I’m *literary* in Russia!

I have to say, people’s confusion between “literally” and “literary” drives me crazy. If you even just stop for one second to think about what the words mean, you wouldn’t confuse the two because it makes no sense. Not to mention the misuse of the word “literally,” but that’s another story.

Theme #4 (the last one): Russian literature. I geeked out hard in Russia. I read my first Pushkin (Boris Godunov) on the train to Sergiev Posad, and I re-read Crime and Punishment (my third or fourth time reading it), which I loved in high school and loved even more in St Petersburg. I probably just worked myself up into a state of psychosomatic/borderline religious ecstasy (very Dostoevskyan of me), but I felt like it really made a difference being there, visualizing the characters and feeling the general atmosphere.

So here is my tribute to all the literary and literally nerdy things I did in Russia (mostly Dostoevsky, some Tolstoy at the end).

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I see dead people

Theme #3: Cemeteries. It sounds weird and morbid, but I kind of like visiting cemeteries. I think this started for me in 2006 with the Vysehrad cemetery in Prague where Dvorak is buried, and since then if I have the opportunity, I like to visit the big cemeteries in different countries. They’re very peaceful, and somehow it makes me feel more in touch with the country itself, looking at the tombs of its famous dead people.

And Russia has a lot of dead people. That was the really earthshattering conclusion that I arrived at after tons of time in museums, cathedrals, monasteries, and of course cemeteries. But really, I just couldn’t get over how many dead Russians were littered throughout history. 26 million dead in World War II (excuse me, the Great Patriotic War) alone. I mean, it boggles the mind.

Visiting two of the big cemeteries in Russia was also quite an ordeal of endurance in some respects. Temperatures hovering right around freezing meant a constant give-and-take between new snow and thaw, coupled with unpaved and/or unshoveled paths, which meant my not-so-waterproof shoes called it quits about ten minutes into both cemetery visits and made enjoyment of the grounds a bit of a challenge

Here are some of the tomb pilgrimages I made:

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Arting it up

Theme #2: Art. I visited a lot of art museums in Russia, not least because it was so cold and wet and my shoes so insufficiently waterproof that I just needed to be inside for a couple of hours sometimes. I took a lot of pictures, too, because I couldn’t quite make up my mind about the photo fee policy in Russia. In most of the museums I visited, the photo permit was as much or more than the actual ticket price itself, but then many of the museums didn’t actually seem to enforce the permit rule: you were supposed to wear a little sticker with a camera on it to indicate that you had paid for the photo permit, but I saw plenty of people wandering around the State Tretyakov in Moscow taking photos with no such sticker, and especially at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, which is probably so packed that nobody can actually enforce the sticker policy.

The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

So I ended up actually purchasing photo permits at probably about 50% of the museums I visited, then just took photos at the rest of them and waited for someone to yell at me. The New Tretyakov guards seemed to be kind of on to me but never quite caught me in the act. I figured my exorbitant photo fees at 50% of the museums covered my photo fees at the other 50%.

But now I have all these photos of art, and I feel like I should do something with them, so here’s the photo dump. (NB: I’m not sure whether posting photos of art on my blog violates the non-commercial aspect of the amateur photography permit, but it’s not like I’m making money off of this blog. And thumbnails of most of these are available on the gallery websites anyway. I guess I will get a bloody horse head in my bed from the Russian art mafia or something if I’m really in trouble.)

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Metro appeal

Now that I am no longer having an aneurysm every second worrying about what’s going on in Boston, I finally got around to posting my general Russia photos on facebook, and I ended up with 128 of them, even being as selective as I could. So I decided to use the blog to go more in depth on a few different themes. For those of you who know me and can access my FB album, this will be an interesting supplement (there’s some overlap but not much), and for anyone who doesn’t know me, it will shed some light on Russia apart from the more typical touristy photos.

Theme #1: The Moscow metro. Which is incredible. According to Wikipedia, it is the fourth busiest metro after Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing, and it serves nearly 9 million people every day. That’s more than the population of New York City, riding the metro every day. And believe me, you can tell. Even though the trains come at a maximum of 2 minutes apart (there’s a timer on each platform that ticks the seconds since the last departure, and I think the highest I ever saw it get was like 2:16), the stations are always crowded, and Russians will always throw elbows and knees to get past you and into a waiting train. Or onto an escalator to exit the station. Or across the platform to wait on the other side. Really, Russians will just shove you aside for basically no reason at all. This made me very grateful for my familiarity with Bulgarian, which enabled me to read signs quickly and orient myself on the correct platforms and escalators, because the language inside the stations is exclusively Russian (in St Petersburg, signs are pretty uniformly written in Cyrillic and Latin letters). Bulgarian Cyrillic and Russian Cyrillic are a little different from each other, but they’re similar enough that I could always get the information that I needed. This went a long way toward making me feel more comfortable navigating the enormous city.

I should preface the rest of this post by saying that I took these pictures while on the Moscow Metro Tour offered by the Moscow Free Tour company. I visited most of these stations on my own at other points during my Moscow stay, but quite honestly, it probably would never have occurred to me to look at the ceiling in some of these stations–in fact, I had already gone through Belorusskaya Station on my way into Moscow initially because it’s where the Aeroexpress train arrives and not even realized there was anything on the ceiling. So I do owe the tour operators a thank you. Overall, I was happy with the tour, which was quite informative, but it is a little hectic (and sometimes inaudible) trying to follow a tour group in metro stations for all of the reasons listed above. Out of respect to the tour, though, I won’t write much information I learned from them, I’ll just mostly post pictures with a brief description.

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Things that did not survive my trip to Russia: my boots, my Kindle, the functionality of all 3 pens I brought with me. Now I know how Napoleon felt.

When I went to Egypt last year, I found that a good way of remembering some of the smaller moments from the trip (and also delaying until I could finish getting photos sorted out) was to focus on some of the people I met. While I don’t feel like I had the kind of lengthy encounters in Russia that I had in Egypt, here’s what a matryoshka of some of the more interesting characters might look like, blending the nice exchanges with sketchy/weird ones, because what trip would be complete without its crazies?

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Reason #47 why I am not a ski jumper

I’m back in Sofia and in the process of sorting out my hundreds of photos and journal notes from Russia, but in the meantime I will share this photo I took at Vorybyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills) in Moscow:


Where does this thing end??

It doesn’t look that impressive because I couldn’t actually capture the entire thing in one frame, but I have since learned that it is actually the world’s tallest ski jump ramp. However, what it basically looked like, from my vantage point, was a ramp of doom that would send you hurtling directly into the river or, if you actually managed to get airborne, directly into Moscow itself.

And people do this for sport??


(It’s a pun, get it? Well, maybe after you actually read the post…)

One of the nice things about living overseas is that it’s easier to give yourself permission to feel really special and accomplished for completing basic tasks like almost signing up for a cell phone plan or buying a DVD player. Today I gave myself a huge pat on the back for successfully submitting my paperwork for a tourist visa at the Russian consulate in Sofia.

Like the Tanzanian visa/vaccination situation, this was one of those pleasant times when an interaction actually turned out to be easier than what you were anticipating. Living in a place where you don’t really speak the native language, you just get accustomed to expecting things to go wrong and mass confusion to reign supreme. And for me this is stressful because I don’t like being wrong and I don’t like being embarrassed (I think I’ve gotten a lot better at it while living here, but it’s still not something I’m very comfortable with). Plus, regarding the visa there was once again conflicting information on what I might need to bring (the lists of documents was anywhere from 4 to 10 items long), and I know from experience that anytime you get into paperwork with Bulgarians you know it’s going to be nonsensical and arbitrary, so I wasn’t expecting Russians to be much different. Continue reading