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Kamskiye Polyany [Камские Поляны]: A place of beautiful fields and people that was very nearly a city

26 Jul

For the last three days, Christine and I have been adventuring around Kamskiye Polyany with our dear new friend, the beautiful Yanina. She is a journalist from Novosibirsk, recently working and living in Kazan. The collision of our paths at a friendly gathering in Kazan was yet another inexpressibly fortunate event following our change in plans mentioned early. I keep thinking that one day all this consistent luck must eventually run out, but it hasn’t yet and we are making the very best of it that we can.

Yanina

Our days here in Kamskiye Polyany have been long, beautiful, and rich. Now it is growing late (after 1am) on our last night here, and we have some traveling to do tomorrow so I will keep this short and suspenseful. You will just have to come back for more, because the whole story is one you won’t want to miss. I will, however, let it slip that this story involves abandoned casinos, an unfinished nuclear reactor, secret swimming spots, and all the great people we can’t wait to tell you about.

 

Here are a few teaser pictures.

 

Nikolai, 'our' neighbor

 

 

Dacha party

 

 

Also, if you haven’t watched our promo video on kickstarter, get on it. And if you haven’t made all of your friends watch it, get on that too. Remember that telling all of your friends is a wonderful form of supporting us. Thanks again to all of the people who have been supporting us in every way possible.

A few more words on Baikalsk, after the fact [Байкальск]

21 Jul

Baikalsk at night

Oh Baikalsk. Where do I even begin to write about you? Some adventures are not within the scope of my writing abilities to share, nor should they be on this blog if I were able. Such is the case with our misadventures in Baikalsk. For anyone interested in those stories, we will regale you in person and to whatever scale is appropriate in the film. The bland summary is available in the post about our teaser video on Kickstarter.

Despite the positive outcome, I will say that our experiences there left us in a slump. I noticed in the following days that we were slower to reach for our cameras, slower to look through the lens, and slower to release the shutter. All experiences have their lessons, but I am not sure exactly what this one is. I only have speculations. Whatever the case it is a fortunate plot that our arrival in Yekaterinburg was already planned to dump us directly into Krasnouralsk, our familiar cove, for Metallurgy Day. I am getting ahead of myself, or rather blog.

Our train ride back from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg was a quiet one, and I am grateful for that. I watched in reversal the transformation of landscape and tried to keep my mouth closed and my mind active. We accomplished a good amount in Baikalsk that shouldn’t be overshadowed. So, back to that beginning:

 

Tatiyanna

Not 10 minutes after stepping out of the brutal marshruta-bus that brought us to Baikalsk, our trio met a friendly former-journalist named Tatiyana while purchasing a late lunch. She was now working as an administrator at the local community college in addition to a tourism management position. I don’t think anyone in Baikalsk supports themselves with a single job.

 

Interview with Tatiyanna. Photo by Christine Armbruster.

Besides giving us a detailed and fantastic history-to-present synopsis of the city, she gave us her number and offered to arrange a meeting with her artist friends in the symbiotic town of Utulik (Oo-too-leek).

 

In terms of history, Utulik is significantly the elder settlement. Baikalsk was only recently formed in the 1960’s around the ground-breaking of the paper mill, whereas Utulik has been a village about as long as anyone has lived on the south end of Lake Baikal, we were told. Those living there explained to us that adjoining areas have come to depend on each other; Utulik provides the culture, heritage, and artistic liveliness that keeps moral up by holding festivals and decorating the city, and Baikalsk provides the tangible work, wages, college education, and industrial core.

 

Christine and Valeriy on a bench that he carved

The chainsaw used with delicate precision. Photo by Christine Armbruster.

Valeriy spent his career in Baikalsk working as a firefighter, and is now a pensioner who decorates the city with his chainsaw sculptures. He lives in Utulik and spends his time roaming the nearby forests, collecting massive tree trunks and pretty bits of wood which he then carves primarily with a chain saw. He was gracious enough to give us a live demonstration of his art after we were taken to a few of the many locations where his work is situated.

 

He too explained to us the near worthlessness of most people’s pensions. For those who already spent most of their lives barely keeping their financial heads above water, a retiree is fortunate to get even close to a monthly US$200. Luckily, he said, no one has any illusions about their pensions in Russia and it teaches people to be self-reliant.

 

Anatoli, electrician turned painter. Photo by Christine Armbruster.

Lake Tahoe, Russia. Photo by Christine Armbruster.

Anatoli, another Utulik resident, worked as an electrician at the paper mill, where his wife still works as a shift manager. Since retirement he took up painting, landscaping his yard, and collecting animals for his many aquariums. In his yard he has a pond-replica of nearby Lake Baikal as well as another replica of Lake Tahoe.

 

 

 

Anatoli's house

Both Valeriy and Anatoli spent their lives building the houses they live in.

 

Valeriy in front of his hand-built home. Photo by Christine Armbruster.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in Baikalsk-proper the following day, Christine Dimitriy and I were walking around trying to find the motivation to strike up conversations and fend off the slump caused the night before. A few times we walked by a long, wooden street market area, empty save for one lady and her daughter selling fish. Stopping to talk to her was one of our better project decisions. Her name was also Tatiyana, and she worked at the paper mill.

 

Prior to 2009, management of the mill began to warn employees of the looming possibility that the operation would shut down. Many people did not believe, but she, her husband, and her daughter packed up and moved to Novosibirsk to take advantages of better wages and more stability. The new life did not last long, however. Their grandmother became dangerously ill, and not long after leaving the family returned to their old town and jobs to take care of their own. It was then that long standing fears came true, and the paper mill closed its doors.

 

There were no jobs, and no one had any means to leave. They sold their car, family heirlooms, furniture, and anything of else of value just to put food on the table. Tatiyana told us that the city worked to provide menial jobs and pay, but there were just too many people without employment and without the mill the city didn’t have money either.

 

One year later, operations at the mill started again. Most former employees were able to return to work, but the city is still very much recovering and the future is anything but certain. Could the mill close again? Yes. What will people do? No one can even think about it. The first time, they had items to sell. Now, everything has already been sold.

 

Even with her and her husband both working again, the wages are not enough. And so she sells fish, and works half a dozen other side jobs to bring in whatever extra money they can. Her daughter will be old enough to enroll in a university soon. Their only focus now is to make enough money to send her through a good program where she can become a pilot or train-engineer and land a stable, well paying job.

A sobering reality.

 

A mixed and muddy departure. Photo by Christine Armbruster

 

And so we left Baikalsk, with hopes of a future return. But not without enjoying the Banya with Dimitriy!

 

All bloated and pink from the Banya, with cool hats. Hot!

 

 

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).

 

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.