Letter sent by Diana Pho '07, September 2005

"Settling into Moscow"

Privet everyone!

It’s near the end of my third week here in Moscow, and already it feels like that I’ve been here much longer. Not because I’m getting bored of things (far from it!), but that so much has been happening that it’s like one huge thrill ride.

The weather here is still surprising warm. Usually, when I bring a jacket, the buildings and the metro are so hot that I end up carrying it for most of the day. I can’t understand how Russians can walk around all day wearing layers of clothing as if the weather is 10 degrees colder than it is. Then again, there are a lot of things about Russian fashion that I don’t understand, like how can women walk around wearing stiletto heels all the time and how can people consider cell phones an accessory and buy a new one practically every month.

This weekend, we went to Yasnaya Polyana, the estate of Leo Tolstoy. The weather was gorgeous and a little cool. In the train, I saw how the trees were slowing draping themselves more in the colors of fall. The train’s theme catered to its destination; in all of the cars hung photographs and memorabilia relating to Tolstoy and his works. They put in the 1960s version of Anna Karenina as the on-train movie. Shelley and I at in the corner, ad the television tucked in above us rattled so loudly on its foundation that we were afraid that it would fall on us before the ride ended!

We all arrived without incident, however. We too a brief tour around the station where we had arrived, which as made into a minor exhibit to Tolstoy, since he had died at a train station.

From there, we headed over to the estate itself. Yasnaya Polyana reminded me so much of Mount Holyoke in places: with the still ponds, the tall trees, and the sense of age. Not only is Tolstoy’s house located here, but also the estate has a working apple orchard and stables, where 30 breeds of horses are kept.

We also saw brides, twelve of them in all by the end of the tour, who wandered about with their grooms and their wedding party at hand. In Russia, it’s traditional for newlyweds to take pictures at national monuments. In Vladimir, every Friday, cars decked with blue, red, and white ribbons and flowers would drive around the Golden Gates, honking madly as the bride and groom took pictures beneath the gates. Personally, Yasnaya Polyana is a much better choice than the Golden Gates, since you don’t have to worry about holding up traffic when taking your party photos.

We took a tour of the Tolstoy household, which was kept exactly as it was the day he died, November 1905 at 6:05 AM. The floor was still original, all of his books (over 20,000) were still there, and you could still see how his parlor was set up. At the top of his staircase was the grandfather clock his great-grandfather owned; it still keeps time even after 250 years since it was made! When going into his room, his jacket was still draped over the chair and his nightshirt hung on a hanger by the wardrobe.

When Tolstoy died, he requested not to be buried in the family cemetery at St. Nicholas’s Church. Instead he wanted an unmarked grave but in a spot in the forest, where his older brother once told him that he had hidden a green stick, on which he had written the secret to happiness on earth. We went to the grave, following a well-trodden dirt path in the forest. Catherine and I were talking about ways to get my digital photographs online in Moscow, when we were pointed out the “Please Keep Silent” sign on the side, and we kept our peace. Along with us was a small crowd of tourists, Russian and foreign. Little kids were around too; pony rides were being offered near the stables, and children gathered up the falling leaves to tie into crowns.

Thin branches were bent into little arches, which formed a decorative border along the grave. On a little hill it stood, with only a wreath to commemorate the spot. Single flowers were laid out, each a separate tribute from various people. A little boy, in his hand a bouquet of bright yellow maples leaves, went up to the branch siding and solemnly placed the leaves within the clearing, then ran back to his mother’s side. We all stood there for a long time in silence, as if waiting. Then, we left with the trees stirring. A large group of other Russian tourists passed ignoring the signs and talking loudly. But, like everyone else who returned from the grave, we did not utter a word.

A gust of wind blew, sending a shower of leaves across the rode, sweeping past the strolling people and the pony lazily being led alongside the road.

Afterwards, we dined at the small café nearby and went to our hotel room. It was described to us as “Western” and that we would each get our own bed. We interpreted this as the Russian attempt at being Western and that we would probably be sharing beds. When we approached the hotel, we saw a large, dilapidated building, its front facing torn off in places, loomed up to meet us. Our hotel was right beside it. We feared the worse. However, we were wrong. Our hotel rooms were amazing. They were rooms with two beds, but each also came with a foyer, a full bath, and a sitting room. Everything looked very new and clean. It looked better than a lot of Western hotels I’ve been at!

The rest of the trip wasn’t as interesting. We went to Tula, the home of samovars and guns, and took a tour through the museums of each. It didn’t have the ancient glory of Suzdal or Vladimir: the place looked just like a regular Russian provincial industrial city. I was still glad to go, however, just to say that I had.

On Wednesday, we were supposed to watch Master and Margarita at the Stanislavsky Theater, but an actor got sick and so thus, the show was cancelled. Instead, Kat, Muhammad, Tony, Shelley and I went to the Oktabrya Kinotheater to see Muzhskoi Sezon: Barkhatnaya Revolyutsiya. The title translates as Male Season: The Velvet Revolution. Despite sounding like a porn title, the movie was an action film, or at least, that’s what we got from looking at the movie poster full of exploding cars and tough-looking protagonists with guns. The summary in The Moscow Times, the source for events during the week, said that the movie was about two agents tracking down the drug mafia. I figured that since it was action and featured exploding cars, we could watch it and understand the basic plot. When we bought the tickets, the seller gave us a promotional novelization of the book for free, which was very cool. When watching the movie, though, we realized why we were given the book.

Lots of explosions, random plot lines, drug addicts and the most stereotypical portrayal of several minority groups filled the screen. We got violent Africans waving semi-automatic guns and hooting, the Chinese (or Vietnamese?) old man who ran a restaurant and meditated on rooftops, the Russian police force getting totally smashed at party, the daughter of the protagonist cop hanging around with the bad, hot-rod crowd who held drag races on the street. Random things were inserted it the movie: a Russian American football team; a crazy addict who gets beaten up, then spends a lot of time in the banya, then has a bad trip there and starts throwing oil paintings into the pool; the daughter trying to commit suicide; the random association with Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda at the end of the movie. It was all very flashy, and the explosions were enjoyable, even if we didn’t understand the purpose of various things exploding.

Yesterday, Kat and I went to the Honey Festival off the Kolomenskaya stop upon Christopher’s recommendation. I’ve never seen so much honey offered in my life. The best kinds were kashatan (with oatmeal, gave it a nutty flavor) and honey with cinnamon. There was also a gorgeous monastery there as well, with a view that was amazing. There we also met an American tourist, the first of two that day. He heard us speaking English and asked us if we knew a certain black-cupola cathedral in the distance. Turns out that he and a friend are traveling through Russia, through Kazakhstan, to Pakistan and then down to India. He didn’t know any Russian and was trying his best to read the signs there. Pretty gusty tourist in my opinion!

The second American encounter started off the same way. Muhammad, Olga (his new Russian girlfriend), Kat, Karen, and I were walking down Dolgorykoskaya when a woman in her 60s with a Texan drawl went up to us and said, “Oh, it’s been so long sine I’ve heard other English-speakers!” Martha was the wife of a building planner and had lived in Moscow for seen years, although she still hadn’t picked up the language. She seemed very friendly with us and told us that she lived just don the street. We parted ways, but then Muhammad ran back over to ask if he could come over for dinner sometime, sine he missed American home cooking. So she came back over and took our names and Muhammad’s cell number. Before we parted, however, she asked us whether we’d like to read a pamphlet about Jesus Christ in Russian. She then proceeded to give us these pamphlets and told us that we could call her any time we feel like it. We parted ways once more and Karen summed it up with, “It’s great that the only other native English speakers we find are either tourists or trying to convert us to Jesus.”

That’s all for now. In a week, we’ll be heading for St. Petersburg for a week-long trip. I’ll drop an e-mail before I leave, but until then, everyone take care and keep me updated!

Hugs,

Diana

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