Sep 29, 2011

How can you possibly do a written geography exam?!

“How can you possibly do a written geography exam?” our teacher exclaimed, flabbergasted at the concept of written exams for subjects such as geography, history, philosophy and literature. We, it must be said, were equally surprised to learn that Russians take oral exams not only in all these subjects, but also in subjects like Maths, Physics and Chemistry. The system seems to work something like this, at least for arts subjects. About a month before the exam, students receive a list of questions or topics to prepare. On the day of the exam they select a card at random, desperately hoping for a ‘good one.’ On this card will be a couple of the topics/questions. They then have 40 minutes or so to prepare and then they must go in and speak to their professor about the subject for 15 minutes or so. The Professor gives them a grade immediately, and they are done! It certainly saves on marking!

Grading is different here as well: students are scored from 1 (unacceptable) to 5 (excellent). Tamara, my wonderful grandmotherly host likes to say “molodets, pyat” (excellent, 5) when I successfully conjugate a difficult word! I won’t really be being graded at all though – we don’t have any exams, so we will avoid what must be a nerve shredding experience!

Another difference which surprised me is that here, Fizcultura (Sport) is not only a compulsory part of the timetable, it too is examined! Can you imagine failing your degree in Art History because you couldn’t get above 9 on the bleep test?! That might explain why I haven’t seen an overweight student.  

The university day also operates differently here. It is divided into two halves, and you either get lucky and have all your classes between 1:30 and 7pm, or you get unlucky, and have to be at uni for an 8am lecture every day including, and this is really bad… Saturday! In Russian schools and universities Saturday is just another day, albeit one which is often shortened. The timetable only changes every semester, so if you get the morning shift you miss out on lie-ins for a full 4 months. Happily, my course doesn’t correspond to the Russian timetable - I have all my classes between 11:30 and 3, Monday to Friday. I feel like a right slacker!

Russian universities also clearly value their contact hours. Even Literature students have a full timetable (unlike the couple of hours a week they tend to get at British universities). A university day consists of 3 or 4 para (pairs), each of which lasts one and a half hours, but with a five minute break after 45 minutes, and 10 minute breaks between classes. It seems to work quite well – enough time to cover a subject properly, but with a well placed break to help you concentrate.

Most aspects of the Russian education system are left over from the Soviet Union, in which education was one of the few areas where they really excelled. Of all the countries I’ve visited, I’m fairly convinced that Russians are the best educated of them all. Indeed, for decades over 50% of the population have been getting university degrees, and pretty much everyone seems to be able to recite Pushkin, has an opinion on Dostoevsky and appreciate things like ballet and opera. This ought to be a recipe for fantastic scientific innovation, artistic creativity, social progress and economic growth, but alas, like so many things in Russia, things don’t work as they ought to. But more on that another time. 

PS - Just a caveat in case I've misrepresented anything - Our teacher explained most of this to us today in Russian - I may not have understood everything correctly, and I might have filled in a few gaps myself! So don't quote me on anything! And Russians out there - correct me where I've gone wrong please. Thanks.

Sep 25, 2011

This is Russia... Part 2

One big temptation travel bloggers face is to lean heavily on moments which, though amusing, reflect badly on their host country. If “This is Russia” becomes a series, which it might, it may well be dominated by those weird moments where something strange happens and I’m left thinking “This is Russia”. On a day when Putin pretty much confirmed his intention to be President until 2024, I hope this edition of This is Russia will cast the country in a more positive, hopeful light.

In Russia there is a saying “sto drusyej lusche sta rublej” (100 friends are better than 100 roubles). When the phrase was coined, 100 roubles was quite a lot of money. Now, although 100 roubles is barely enough to get you a meal in MacDak, Russia’s dire McDonalds spin off, the same spirit remains. Russians take friendship seriously.

This is not to say that the stereotype which portrays Russians as unfriendly, cold and rude is completely unfounded. People don’t seem to talk to their neighbours. They certainly don’t chat on buses or in the street, and you’ll be lucky if you get a smile from a stranger. When I first went to church, noone came up and spoke to me. However, once you get past this, and it doesn’t take much, the coldness seems to melt away.

For example, last Sunday I met a guy called Stepan, who is friends with two girls I met at church the week before. As it was his birthday, they were going to spend the afternoon together, preparing a meal to eat in the evening. Though I’d previously spent about 2 hours in total with them, they gladly let me come along, and even moved the meal forward so I could eat it!

Then, on Wednesday there was a performance with the choir. It had been explained to us that the choir wore black for performances. Although I don’t have any black clothes, I hoped that borrowing a friend’s black jumper to go with my jeans would do the trick. The look on the conductor’s (who was dressed in suit and bow tie) face when I showed up told me I was wrong. Feeling a bit embarrassed, my friend and I apologized and suggested that we didn’t sing, but they were having none of it. One guy was made to hand over his black shirt, and bit by bit a suit materialized. It even fitted! I’d love to say that they were desperate to dress me up because my singing ability was sorely needed, but that is far from the case. In fact, I didn’t even know 2 out of the 3 songs we sang. Instead, they were keen to include their enthusiastic but slightly buffoonish foreign guests!

On Friday I took two English lessons at a school. Since my lesson the previous Friday, the second group, which I only taught for 20 minutes, had been on a day trip to a “nearby” “canyon”. Both those terms need qualifying – ‘nearby’ means 4 hours drive, and the ‘canyon’ is only 35 metres deep! Anyway, they not only presented me with a pretty rock which they found there, they also bought me a giant ornamental pencil. Too kind!

Finally, today was my birthday. Before I arrived in Russia, I’d been semi-expecting to let my birthday slip by unnoticed, not daring to hope that I would have made friends in time for a party. However, this morning I hosted a birthday brunch in my flat (Tamara is still at the dacha, and I asked her permission!) and 6 of my new Russian friends came – 3 from choir and 3 from church. They gave me a cake, a Revolutionary war hat, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (in Russian – might manage a chapter a year!) and another book (also Russian…), and they didn’t mind putting up balloons and cooking sausages, eggs and bacon once they’d arrived. Three friends from the UK came as well and we had a lovely, bilingual time eating breakfast butties for lunch.

One Russian friend asked me this evening if I was tired of Russia yet. I was surprised to be asked – of course I’m not! Actually, I’m quite overwhelmed by how good these first three weeks have been – even though it has rained for most of every day. And it has been so great because of the warmth and friendliness of the Russian people I’ve met. “This is Russia”, and I love it.

Sep 20, 2011

"This is Russia"

A funny thing happened on Sunday. During my first week in Russia, I didn’t dare travel on a marshrutka, preferring instead to travel on the more dependable (and less intimate) trolleybuses. Marshrutkas look like converted Ford transit vans, but with a lower ceiling and an assortment of seats fixed in peculiar positions in the back. As such, you feel every bump (and there are a lot of them…) and you certainly don’t get the sort of personal space we Brits love so dearly. A further deterrent for the nervous foreigner is the need to shout out when you want the driver to stop. This task is made harder by the fact that you can’t really see out of the windows, which are caked in what appears to be years of dust and mud, so you don’t know where you are! Anyway, eventually I overcame my fears and at first, it seemed that I had been making a fuss about nothing. But then on Sunday, as I came back from church with some friends there was a shriek from the front and I looked up to see a heavily pregnant woman so desperate to get out of the bus that she was climbing head first over the seat she had been sitting on in order to get to the back door. I was confused at first, but then I saw that the front of the bus had filled with smoke! We quickly followed the pregnant girl out of the door. I assumed it must have been something serious, and that the driver would call up the Russian AA or something, but, as I was reminded at the time “this is Russia”. The driver seemed utterly unperturbed by what had happened. He got out, fiddled under the bonnet, and 2 minutes later asked us to get back in. Perhaps foolishly, we obliged, and the rest of the journey passed without incident, as the driver continued to pick up new passengers blissfully unaware of what they might be letting themselves into. We even paid him the full fare!   
A Marshrutka. I presume this is the only way they get cleaned!

Sep 18, 2011

Making myself at home...

I’ve just finished a Russian TV dinner - Borshch (the classic Russian soup, in which beetroot features strongly), kutleti (a bit like burgers) and rice in front of the European Volleyball championship semis. Russia just lost to Serbia after blowing about 6 match points. Serbians seem to be quite good at coming from behind… I managed to get tickets to the Olympic men’s volleyball bronze medal match, so I’m cultivating an interest. One of my favourite things about it is that every team has to have a token ‘small guy’ who wears a different colored vest to the others…

I don’t usually eat in front of the TV, but Grandma Tamara is away at the Dacha harvesting more cucumbers and marrows, so I’m by myself. I don’t mind being alone, but I miss coming home every day and being presented with more food than I could possibly eat. Tamara was born in the 1930s in the Ural mountains (central Russia), so she has lived through a lot. I asked her about the war this week, and although she was very young at the time she clearly remembers it vividly. She told me about her father going away to the front and coming back with blind in one eye. He was one of the lucky ones though. One brother didn’t come back at all, and the other lost both his legs. She told me about how hungry they were, and how she couldn’t understand why there was no bread, and how, even though they lived deep in the interior, they still had to shelter from occasional air raids. Although the USSR ultimately won the “Great Patriotic War”, as they call it here (it can’t be WWII, because WWI doesn’t really feature in Russian history books… maybe because it went so badly for them), they lost 23 million citizens. In every Russian city an “eternal flame” burns in memory of them. Petrozavodsk’s memorial is flanked by red flowers (blood) and overlooked by an enormous statue of Lenin. I walk past it them both on the way to university - humbling reminders of how much Russians have suffered.

On a lighter note, I tried out the university tourism club this week, expecting them to organise a few relaxed walks in the forest or trips to St Petersburg. However, I was wrong. Tourism in Russia is not for the faint hearted - indeed, their trips are so extreme that those who survived were all awarded certificates in the meeting! From what I understood (which was not a lot…) they go on multi-day rafting, mountain biking and cross country skiing trips. From their photos, it looked pretty intense. However, more impressive than this was their trip to Kamchatka. For those of you who don’t share my obsession with remote places, Kamchatka is a peninsula in the Russian far East, sort of north of Japan. As well as being one of the world’s most beautiful places, it is also one of the most remote, only accessible by sea and air. Last year the tourism club not only went there, they climbed an very high active volcano. I was well impressed.

I’m settling in to the choir - we have concerts on Monday and Wednesday next week which should be fun. We’ve been singing an excerpt from Handel’s Messiah, and it’s been entertaining trying to teach them to pronounce words properly (Ze Keengdom of zis vorld etc). Still, I should’t criticise - we sang in Russian yesterday and I was hopeless! Encouragingly, I can now understand about 50% of what the conductor says, so I am less likely to come in before everyone else and make a fool of myself, like I did on Wednesday!

I also had my first (and hopefully only) experience of a Russian medical centre this week - in order to renew our visas we had to have a HIV test, regardless of the fact that we had to have one in the UK in order to get our visa in the first place. Still, as long as we make it difficult for Russians to get to Britain they’ll keep making it hard for us.

I’ve been here two weeks now and it’s been so much better than I could have expected. Though Russians are often cold and impolite in public places - if you don’t fight your way through a door you’ll never get through, and you only get a “thank you” once in a blue moon - their friendliness and warmth in other contexts has been amazing. I’ve made friends at choir, at church (where I even met a Bolivian missionary) and at the Christian centre. I might be able to have a birthday party next Saturday after all!

Posing in front of another Revolutionary's statue.

A revolutionary in his own way! He toppled Lord Farquad and he got his swamp back!
After the war Petrozavodsk's main factory, which used to make weapons, was converted to make tractors like this one!

Can you see a rainbow?

It really rained - gave me the chance to teach my Russian friend about the phrase "raining cats and dogs."
And the main street (Lenin street - no prizes for originality) became a river.

Sep 13, 2011

"Master of the World"

Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. Lenin. Stalin. Russia’s most dictatorial, controlling leaders tend to be those whose names are etched in global history. Maybe that’s why Vladimir Putin seems so keen to emulate them. David Cameron was in Moscow today to meet Putin, currently the Prime Minister, and Medvedev, the President, which gives me an excuse to do something I’ve always wanted to do… write a politics blog. If the mere mention of politics is enough to make you switch off, scroll down to the bottom for an anecdote about mullets!

In Russia you cannot escape Putin. His face, always severe (fake smiles don’t cut it in Russia) glares down from massive billboards, presumably from Kaliningrad on the Baltic to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. He is on the news every day, sometimes more than once. In fact, from what I’ve seen so far, the news on Rossiya 1 (= BBC1) is a bit like a reality TV show documenting Putin’s every move. That’s not to say that President Medvedev doesn’t get coverage as well, but, inevitably, he gets overshadowed by Russia’s self-styled ‘natural leader’. For example, today Medvedev was shown hosting a meeting to discuss a suitable response to the tragic air crash which killed the whole of the Locomotive Yaroslavl ice hockey team last week. This was immediately followed by a speech from Putin, apparently chairing his own meeting, on exactly same issue. Anything you can do, I can do better…

As far as I can see, this is all part of Putin’s master plan, and a masterful plan it is. According to the constitution, Putin had to give up the presidency in 2008. But Putin had not exactly made a habit of sticking to the constitution. He didn’t have to go, but he saw an opportunity. By relinquishing the Presidency, he went some way towards silencing those who accused him of being a dictator, and he preserved some legitimacy for both the Russian constitution and political system. Furthermore, by choosing Medvedev, he broadened his support support base without really compromising his own position as ‘natural leader’. This is because, as a Russian friend explained to me yesterday, Medvedev’s approach appeals to the young, educated people who see through Putin’s more blatantly propagandistic methods. They like his enthusiasm for modern technology and his willingness to try out new ideas. In fact, I was surprised that this friend, who studied International Relations at university, considered Medvedev quite independent from Putin. Most western commentators would disagree, but it isn’t their opinion that counts for Putin. His tactic seems to have worked.

Not only does Putin not being President increase his support base (or at least, decrease opposition), it also frees him to cultivate his image as ‘natural leader’. When Russian troops fought in Georgia in 2008, Putin, dressed in his bomber jacket, was able to travel to the front line, where he comforted traumatized Russian citizens and encouraged the soldiers, while Medvedev (wearing a suit), was fully occupied seeking a diplomatic solution with foreign leaders. Another Medvedev-Putin juxtaposition on the news this week strengthened my impression that, for Putin, being Prime Minister is much more fun. First, they showed Medvedev looking bored out of his mind addressing a summit attended by, amongst others, the Presidents of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan… you get the idea. This was immediately followed by Putin’s appearance at a rock concert, but this wasn’t just any old appearance. Putin, man of the people, rode in at the head of a motorcade of bikers, as fireworks went off in the background. Then, still in his leathers, he proceeded to address the crowd. I thought he looked ridiculous, but, presumably, plenty of people lap it up, and I guess Putin gets a kick out of it.

Elections are going to take place next year, and the only uncertain thing is whether or not Putin decides he wants his job back. General consensus is that he does. Maybe he worries that Medvedev, given another term, might start to act more independently. Maybe he has had enough of cuddling animals, riding bikes and consorting with the people. Or maybe he just wants his title back. His parents chose well when they called him “Vladimir”, which can be translated “Master of the world”. He wishes…

Anyway, on to more important things! Today I had two amusing “Russia moments”. This afternoon, I saw a guy with a horrendous mullet (they are still “in” here) styling his mop in the mirror in the university toilets. Then, as I walked home, a boy who can’t have been more than twelve skidded up to me on his bike and asked for a cigarette. I politely declined.  

Sep 11, 2011


In our first lesson on Monday our teacher welcomed us with a warm smile and enthusiastically assured us that “there is nothing to do in Petrozavodsk. Only study, study study”. We’ll see if she’s right…

I think Petrozavodsk is a bit like Sheffield. It’s quite a big city, but it feels like a town. Although it can’t boast as many trees as Sheffield (which has the most trees per person of any city in Europe) it is a green place, with at least one pleasant park. There are plenty of concerts and plays to go to; there’s a museum and a gallery, and some lovely walking next to the lake and through the forest, but it certainly isn’t St Petersburg. Also, like Sheffield, there is a big student population, and, alas, the football team is pretty rubbish! Maybe that’s why over half of my class are from Sheffield uni.

Despite being as far north as Anchorage in Alaska, Hudson Bay and the bottom of Greenland, it’s been pleasantly warm so far. I was out and about in shorts and a t-shirt, but the Russians, who seem immune to temperature, still wore hats, coats and some were even wearing gloves! It was tempting to think they must be a bit nesh, but I’m sure I’ll be the one who feels that way when it’s -20, which, as the locals love to point out to us, won’t be long.

I’m living in a flat with a very kindly “Babushka” (Russian grandmother) called Tamara. I daren’t ask how old she is, but my suspicions were raised when she introduced me to her 50 year old son. I’ve since found a “Happy 75th birthday” card, but, in true Russian babushka fashion, she seems fairly unstoppable. At the moment she is at her “dacha”. The “dacha” culture began during the Soviet Union when, in order to compensate for moving everyone into monochrome urban monoliths, they gave them plots of land in the countryside. The people put up simple wooden houses, cleared the land and now they use them like an allotment, growing cabbages (Russia’s favourite vegetable!), marrows, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, raspberries, apples, beans etc. September is a great month to arrive, because all these things are fresh. Our fridge is already loaded, and no doubt there will be more tomorrow when Tamara returns.

So far I’ve been very comfortable in Tamara’s little fourth floor flat, which sort of overlooks the lake. Bright paintings, by her daughter, who lives in the states, hang on the walls in the living room. The kitchen, like all Russian kitchens, is cluttered but clean and the radio provides a constant stream of Russian listening practice if I want it. Tamara is also very patient with my Russian. I coped alright with topics like family, school and music, but I felt quite out of my depth when she asked me what I thought of Islamification! I’m sure we will get on well though.

I don’t exactly feel like a student at the university - there is a course run specially for us foreigners (the powers that be, quite rightly, don’t think we are good enough at Russian to study a regular course like study abroad students usually do) which runs from 11:30 til 3 each day. I was starting to despair that I would never be able to meet Russian students, but then we discovered the university choir, which rehearses 3 times a week for 2 ½ hours. I went along on Friday and it was great. We sang the jazziest Kyrie Eleison I have ever come across, and the Russians were very friendly and accommodating. Keeping on the musical theme, one of the few things I understood at church on Sunday was that they were doing auditions for a musical version of John’s gospel. Rather nervous, but determined not to miss an opportunity, I went along today. It seemed like they were fairly short of people, so I might end up with a part - that will be interesting!

I found the church through a charity which runs a “Christian Centre” in a local secondary school. After my audition today I went along there to meet some of the young people and received another warm welcome. I thought that I might be able to sit and listen while they got on with it, but no - I was asked, actally, told, to share something with the group. After stumbling around for a while trying to think of something I could explain in Russian, I ended up talking about hope, something Russia certainly lacks. I’d just read an article from the Economist ( which paints a very gloomy picture of the situation here. Sadly, it’s not too far from the truth. Russia is a difficult place to live. It’s freezing cold for four months a year and it rains a lot. Most of the infrastructure was shoddily thrown together in Soviet times and it is falling apart - the roads are particularly bad. Wages are generally low and everyone pays the same tax rate (so they hit the poor hardest), but prices aren’t much lower than in the UK, while gadgets cost a small fortune (£600 for an iPhone!). But the worst thing is the political system, which is hopelessly inefficient, corrupt and dominated by a privileged few. It is the entrenchment of this system, under the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his puppet-President Dmitri Medvedev which makes Russians doubt whether things could ever get better. Having said all this, the people I’ve met don’t let this hopelessness get them down. Yesterday I asked one girl if Russians used sarcasm - she replied “Of course, if we didn’t, we couldn’t survive living in a place like this”. And they do survive, and I will survive too. Hopefully, I might even have some fun along the way!