Archive | June, 2011

Part 2: A Red Ural City – Krasnouralsk [Красноуральск]

30 Jun

Krasnouralsk Copper Smelter

Viewing any subject from an outside perspective is as delicate and complex as it is sometimes essential. When working to solve a problem in school, complete a home maintenance project, throw a party, or design new technology, a distanced voice can bring in a completely unexpected line of thinking. Little more than a word or action at the right time can trigger a dormant thought in someone who has been conceptualizing for hours, days, or even years. I think everyone has experienced this is some facet.

However, applied to sensitive personal topics, defensive tendencies quickly become a factor as well. Think of a time when a parent, teacher, or friend presented an idea, possibly advice, that was contrary to what you wanted or thought. Suddenly the process is painful, awkward, and sometimes ignored. Further, this entire process can take place without any conscious effort or awareness.

Really, all it takes is a question. What is life like here? Those above are trite examples, but coming in to someone’s town and asking details about life must be approached delicately.

 

Krasnouralsk

Anya’s grandmother lives in Krasnouralsk [pronounced Krasnah- uralsk], a town much more a true monogorod than Pervouralsk. It is far away from everything, and the only industry there is copper. Daria, Anya, Christine, and I set off in the morning for what was to be the most interesting day thus far. With the town about 3 hours away from Yekaterinburg, we were given a ride by a friendly man of few words, Iligiz, whom we named our “Silent Driver.”

 

Ilgiz, the "Silent Driver"

A quick tangent about this. I am constantly reminded by both walking and vehicle experiences alike, that being a driver in Russia is somewhat of an elite class. The roads are bad, the cars often broken, the rules are vague and ignored, and the pace is always fast. Driving is certainly not the cushioned armchair experience that most endure much like a coma back in the states. There are axle-breaking potholes, pedestrians, and other cars to be avoided at all times and a sidewalk or playground is a legitimate route. Don’t slow down, just go. Here, driving is a uniquely honed skill and is what drivers do despite other jobs. They drive. Anyways, thanks Ilgiz for probably being the safest driver I’ve ridden with!

 

Ok, so back on track.

 

We entered Krasnouralsk, a city of 28,000 inhabitants, in late morning fog and light rain. Our anticipation only increased with every car-sized puddle in the middle of our road, rustic wooden house peeking out from a garden, leathered old man on a classic bicycle, and every obviously Soviet-concrete building that we passed.

Krasnouralsk, just outside of downtown. Photo by Christine Armbruster

Krasnouralsk's School No. 6

At School No. 6, we had an arranged tour of the local town museum and an interview with one of its curators. It was not an easy arrangement. People in these smaller cities, especially those from older generations, are suspicious and afraid to talk to us. Why are Americans coming? Who are they? What do they want? What connections do they have with the government? I want to be identity-neutral because of it.

 

It makes sense though, I guess. Change happens more slowly in small towns and these are people who were raised in the very real fear and suspicion of the Cold War. Outside the boundaries of the progressive, modern city we are not hip foreign friends. We are the shadow of a once powerful terror whose memory still lurks in the darkness of these small, quieter places. The wake of the past, indeed. And yet we come with the allure of intrigue…

Krasnouralsk - Working in the museum. Photo by Christine Armbruster

 

Krasnouralsk - One of many models in the Museum

The museum was small and overcrowded with bits of history which, to me, made it more interesting and genuine. They were proud of so many born in Krasnouralsk that had grown into greatness. There were soldiers who received prestigious medals, many for valiant death in combat, and even a cosmonaut. The only irony I could find is that it seemed none of the honored faces now hanging on their walls had stayed in their town. Some had come back to visit, but fame came from beyond their quiet city limits.

 

 

 

 

Mrs Irina Ivanovna. Photo by Christine Armbruster

Mrs. Irina Ivanovna, a curator and teacher, reminded me of many personalities whom I’ve met in her position around the world. She was the soft yet sure, optimistic type who was certainly meant to tirelessly guide children into their bright and even not so bright futures. From her vantage point, life there was simple. Enough jobs were available for those who wanted them and qualified. Everyone else left. She kept a large garden with cucumbers, tomatoes, and even a watermelon, though admittedly small, to help save money and because she loved working with the soil. I admire her, and her work. The world needs more quality teachers. And yet I felt that so much about the town was left unsaid. Sometimes leaving to find a job is not so simple. And sometimes having a job doesn’t make staying easy.

 

Krasnouralsk, students of School No. 6

Leaving to school, we met some of those guided youth of the school. We were quite the spectacle to them. I doubt many foreigners, let alone Americans have ever visited this town or this school. It was not too long after leaving the school that we started getting phone calls. All of our passport and travel information, along with the recordings we just made were wanted. There was talk of us coming to the town illegally and breaking in to the school without permission. I guess an official invitation and a security escort in doesn’t count as permission. Anyways, we said no and the phone calls stopped. Strange.

 

 

 

Anya and her Grandmother, Valentina

 

Mrs. Valentina's cooking is 'The Best!"

Anya’s Grandmother, Valentina, then welcomed us into her home. It was an adorable apartment and she fed us wonderful food, including the best homemade blini I will probably ever taste. We were, in fact, the first foreigners she had ever met. That in itself is a wild concept for me to understand. However, she has always lived far from any sort of tourism in a country that was more or less closed for the better part of a century. When informed of what we had been told about Krasnouralsk in the school museum, she scoffed. Though too shy to allow us an interview, she told us of real problems with , unemployment, crime, and pollution. ‘The tap water is yellow today. I don’t know why’ and ‘The leaves on plants here turn yellow almost as soon as they appear. It is like autumn in the beginning of summer, only it is caused by pollution.’

Pollution poisoned leaves - early June

From Mrs. Valentina’s apartment, we went walking. By this time the sun was out and a beautiful day for a stroll had settled in. She took us to the main city square, and down the main street to where the copper mine and smelter facilities were situated. Copper is the only real job source in Krasnouralsk, and the reason for its name which means Red Ural Town. Other than the mine and smelter, there is a pizza shop, a grocery store, some school, and a bit of administration. I would suspect that somewhere there is also and auto mechanic and a few other service related businesses, though I never saw them.

 

Vasiliy

While standing in front of this mighty central source of this city’s life, a shift at the plant let out. That is how we met Vasiliy, a young intelligent man who works as an electrician. Anya and I had started trying to strike up conversations with workers on their way home, and he was one of the few willing to talk with us. Later, he even arranged for us to meet him and his friends at a cafe for further discussion.

 

It is an interesting art to discuss life on honest terms. Not to idealize and not to overly criticize. We lead a discussion with Vasiliy, Kirill, Katya, Aleksei, and Tanya for 90 minutes, and learned more about the basic advantages and problems with life in Krasnouralsk, similar towns, and Russia in general than we could have in days of discussion with others.

Vasiliy, Tree, Tanya, Katya, Kirill, Aleksei, Christine and Anya in the mirror

First let me say that these people love their city. It is familiar, comfortable, and quieter than big cities. Vasiliy will soon be moving his fiance her son to Krasnouralsk, and is excited for this. Many of the problems were expected. In a town with only one industry, jobs will be limited. One issue that I had never heard of, and is not limited to small towns, is that of Black and White envelope salary.

 

White Envelope salary is standard, documented pay workers pay taxes on. However, because many businesses is Russia are unregistered and illegal, or only partially registered, many workers have problems with receiving all or a large portion of their salary in an illegal, undocumented form. Black Envelope. This can be good because people with lower salaries can avoid paying higher taxes to the government and therefore keep more of their earnings. This is also quite bad because it throws any sort of minimum wage or salary standard out of the window. Further, it means that paychecks are far from being assured, and no government complaint can be filed for Black Envelope wages not paid.

 

With the cost of living being far higher than the typical White Envelope wage of a Krasnouralsk worker, the Black portion is completely critical to making rent and eating and doesn’t leave room for petitioning for change.

 

Another long term issue with Black Envelope pay is that because it is illegitimate it certainly does not count towards any sort of pension fund for retirement. As salaries are not high enough to allow for any substantial savings, this is quite a big issue. One must work until unable to work. Dreams of enough capital to start business are even further from reach.

 

Krasnouralsk has more to tell, I am sure of it. And so we will soon return to spend more time with our new friends. Christine will write on Polevskoy, a larger city we recently visited. As for right now, we are currently on board a train to a region north of Perm, near Kizyel. There is quite a bit of doubt about what, when, and how much we will be able to film or photograph, but it should make for some interesting stories at very least.

 

Part 1: A quick glance at success- Pervouralsk [Первоуральск]

20 Jun

 

Pervouralsk as I remember it, trying to hitchhike out

 

Life, in Russia, moves with a dizzying shift of pace. A traveler, visitor, or local alike must be in the same moment ready to wait patiently for weeks or embark immediately and without notice to take advantage of an opportunity. To not be able to cope with either polar scenario is to not be able to survive here.

Christine and I left Kazan, without any tangible success after what felt like so much investment in planning and networking, because there was an inhibiting holiday. We left for Yekaterinburg instead of Ufa because of an inside contact with a company helping to restructure parts of an industry in Pervouralsk. When, due to legitimate circumstances outside of all our control, the opportunity vanished, I began to feel as if we would never make any progress. In one swift moment, an explosion reacted into our journey another dead-end to a path. However, all adventurers must quickly learn to shoot off in another direction without dwelling on the failure of one.

A view from our bus to Pervouralsk

Our new direction came from our dear friends Daria and Anya. Daria took us to meet a family living in Pervouralsk for a personal tour of the city as well as interviews. Rustam Madisovich Ishanov and Rimma Mikolaevna Ishanov, along with their daughter Julie, graciously invited us into their home for delicious food and conversation. Both parents worked for most of their lives in the police force, eventually retiring from that service. Now, Rustam Madisovich is a detective for a local factory and Rimma Mikolaevna works with delinquent youth. They are good people and were friendly in sharing their opinions, thoughts, and local history.

Rustam Madisovich Ishanov and Rimma Mikolaevna Ishanov - photo by Christine Armbruster

 

The Ishanov family and us after our discussion

The city is possibly one of the purest examples anyone could find of a successful monogorod. We were told that through a strong community and responsible local government, Pervouralsk has been unusually stable. The city is known for high-grade metal piping, an industry that goes back to the original village settlement in the 1700’s, and was given city status in the 1930’s.

The mayor, we were told, has been a consistent advocate of encouraging outside investment from strong companies both from elsewhere in Russia and abroad. This has resulted in an unusually low unemployment rate just over 1% and a steady economy, which incidentally means the crime rate is also quite low.

 

Smoke stacks from one of the pipe plants

Walking around the city on our own seemed to confirm most of this information. The problems here seemed just the same as anywhere else, and not especially those of a struggling monogorod. Of course there was crime, alcohol, drugs, layoffs, and poverty, but not enough to grab undue attention. Pervouralsk, as a community, has really done well for itself.

 

 

 

Pervouralsk's central rec park - family

Families were out everywhere, enjoying the central park and going for walks. I sat near the park fountain and just watched for a while. The scene was quite wholesome: Children running around;teenagers skateboarding, BMX biking and rollerblading; parents enjoying a moment to sit.

 

 

 

Pervouralsk's central park - very curious child

In fact, it all seemed very much like an overly surreal scene from a disaster movie where the director is trying to show an innocent, beautiful, happy community just before it is torn apart by aliens. Or something along those lines. I couldn’t find a drunkard to taint the mood within a few thousand feet and, I’ll be honest, it made me feel a little on edge.

 

 

Two men working on a Lada.

On our way out of the city, we met the owner of a small shashlik café, who invited us in and treated us to some barbecue. He also liked his city, but his place was rowdy with loud music about gulags and plenty of inebriated dancing to balance out the rest of downtown. Even cake needs salt.

 

 

 

As if to throw in one closing sales pitch of its pleasant nature, Pervouralsk even threw in a classy, not overstated sunset as we waited for someone who would pick up three odd, Yekaterinburg bound hitchhikers. It was a nice town and a good start for gaining perspective, but after two days it was time to move on.

Pervouralsk - Bus at sunset

Look for part 2, coming soon (24 hours?), on Krasnouralsk: the town that welcomed us, and then quickly wanted us gone (officially, anyhow).

 

And thus it really begins

13 Jun

If a woman is pregnant in Russia, you are not supposed to ask when the baby is due. If asked, you will get an answer like “in the spring” or “soon.” It is superstition. Just the same, you do not celebrate a birthday before the actual day, but only after. It is the superstition that you cannot predict the future. If the universe wills, you will have that baby or that birthday, but until it actually happens there is no guarantee.

For that reason, I will not reveal the details of the next leg in our journey. Rather, I’ll just let you know that everything is starting to come into place quite nicely. After some setbacks, we will be heading to our first town today. We have had a hard time getting started, which makes me understand this superstition just a little bit more. As it would be said in America, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

We are currently getting ready for our first town and our first interviews: gathering up equipment and making sure batteries are fully charged. We have had some difficulty at first getting some interviews set in stone. There have been people we were hoping to talk to that have fallen through and connections that did not pan out, including the powerful lead that brought us here much sooner than planned. But, we carry on. This is the nature of what we do. As we are asking one favor after another in order to make this project happen, we have to learn how to be flexible along the way. However, Ekaterinburg has treated us quite well in the meantime. It has given us plenty of experiences and good stories, and we have met all sorts of old and new friends. Currently, we are staying with Dasha, a girl with many connections in these small towns we are trying to get to. To boot, she is studying to become a translator. Two quite wonderful things that she has been sharing with us as she helps us to keep going forward.

Thanks to her, we have a few day trips planned out for the next week. We will be working with family members of those who we have met, in their home towns. So far we have a busy and exciting week coming up. And perhaps even some posts will be coming soon with stories of interviews and photos from them.

 

Alexander and his mother, sitting outside of their home further out from Ekaterinburg's center.

A sunrise and a fisherman (two separate but complete thoughts on Kazan)

10 Jun

2:45am in Kazan

The sun rises in the east towards a new day as we walk from Cuba Libre towards our temporary flat in the east. We spent the evening in the west of Kazan with recently made friends at a Cuban themed bar. They naturally served Mexican food and mojitos by the liter. Welcome to Cuba. Walking towards the sun, the sun which is now rising at 2:30am, you can see a noticeable difference in the light between one side of the sky and the other. We continue further east and even south, wondering what it would be like up in the Arctic Circle as we had originally mapped out. Two more weeks till summer solstice and the nights are quickly shortening. Originally clocking in at six-hour nights when I first arrived a month ago, to the four short hours now. I wonder if one day soon I will see a simultaneous sunset and sunrise by the time the earth decides to retreat back away from the sun until mid-December when it will change its mind once more.

 

Two days ago we met a man by the name of Fernice. He is a retired accordion professor, now fisherman, with half a mouth full of gold teeth and a friendly smile. He let us talk to him while he casted for fish in the wide river near Kazan’s Kremlin. He has a daughter about my age, a ballerina in St. Petersburg. My father has a restless photographer currently traversing across Russia, talking to strangers in a language she does not really know. Now retired, Fernice spends his days fishing. My father’s dream. While talking, he flagged down a runner on the road up from the river. It was his neighbor whose name I cannot seem to either find nor remember. He used to be a smoker and a drinker, now running two marathons a week. No one was helping him with his problems, and so, he decided to do something for himself. He claims that there are sports that are wonderful and good, but you have to put in 200% in order to succeed. This comes from not only having to work for yourself, but relying on others as well. Running is just you. You do not have to depend on anyone else, it is your decision as to how well or poorly you do. I think that is why I like traveling. As dependent as you become on others, it is still up to you whether you sink or swim. Making the most out of your time or counting down the days until your return to familiar faces and a secure bed is solely your choice. We wish we could have spent more time with Fernice, hearing more stories of his life as he throws some crumbs into the fiver near his pole. Unfortunately, we move on.

Once a heavy drinker and smoker, now a bi-weekly marathon runner

Fernice, once an accordion professor, now a full time fisher

 

Fernice fishing on a river dividing the two sides of Kazan.

 

We are quickly moving further east onto Ekaterinburg, currently on a train Asia bound. Yes, Asia. It still shocks me sometimes to realize that I will be on a different continent for the next month or so. I had realized that Russia is part of Asia, but I never really knew what to make of it. There are information websites that list countries by continent, Russia being its own separate category as no one knows whether to list it with Europe or with Asia. It seems as if no one is exactly sure as to what to make of it. Perhaps it will be completely different on the other side of the Urals, or maybe it will be just like birthdays, where one day you wake up 23 and feel as if you were still 22. Except this time you are waking up in Asia, thinking you are still in Europe.

 

 

That first step Eastward

9 Jun

 

Kazan Kremlin and Mosque

Tuesday, Christine and I made it to Kazan. Though a small step in the scope of this entire project, I feel that this was an encouraging accomplishment. I was able to purchase, all in Russian and with no assistance, train tickets from Moscow to here. I know that to many this probably does not sound like much, but Russian ticket queues and acquisition are actually quite intimidating. The lines are long and close without warning no matter how long you have waited in them. This happened at least five times and was reason for us missing the train we actually intended to take. Beyond that, the women working each ticket station are generally not of a jovial disposition and willing to slow down their speech for a clumsy foreigner. Luckily, the woman at the end of our final line had not been on her shift long and was very polite, despite speaking quickly and wanting to hurry us along. We should have taken a picture of my accomplished grin when those tickets were finally in my hand after nearly 3 hours.

 

And so, we rode a train through the night and out of Moscow. The city lights faded from the windows until all I could see was blackness behind my reflection. I was hoping for a more daytime ride so that people would be awake to meet and enjoy and the scenery would be visible as we rumbled passed. However, the quiet night was good for collecting my thoughts and projecting on the days to come.

 

Kazan Kremlin

Kazan is much smaller than Moscow, and for that I am excited. Often if I am not familiar with an area, I feel overly solitary in places where many millions reside. The people are too accustomed to people being everywhere. I do not yet know this place and it is not a small city, by any means, but it was a move in the comfortable direction.

 

Anyhow, we arrived to good and partially bad news. We discovered an unexpected and pleasant place to stay in the form of a couple, Aidan from Glasgow and Marina from Moscow, with a spare bedroom in their new flat. Further, their friend Maria is intrigued by the project and is willing to accompany us to Kamskiye Polyany (Камские Поляны) for adventure and help in translation. Win! However, this coming weekend is a Tatar holiday where the celebrations apparently get quite wild and rough. We were advised by Maria that, if we like out teeth and cameras, this is not the time to go. For about two weeks.

 

 

Aidan, Jhenya, Luke, Christine, and Maria (top row, L to R, Bottom L to R)

So we will move on to Yekaterinburg where we have an exciting contact in a nearby steel town, and visit Kamskiye Polyany on our way back to Moscow. Maria, the wonderful person that she is, has agreed to help us when we return. I am very much looking forward to that. From what I have read, it should be a fascinating town.

With our unexpected free time, Christine and I met up with a fellow traveler named Luke from Britain. The three of us explored the city and met some interesting people. Most memorable was a retired accordion professor who we found fishing in the Kazanka and Volga confluence. I will let Christine write on that, so keep an eye out for her upcoming pictures and post.

 

I am anxious to get to our first project town and hope that we will have some material of substance very soon. For now, enjoy a few photos.

Our goodbye to Lilya and Siarhei before leaving Moscow

 

Teeth this way!

Kazan Mosque

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quarter of a Century in Russia

3 Jun

 

 

Metro Bunny

So here I am, finally in Russia. I have now been ‘on the road’ for an entire month, yet am just now into the first leg of my summer a half day around from all the things I know well.

 

Christine and I are currently staying with a wonderful young couple, Lilya and Serhei. They live about an hour train commute (which includes various transfers) from city center in a relatively secluded, beautiful area of Moscow proper. Their house is completely surrounded by a wild garden of flowers, trees, and everything green.

 

 

 

Lilya and Serhei's kitchen

First Breakfast in Lilya and Serhei's kitchen

My first morning started with this. You know life is really hard when you wake up to a delicious breakfast of cereal and fruit accompanied by this kitchen and view. I love my life. Thanks, Lilya and Serhei for being such great hosts.

This morning, as Christine, Lilya and I sat talking in the kitchen a May Beetle (looks like what I’ve always known as a June Bug) flew in the window and came to rest on my hand. When I approached the window and put my hand outside, the little shiny creature walked to the tip of my finger, opened its shell to reveal its wings in a very matter of fact way, and flew off in the other direction. That is a fairly pointless story other than being a reminder of how everything is different and yet the same here.

 

 

Ykhtomskaya Train Stop

photo by Christine Armbruster

Cowboy Tree - photo by Christine

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of my existence. Existence outside the womb anyhow. We spent the day running around downtown Moscow working on any shots we might need of the big city for the project. Later we met with our new friend Vladimir, whom we first met under a bridge by the Moscow river walk. He took us to his flat where we were treated with home-made pizza and beer.

Redemption Songs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent a good portion of the night playing each other songs on a simple guitar that was impossible to tune correctly for more than a single chord. Yet, coupled with a confident voice everything fell into place. Vladimir pulled out a book and played us countless, sometimes stuttering renditions of popular Russian classics. Most of the lyrics were lost on me, but the melodies were catchy and the feelings beyond any language barrier. It was the most genuine introduction to cultural music I think I will ever encounter.

 

Vladimir

Vladimir currently lives in a smaller district just outside of Moscow called Lubitsa. His mother passed away from liver cancer a few years ago and he has no contact with his father. He loves his home town and his country despite the many problems he told us about. Because of this love, he wants change and says that he will be a part of bringing that change about. Honesty and optimism make a powerful combination, I think. Thank you, Vladimir. You really are a wonderful person.

 

Soon we will be heading to Kazan, and from there to Kamskiya Polyany. This will be the first monogorod of the trip.

Tonight, we are going to see what Moscow is like between 10pm and 8am.

 

Tree