ve gone bowling, played billiards, and sat in a park with playing cards, drinking some boxed wine. Simply put, гулять is not attached to a place or a reason, it’s a (pretty enjoyable) state of being.

Posted by: peripateticone | 31 December 2009

A Lesson in Russian Higher Education

I attended a college that shares its name with a larger university (though the two are unaffiliated) and have always been adamant about the distinction. In Russia, it turns out this distinction is even more important to make. A колледж (kollege; college) is somewhere between vocational school and high school, though not all students attend and this is generally the less prestigious form of  “higher education”. Университет (universitet; university), on the other hand, is what we would consider most American colleges and universities.


I loved the freedom my college gave me to switch majors a dozen times (okay, maybe more) before I had finally chosen a field of study. My Russian friends had no such luxury- in addition to entering university, they had to enter into a specific факультет (facultyet; department). Some departments at a university are more prestigious than others and most Russians take an entrance exam and score high enough to enter into their department.  Failing that, students either enter a less competitive department or “push” their way in with a few rubles.  Freshmen entering into the same department are placed into a cohort (группа; gruppa), taking all of their classes with this group of students. Cohorts can vary in size, but the most common I’ve seen have ranged from 5-12 students. While most universities require students to take courses outside their chosen department, the options for such courses tend to be fairly limited.

University programs range in length, but the average university student is there for 5 or 6 years (Some can receive a Bakalavr degree- similar to the BA- in 4 years, but it is not considered a “full” undergraduate experience). Classes meet throughout the day; most students stay on/near campus from early morning until mid-evening as a result. And forget blue books, many Russian final exams are oral. There are a few written exams, but the pressure to perform is high regardless. Grades range from 5 (excellent) to 1 (really failing)- though most teachers stop at 2 (failing).


US students generally live in dormitory-type housing for at least a portion of their undergraduate experience- and for many this is the highlight of their time at college. Russians tend to stay within their home city/region for university, however- so most opt to save money (and postpone learning to cook) by living at home with their parents. Russian universities do have dorms, though they are mostly for international students and the students from farther villages. Many students aspire to attend university in Moscow or St. Petersburg; this is one of the rare exceptions where students do live in dormitories (or local apartments). At the same time, many of these students travel home on the weekends, if they happen to live close enough. Dorms at Russian universities tend to be slightly smaller (if possible :)) than American dorm rooms.


Tuition for an academic year at the biggest university in Vladimir varies, averaging around 45,000 rubles. Looks on par with outrageous American fees before the conversion- which (as of today) reveals that Vladimir State University students pay $1,500 for an academic year’s tuition. [Seems decent, until you realize the average Russian salary in 2008 was $640 a month]

During the Soviet Union, education was free, which did wonders for the country’s literacy and college graduation rates.  Now that universities are starting to gradually increase costs each year now that the government doesn’t support them nearly as much (renovations to classrooms and new buildings are rare as a result). Student loans- much like mortagages- are still practically unheard of in Russia; students cough up the funds to go or receive scholarships/stipends from the university. Fortunately, because many parents have gone to college and recognize its importance, they are willing to support their children.

Posted by: peripateticone | 30 December 2009

Just say “da” to dacha!

(photo from

Russians may not live in single family homes, but some own a dacha (дача)- similar to what Americans would consider a “summer home”, but much more common. Most of the people I knew in Russia either had their own dacha (primarily middle class), or knew someone else who did. There are some high-end expensive dachas near Moscow owned by the elite, but the  standard dacha is a very basic wooden home, usually without heat (occasionally without indoor plumbing or electricity). Some dachas are brilliantly painted, others are just basic wood.

Russians sometimes visit their dachas on the weekend (particularly urban dwellers who are sick of Moscow’s rushed pace) or for longer periods of time over the summer. Many dachas have small gardens where they grow vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, radishes, beets) and fruit (berries and apples).

Visiting a dacha is an incredibly fun experience with a group of friends. Cooking (and eating) delicious шашлык (shashlik; shish-kebab) is usually on the docket, as is a bit of drinking and playing card games or games like Kartoshka. You might spend time picking berries or hunting (yes, hunting) mushrooms, depending on the season.

Some families will also build a banya (bathhouse) or sauna out at their dachas (more on banya later!); others have dachas near lakes for swimming. In general, going to the dacha is a time for relaxing and having fun in a nature-oriented environment.

Posted by: peripateticone | 29 December 2009

The Nature

With over 6.5 million square miles of land (10% of the world’s arable supply), it’s hardly a surprise that Chekhov, Pushkin, Yesenin, Levitan and their ilk used nature-heavy themes in their works and that Russians (even in today’s more industrial, technology-driven society) love nature. There are others who have considered the Russian love of nature in a more philosophical sense, but suffice it to say that Russian’s appreciation for nature goes beyond beautiful landscapes; they have a deep and sentimental relationship with the natural world. A few instances that help really drive this home:

Earth- Mushroom Hunting:

My Russian students would often invite me to go “to the nature” (or “in the nature”)- I finally took someone up on the offer to go mushroom hunting ( ). Besides involving a very Russian love of nature, this activity is linked to the country’s history of food shortages (including the devastating блокада Ленинграда; blokada Leningrada; Siege of Leningrad during WWII). Those who couldn’t turn to the stores turned to what they could gather from the ground (hence the prevalence of hardy foods like potatoes and beets in Russian dishes), and mushrooms didn’t even require a garden! I’ve since learned that mushroom hunting is practiced in some places in the US (namely northern California, Oregon, Washington and Appalachia), but I get the sense that it’s much more common in Eastern Europe/Russia. There are dozens and dozens of types of mushrooms, some edible, some deadly, some psychadelic. Of the group of Russians I went with, everyone (from the 50-something engineer to the 8 year old schoolboy) could easily identify the хорошие (khoroshiye; good) from the плохие (plokhiye; bad) mushrooms. I had a hard enough time even finding one, but thanks to the experts, we snagged a few baskets worth. Tara Maginnis  gives a good recounting of her experience mushrooming at a Russian dacha here. Besides being able to prevent ignorant Me from being poisoned, the Russians also had an uncanny sense of where the mushrooms would be (many have favorite locations they return to year after year). The effort so many put into drawing sustenance from nature in an ecologically sound way (mushrooming, berry picking, gardening, making other dairy product from unwanted milk) is something I haven’t really seen paralleled in the US.

Air- Leaf Gathering:

Walking around the city (whether Krasnodar or Vladimir) with a Russian friend, particularly in autumn, we would often stop abruptly to pick up a brilliantly colored leaf. And then another. And then another.  Many Americans think nothing of picking flowers out of the ground, but leaves? My students would present me stunning golden, maroon, and orange bouquets of leaves that they’d gathered on the way to class. Again, Russians opt against destroying nature (picking a flower) in favor of appreciating what the earth has willingly offered up. I found that leaves that I’d consider relatively unremarkable could be seen as uniquely beautiful.

Water- Swimming:

When someone in America asks if I’d like to go swimming, I can almost taste the sharp sting of pool chlorine in my mouth. But in the months and months I spent in Russia, I’ve only ever been to one “typical” swimming pool (and paid a premium for it). Russians love spending time in/near natural bodies of water- I’d argue that the popularity of vacationing in Sochi or Anapa is not so much due to the pleasant weather as it is to the proximity of the expansive Чёрное море (Chyornoe morye; Black Sea). I spent many summer days (and the occasional summer night) at the nearest lake, seeing children dive in from high ledges, old men paddling around in a T-shirt and jeans (or the unfortunate Speedo), women laying on the grass basking in the sun. No lifeguard, no whistles, no concession stand. Of course, there are lakes and rivers that are dirtier than others (Russians will quickly point out the better ones) and my more environmentalist friends are appalled at what’s happening to the Black Sea. But for a relatively land-dependent country, Russians certainly cherish the water.

Then of course there are some Russians who take it to the extreme, not even letting the frigid Russian winter stop their love.

I prefer the banya approach. 🙂

Fire  – Outdoor cooking

While the closest many Americans will get to outdoor cooking (outside of more rustic camping) is grilling on the deck or roasting marshmallows on a bonfire, Russians love a good cook-out in nature. This means loading up groceries (including raw meat and marinade), some basic cooking implements, and friends- then heading off to the nearest forest  (unless you’re in Moscow or Petersburg, this usually means a 20-minute bus ride). Some prepare the meat, while others go off to gather sticks, stones, and brush for the fire (how many non-Boy Scouts do you know that can start a fire from scratch?).  The meat is cooked, cucumbers and tomatoes are sliced, and the loaf (or two) of white bread is distributed, usually along with a beer or two. Forget health codes and sanitation (yes, ignore the flies buzzing around the jar of pickles) and you might just enjoy the experience of eating in nature.

Posted by: peripateticone | 28 December 2009

Musk of a Muscovite

Москва (Moskva; Moscow)- capital of the Russian Federation and home to more than 10 million. There are rich and lively debates over which of Russia’s two “capitals” (with Saint Petersburg, the former administrative capital, serving as the northern/cultural capital) is better, more Russian, or more Western.

Churchill’s  description of Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” may be overused, but I’ve found it entirely appropriate on many levels. Russia is- in a word- a contradiction and Moscow is the living, breathing embodiment of that contradiction. Moscow is a huge, sprawling city (with inhabitants packed into small apartments); architecturally strikingly beautiful (though the buildings are obscured by the ever-present haze of pollution); modern and technologically advanced (with flashing advertisements illuminating leftover Soviet icons scattered throughout the city).

Most foreign tourists visit the Kremlin and Red Square, with a side jaunt to the Tretyakov Gallery. But a few other (slightly less traditional) places I’d recommend in the city:

Mayakovsky Museum [Государственный Музей В.В. Маяковского (Gosudarstvenni Musei V.V. Mayakovskovo)] (English version didn’t load properly for me, but you might luck out)

A totally trippy museum experience, even if you’ve never read any of Mayakovsky’s work. Mayakovsky’s work is surreal (what kind of writer would pen A Cloud in Trousers?), his museum equally so. Won’t ever visit? Check out Виртуалный визит (3D) on the website and you can get a virtual tour.

Novodevichy Cemetery

Perhaps it’s a little morbid to recommend a cemetery for a “fun” visit (have I mentioned there’s no real good word in Russian for “fun”?)- but Lenin’s mausoleum draws hoards every morning- so blame Russia. 🙂 The cemetery has the most interesting gravestones (often in the form of sculptures) I’ve ever seen; for example, a heart surgeon’s grave is decorated with a sculpture of two hands holding a crystal heart. It also holds (basically) all of the other Russian VIPs- Gogol, Chekov, Khrushchev, Prokofiev, Levitan, Eisenstein, etc. There’s also a convent attached to the cemetery.

And, of course, there’s the requisite visit to a Teremok stand. But that’s a topic for another day.

Posted by: peripateticone | 27 December 2009

Дом sweet дом

Once you get beyond the occasionally gritty exterior of Russian apartment buildings, your final test is the stairwell, which will be crowded with old baby strollers and bikes and smell of an odd mix of sausage, vodka, and something you hope isn’t urine. Having survived the climb (the presence of an elevator in a 9-floor apartment building is iffy; whether it works is equally hit or miss) and watched your host unlock one or two padded doors, you’ve been welcomed into a Russian home. You’ll take off your shoes and, if you haven’t brought a pair of тапочки (tapochki; slippers), your host will likely provide a spare set for you.

You  may initially be brought into the living room, but at some point, you’ll find yourself in the kitchen, being fed tea and sweets (if not a full three-course meal). Ignore the milk standing out on the counter (it’s been there for hours at least) and always accept a cup of tea.

Going to a Russian’s home в гости (v gosti; on a visit as a guest) is hardly comparable to visiting friends in an American home. Americans may offer you a drink or snacks; Russians will insist that you have just a little (which quickly becomes more than you may have bargained for) and will be extremely attentive.

Most of the apartments I’ve lived in have been “two-room” apartments. That’s not two bedrooms, per se, but two actual rooms (besides the kitchen and bathroom). Depending on the size of the family, the living room where guests are welcomed and entertained may double as a bedroom for one or more family members.

Rooms will typically have a large wooden shelf running along most of a wall (holding books, photo frames, ceramics or china) with a large carpet occasionally covering another wall. The overall style may seem outdated (some have a definite retro feeling), but Extreme Home Makeover hasn’t quite made it to Russia yet. If it works, why change it?

Bathrooms in Russian apartments are part frustrating, part genius. On the one hand, they separate the toilet and the shower into separate rooms. In living with other people, I can’t count the number of times I’ve realized I’ve had too much water- only to hear the shower start to run. So, genius.

Now for the frustration. There might be a litterbox in the toilet area, but there’s rarely a garbage bin (an issue for those of the female persuasion). The first two families I lived with didn’t have shower curtains. It certainly taught me to be a little more deliberate in my showering (holding the detached showerhead right next to my body), but there’s only so much deliberation a person can be expected to perform at 6am. In both of those families, my host mother would have to light a little fire in a box in the kitchen to get the hot water running (meaning if I woke up after she’d left, I was showering later or not at all). And, of course, about once a  year there will be a week or more where there is no hot water at all (cities cycle through neighborhoods at a time each summer usually).

Washing machines are usually in the bathroom; dryers aren’t really present in Russian homes. Clothes last longer as a result, but have a stiffness that made me long for Downy dryer sheets in the worst way. 🙂

Posted by: peripateticone | 26 December 2009

Building a foundation

Arriving into Moscow, one of the most overwhelming sights (even for frequent visitors) is the blocks and blocks of seemingly identical apartment buildings scattered around the city. Those who venture outside the major cities expecting suburbia and single-family homes are in for an even bigger shock when they find that apartment living is just the way of life. Even the smaller towns usually have an apartment complex or two.

The difference between American suburbia and is of our divergent histories. While many Americans own a home, the idea of doing so in Russia is still extremely rare. Under the Soviet Union, Russians couldn’t own private property; housing was something the government (in theory) provided for workers and their families. The most efficient way to provide housing for everyone was to build massive, standard apartment complexes that catered to efficiency, rather than luxury. The classic Soviet movie <<Ирония судьбы>> (Ironia sudbui; The Irony of Fate) plays on this concept of standardization. The leading character Zhenya wakes up from his drunken stupor in the Leningrad airport; he finds an neighborhood identical to his own and uses his apartment key to open a woman’s apartment (your traditional romantic comedy ensues).

Some of the newer buildings are nicely updated (though still , but many complexes look incredibly run down with leaking pipes, chipped paint, and bars over the windows. Old tires and litter line some alleyways while groups of teenagers, middle-aged men, and бабушки (babushki; grandmothers) gather in front of the buildings to smoke, drink, and talk. For an American, this can be a fairly difficult transition; why would a family choose to live in an area that resembles what we might expect to see in the ghetto of a large American city? While Russian cities and towns have their fair share of disreputable neighborhoods, in general even the most decrepit-looking buildings are safe areas. Without a Soviet government to hire workers to maintain the buildings however, upkeep is a challenge.  Americans paint their homes, but would never expect to paint their apartment buildings. The difference in Russia is that there is no landlord or company responsible for things like repairs or painting.

Many Russians live in apartments that hold two or three generations of one family. While part of this is a result of the Russian communal mindset, it’s also economic. The high cost of an apartment (outrageously high compared to the average Russian salary) and the relative nonexistence of financing/mortgage options mean that many young married couples must live with relatives before moving (if they end up purchasing their own apartment at all). At the same time, it’s not unusual for university students or young adults to live at home before marriage. The American stigma of the thirty year old man who lives in his parent’s basement just isn’t present in Russia; family is an essential support system and depending on your family is expected in the culture.

Posted by: peripateticone | 25 December 2009

Здравствуйте world!

I studied abroad in Krasnodar, Russia for a semester as an undergraduate and returned to the родина (motherland) to teach EFL for a year in Vladimir at the American Home.  Since then, I’ve been back to lead a group of high school students on a language/culture program and to attend a friend’s wedding. I’ve spent time in Saint Petersburg and Moscow (and have a definite favorite :)) and speak the language well enough to get along on a day-to-day basis.

So after enduring jokes about my communist sympathies and vodka tolerance for years (and having failed to persuade any friends to join me on a trip yet), I thought I’d do my part to spread the word about what Russian life is like today. (Hint: They’re not communist anymore. The vodka part might still apply.)

This is not a blog about Russian politics or history, though the two will invariably make appearances in some of the things I cover. My goal is to show today’s Russia & Russians (admittedly from my perspective as an American) to people who might otherwise never visit the country or be able to interact with its culture.

That said, добро пожаловать (da-bro pazhalovat; welcome) to I Dream of Blini!