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Postcards!

31 Jul

There may be a few of you out there who do not get especially excited at the mention of postcards. That is understandable to a degree, but get excited about our postcards. They are nothing like any postcard you have ever received –guaranteed– because as Christine put it, we decided to “get crafty in Siberia” while we were there a few weeks ago.

What have we here?

All throughout this trip we have been taking some pretty great photographs. Many of them, due to limited space, have not been posted to the blog. We have been selecting the ones we think are the very best, and making them into limited-print postcards, which you can have sent to you by going here. This post is to tell you a little more about them.

 

How are they made?

We figured out early on that getting professionally printed post cards was probably not going to happen easily. And besides, dropping off ‘front’ and ‘back’ images to a printing company and returning later to pick up postcards that look like anyone else’s postcards is boring. We draw the line at boring; It just cannot be tolerated. On top of that, I have never been a fan of the print quality of most postcards I’ve come across. They are typically made to be cheaply mass-produced, which is not exactly the end result for which we are trying. Both Christine and I take too great a pride in our work for that. I am going to call this three strikes against a printing company.

Christine, painting on glue

Instead, we found a nice photo print shop in Irkutsk that would making beautiful, durable photo-prints on a semi-matte paper-material that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. Whatever it is, I am pretty sure it will stand up even to the Russian postal service and various humans’ sticky fingers.

The problem with normal photo prints, though, is that they are one sided and thin. Not great for postcard use. So solve this issue, Christine crafted a nice looking back side to be in the same dimensions as our photos. Then we bought some glue and went to town. And by went to town, I mean we had “craft-night” in our friend Dimitriy’s kitchen and then later spent days on the train hand-making postcards.

 

Tree, sticking the two sides together

This involved a complex process of lamination (we painted glue on the backs, put the photo fronts on, then left them under a heavy stack of books for a few hours) and edge sealing (a bead of glue) applied with precision edge-sealer (a steady finger).

In all seriousness, though, they are turned out beautifully. We think so, anyway. Anyone who has received one already, would you care to leave comments either vouching for or debunking this claim? Let us know what you thought of yours.

Compression

 

 

 

 

 

 

Selection:

We probably spend much more time debating which photograph to send to each person than we should, but trying to match a picture to a person is a challenging and fun process. Hopefully we are succeeding well enough. Also, each post card is limited in print. So far, only two of each exists and I don’t expect this to change. We have more than enough photos we want to share.

 

Christine, licking out those stamps

Writing:

We have had some trouble in this area; We have been running out of room to write.

Mailing:

Russian post offices look pretty similar to those in the US except for the sale of lottery tickets, cigarettes, and children’s books. However, I have heard stories warning of reliability. If you don’t receive a postcard after a month, it may have been eaten by the Lake Baikal Monster. Send us an email and we will dispatch another!

A mailbox that looks unsettlingly like a trash can

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the Post Office {Почта}

 

Hand photographed, hand-glued, hand sealed, hand-written. Really cool. Tell your friends.

 

 

Searching for Inspiration

30 Jul

Kazan at sunset, looking towards our campsite from the other side of the river.

I think all journeys somehow naturally contain a difficult lull that always seems to come at a crossroad. It is that mythical moment when two travelers, dehydrated weary and worn from months of moving their feet, arrive at a dusty intersection with three signs: Backwards, Nowhere, and Nowhere. All that can be done is the setting-down of each heavy pack to gaze, but nothing in sight gives a ready indication of which ‘Nowhere’ could lead to somewhere. Maybe both eventually will, but there is no telling. The combination of low spirits and a severe lack of clear strong choices is a potent poison. In rock climbing it is called the crux: a move or section of a climb, often coming well into a route when one’s muscles are already fatigued, that is particularly difficult. Every movement is more precarious and each decision is harder to make. Sometimes the crux is only difficult because of its timing.

 

Kazan has been strange to us. We came here over one month ago and found our journey’s internal forces impatiently hurrying us along with nagging shoves. And so we moved. We returned here with the same purpose, and this time successfully made our way to Kamskiye Polyany (which I still have yet to write about, I know).

We left there, though we enjoyed our time and felt we could have done more work, because we did not wish to strain the generosity and over stay the welcome of so many wonderful people who opened their homes for us to eat elaborate home-made food, bathe, and lay down our heads for a moment. Russians are generous and loving people to their guests, which makes for a difficult debt for low-budget travelers with which to keep up. We must be careful not to abuse or forget it.

Back in Kazan we have run into a few problems. We don’t know where to go, and we don’t know where to stay. 1) We now have less than three weeks before we hurdle ourselves back across the Atlantic and onto our native soil, and the pressure to return with a beautiful documentary. 2) As of yet, we have not heard back from our busy friends in Baikalsk about a private factory tour. 3) Christine still needs to leave the country for one week in order to meet her visa requirements upon our departure. 4) We have one more specific town of interest to visit, but it is back on the other side of Moscow making it best left to be done once we are already in that area. Logistically, we also can’t spent two weeks there. 5) Here and now is a saturated travel time in Kazan, and we cannot find consistently reliable accommodations within our budget. Finding a bed to sleep in has become so difficult and time consuming that before we’ve realized, an entire day has been spent finding a place for just one night. The next day, this cycle repeats and we’ve had little chance to plan our next move.

Further, I have my own illogical and distracting reason for wishing to stay here in Kazan for two more days, however unrealistic and impractical doing so may be.

 

Backed into this strange corner of simultaneously having not enough and far too much time, we have taken up living in a tent. It was cheaper than spending a night in a hotel and promises future use, though it does mean getting rid of more personal items and gifts to make room in our backpacks. We found a little paradisiacal and secluded spot of beach with a beautiful view of the Kazan Kremlin and Mosque, where the sand is soft and the shade is cool. It should be a good place to think and write.

 

Our stable roof {Крыша!} and fortress against the incredible might of Russian mosquitoes , with the Kazan Kremlin behind it.

 

Our options, as we have recently discussed them, amount to this:

-We hitchhike down to a city in the Samara region south of us called Smyshlyaevka [Смышляевка] which is sort of a monogorod of 7,300 and contains a very large aircraft graveyard. The settlement is based around a large airport that, through various years, was used for passenger airline access to nearby Samara and later military activities. I can’t seem to find what it is used for now other than the graveyard and an aircraft club. From there I could head to Ufa and visit my friends while Christine clears her visa in Ukraine, then we would head to Moscow and Pikalevo, and home;

-We stay here, trapped forever in limbo;

-We start making our way to the Black Sea and attempt to pass through as many monogorod as possible along the way, spending only a few hours in each to take some pictures and video for a montage sequence. Christine’s visa requirements are taken care of by being in Ukraine. I think this option has been removed due to impracticality and time limits;

-We head west of Moscow and up north to the Murmansk region, and do a montage there. Christine could clear her visa in Finland, then we could visit Pikalevo on the way back to Moscow.

 

For whatever reason, none of these options rings a bell of confidence. Backwards, Nowhere, and Nowhere. Soon the moment will come, though, when we must re-don our packs and head towards that mysterious, unknown somewhere. Perhaps all we need do is catch up on writing a few postcards, and then take that proverbial first step for the great winds of life to carry us away and give us direction again.

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!

 

 

What we have been doing

20 Jul

OK. So we have gotten feedback that people are curious about more than just the towns we are visiting. You have been asking us questions surrounding where we are staying, how we are getting around, how we are meeting people, and where we are on a daily basis. All that stuff. So, we are going to start divulging that information as frequently as possible. As our final month here is rapidly and rudely invading our personal space of comfort and throwing us down a rapid slope towards our departure, we are keeping very busy but will try our best to be frequent.

 

I am now sitting on the floor of a friend’s flat in Kazan. We arrived in this city for the second time yesterday afternoon on a train from Yekaterinburg. Our plan was to catch up on the boring office-work side of our project, and head to Kamskiye Polyany this weekend with our friend Maria, whose flat we are staying at. However, she just learned today that the architecture firm where she is employed has entered some new competitions and they will be working overtime for a while. This means she will be unable to join us and we need to find some new adventure partners. But, finding someone who is willing to abandon their life for up to a week to travel and translate on short notice and for no pay is not always easy…

 

This is a perfect time to explain how we have been doing this all along. As neither Christine nor I speak fluent enough Russian to be able to engage in heavy conversations about life history, fluctuating economies, and a persons dreams, we have been finding volunteer adventures who speak fluent Russian and English. We offer to cover travel expenses and a chance at some adventure in return for the help. But how do we find people?

 

There is a wonderful web-network of traveling adventurers and intellects called Couch Surfing. For those who have not heard of it, Couch Surfing is, in its simplest form, a network of people who allow people like us to travel cheaply by offering their couches as a place to sleep. More correctly though, it is a powerful network of open-minded people who have made their lives open and available by offering friendship to fellow couch-surfers.

To get involved, a person simply needs to sign up and go through a verification of identity and location process (to ensure safety).  You then have the chance to offer any spare bed, couch, floor space, or even simply time to those passing through your area. In return, you have access to millions of people all over the world offering the same to you should you end up traveling yourself. Many people can’t offer a place to stay, but offer to meet up for coffee and a stroll around town. Instant friends, all over the world. It is also a much better way to connect with a culture than staying in a hotel.

Not only has couch-surfing been invaluable to us in finding a place to unload our heavy, camera filled backpacks and sleep for a night, but it has provided a strong starting point for meeting people to join us in our investigation of life. We search for couch-surfers with strong language skills in cities nearby the smaller ones we wish to visit and tell them what we are up to. Many are busy with jobs or university and so can’t travel, but they all have friends and acquaintances. Eventually, we find ourselves an improvised travel partner willing to head off into the unknown for a few days.

All of our couch-surfer friends are representations of the best that humanity has to office in completely unique and memorable personalities, and this project would never have left the big cities without them. Many of those we have met grew up themselves in precisely the types of small single-industry cities we are trying to reach. They understand the struggles and joys of small city life, and therefore understand the goal of the project.

And so today, we are reaching out to the adventurous souls of Kazan, hoping to find someone who is interested and able to spend 4 hours in a hot, bouncing bus to Kamskiye Polyany to walk around and talk to strangers for a few days. Wish us luck!

Our Teaser Video Kickstarter!

16 Jul

Life is full of many adventures if you are willing to seek them out. Here, in Russia we have been trying to investigate life, unfiltered and genuine in all its ugliness and beauty. In Siberia we spent some time in Baikalsk. Our time there ended in a rather educational misadventure: Christine, Dimitry and I were arrested while trying to obtain some needed footage of the paper mill there. It was our mistake: UNESCO was to arrive the next day to investigate pollution of Lake Baikal by the mill, and everyone was on a heightened watch for ‘eco terrorists and eco terrorist journalists.’ Woops. Given the 40 year history of environmental protests to close the mill, it is no surprise that everyone was on edge. Before you ask, don’t worry. We are fine! We had to give up all our footage, but despite the worrisome start the experience ended on a positive note. We made friends in the local police department and in the factory management. There is even hope that we will be able to return for an inside tour.

For today, Christine and I are back in Krasnouralsk to visit Vasiliy again with our friend Sveta to help us out. Today is Metallurgy Day, one of the biggest holidays in the Ural region because of the dependence on metal related industries. It is commonly celebrated by all mining and smelting towns around here and is quite a big deal. Parades, bands, parties, and games. Oh, and don’t worry, we also went mushroom hunting this morning. More on all of this later.

At this moment I would like to announce that we have launched our Kickstarter campaign and released the first of a few teaser videos. Please read the information on the kickstarter page for the what and why.

Links to our teaser video on Kickstarter

Christine and I really can’t express enough gratitude to everyone who has helped us with the project up to this point. With all that has already been given to help tell this story, it would be a shame to let it go to waste. So please, tell everyone you know about what we are doing! Every word passed on to new ears helps. Also, look forward to some posts elaborating on the killer items we will be making for you! It is borderline immature how excited we are about them. Maybe that just means we are crazy, but it could also mean they are as great as we think they are!

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).

 

Salt Lake to San Antone

7 May

Written Thursday May 5, 2011

Just 60 miles outside of San Antonio, Christine and I are nearing the close of our third day of travel. Tuesday saw us an appropriately awkward farewell from Provo. We were delayed by unforeseen bureaucracy from Christine’s university, which elongated our goodbyes. Goodbyes, in my opinion, are typically unpleasant by nature and therefore not something I care endure any longer than necessary. Prior to that my alarm came, of course, too soon into a morning after a night of expected anxious restlessness. Though intellectually I knew that I needed a good night’s rest over packing and re-packing my bag, preoccupation is a complex issue. And so I spent the night debating the vitality of each item to make its way into my bag of treasures again and again. Every time the size and weight seemed too much and the contents too few.

 

Equipment: 1 Video Camera, 1 Shotgun mic, 1 Lavalier mic, 1 Audio recorder, 1 Digital SLR with a 16-35mm lens, 1 35mm Film SLR with 2 lenses, 1 tripod, 1 home-built steady-cam, 25+ various batteries,  Too many chargers and cables, but each with a frustratingly unique purpose, A tiny photo/video editing computer, 2 portable hard drives, and a bundle of memory cards.

Personal Items: 1 bag of toiletries, 1 pair of shorts, 5 pairs of underwear, 7 pairs of socks, 4 shirts, 1 swimsuit, 1 small towel snatched from a ubiquitous cheap motel swimming pool, a sleeping bag, 3 books (one, a dictionary), and 1 map of Russia

On top of that I have the pair of pants, underwear, shirt, hoodie, and flip-flops I wore out the door.

 

Calling it a bag at this point seems to undermine the true function of this particular bag at this particular time. After all, given the full scope of contents and role, it feels more correct to call it my home; The only consistency until I step, timidly I imagine, back to the familiar soil, grass, carpet, and embraces of what I’ve left behind. My shelter. My space. My hope. All contained in this bag of a home…and I love it.

Wednesday was spent in the collage-cities of the Phoenix valley. It was encouraging to see that many of the half-built shopping centers, apartment buildings, and houses of 2007 are now newly finished or at least nearly so. Not so encouraging was the unusually high number of houses for sale, foreclosed, or abandoned per block just in driving around. In parallel, as one might expect, nearby shopping centers were similarly barren.

I was shocked to find that the very shopping center mentioned as the “usual collection” where the northern intersection of the Loop-101 and the I-17 occurs to be one of these stricken former shop locals. The movie theater and a pair of restaurants made up the majority of still open businesses where once at least two dozen had been.

 

By recommendation, we also ventured out to some of the outskirt towns that had been hit particularly hard. One particularly bad vantage point contained an unobstructed view of at least 5 abandoned homes within a 360 degree view. Video of that later.

 

 

 

One shopping center we found was entirely devoid of businesses. It was in a good location right across the street from a reasonably sized neighborhood on the east side, some gas stations and a Lockheed aircraft facility of some sort across from the Goodyear Airport to the south. I’m curious about it’s utterly vacant state.

 

 

Anyhow. I am finishing this post a day and a half late for which I apologize. It is also late at night now and we have an early start tomorrow to procure a few last-minute items (such as a pair of shoes and a compression sack for my sleeping back because I ripped the last one). So I bid you all good night.

 

Tree

What Stays and What Goes

3 May

Today we leave Provo for nearly four months.  Beginning in Provo, down to San Antonio where we will split, Tree working from Seattle to New York and I straight to Moscow where I will find him at an airport at the end of the month.

Just a few days ago, I was informed that due to a lack of business, the leaser of my new house was not getting a paycheck.  Therefore upcoming rent would have to be paid through acquiring debt and if the next paycheck didn’t come either, she would have to move.  In the meantime I would have to move out just incase she couldn’t make it while I was gone.  In the meantime as in the five days before I left, three of which I would be in Seattle.  Just the story we set off to document, now quickly crashing into my own life as I took one car load to the dumpster, another to a donation center, and the last bit into boxes to store until I return to Utah to deal with them.  My life dream of being able to fit everything I own in my car becoming a reality as I take what I can grab and run.

I have lived 2 ½ months out of a backpack and about to stretch that personal record to 4.  Why cannot I just make that bag my only bag of belongings?  I came out to Utah with three suitcases.  It baffles me to see that those three suitcases has turned into three car loads full of materials I can’t seem to throw away.

It’s interesting how when you get to a point where you have to walk away what becomes important and what gets left by the wayside. Those trinkets and necklaces that have been saved since I was a child are now too heavy or compiled together just take up one more box full of stuff that cannot fit in my allotted car space.  A new meaning has been realized for the term “economy car”.  Years of safekeeping things and they end up in the donation pile.  A single earring from a set that once was my grandmothers, a necklace purchased in Croatia, the last slip of paper a best friend wrote on before we stopped talking nearly two years ago.  Sometimes I think of those things and wonder if there really wasn’t enough space or if I could have squeezed one more small ring into a box.  Do you pack the things you absolutely cannot live without first and throw away the rest without looking?  Or do you painfully sort through everything and pick out the bad parts and try to take the rest?  It’s the choice to make between if there is a fire or if you were moving back home after college.  But what about when you are walking away from your home?  There was never an assembly about that in school.  We never had eviction drills.

I sit here in self-pity then realize, this is exactly what I am going to document.  Apparently it is not enough for me to just read about it, but I get to experience it first hand.  Naturally, not as bad as those we will be talking to as I’ve only been out of the house for five years and haven’t acquired that much.  Nor do I have a family.  Nor has my career been shattered.  I have simply had some plans fall through a few days before I take off and now get to move into a friend’s garage, in hopes that something will turn up in the next four months so I am not a permanent fixture in that garage.  At least I have that as an option, and that’s better than nothing.

 

-Christine