Monday, July 23, 2012

For All You Vikings....

My last big Saint Petersburg adventure actually took place a good four-hour drive north of Saint Petersburg. We braved the weekend city exodus traffic jams in order to dress up like vikings and paddle around, invading various islands on Lake Ladoga. It was a weekend on a viking longship, where every new adventure is met with an enthusiastic “SKREUL!”
The north shores of Lake Ladoga, where we were, are located in the Republic of Karelia, a region which has spent history bouncing back and forth between Russian and Scandinavian rule, and this is reflected in local traditions, music, and architecture. For our host, Sasha, the influence of history isn’t enough. His ultimate goal is to build up his boating tourism business, complete with authentically-made costumes and a viking lodge for the really big parties.
We were late, of course. By the time we got to the boat launch, the rest of the group had already been taken over to the lodge. The lodge was still under construction so we pitched our tents under its temporary combination slat-board and tarp roof.

The priority for the first night was getting dressed in costume and then eating grilled fish that had been caught on the lake earlier that day. The fish was fantastic and the costumes were really cool.  And so if, of the three of us girls, I looked like the matron, I was fine with that. I had the best costume. It was hand made from linen and hand-embroidered, and I felt slightly uncomfortable after putting it on, as I promptly went to work gutting a fish.

The next day, we met the boat.
The longship makes use both of oars and sails. For more on the longship, here’s a wikipedia article: . I think our boat had holes in the hull for ten oars, five on each side. It was painted a rightfully intimidating black and decorated with a ram’s head on the bow. We loaded gear for the day and climbed aboard to bail out the rain water that had collected.
A note about Ladoga. It is wet. If you go, and you should go, be prepared for some form of precipitation. We’d brought along extra sweaters, rain jackets, rubber boots, and left in the car a change of clothes and shoes. We may have overdone it but I really do recommend the change of clothes in the car.

We spent Saturday on the water. At about mid-day we were able to hoist sails and coast for a bit, but mostly we rowed. We were too far away from the main lake to get out and see Ladoga in all its glory but the area around the lodge was still gorgeous, and it was so nice to be out of the city.

About the time we decided to head back, the wind kicked up, which meant the sail had to come down and the oars had to go into the water fast.
This trip was my introduction to rowing. I personally really enjoyed the rhythm and the physical movement of it. I got the hang of angling the oar, keeping it at a shallow depth, and really using my legs and abs for strength. I was even occasionally rewarded with the sound of the oars dipping and sloshing through the water in perfect concert.
That said, it was still pretty tough work, which meant that my meditation was frequently broken by the men of the crew, who’d started singing to boost morale. Singing and shouting and waving at other tourists in their boring, non-viking boats, we “skreuled” it back to the lodge. 
According to Sasha, and I have no other source to go on because I couldn’t find this word in any online dictionaries so I’m just guessing at how it’s spelled (and hoping I haven’t embarrassed myself), “skreul” is a word that translates to Russian more or less as “давай.” For us this meant that although it started as a word spoken as a toast, it wound up being used as a noun, a verb, and in general the slogan for the weekend, especially when rowing into the wind.
And our reward for the day’s work was a banya on the beach!

First, the boys built a fire in this rock oven. They let it burn until the rocks were hot enough, and then put out the fire and removed the wood. Then we used a tent and four oars from the boat to construct the banya. To keep the heat in, we weighted the bottom of the ten with rocks.

Our neighbors down the way were jealous.

Making our way back to the lodge after the banya, we were greeted by a rainbow. I couldn’t believe our luck that day. Fantastic weather, a day on the water, banya on the beach, brilliant rainbow, and a sunset right out of the African Savannah.
Of course, it poured buckets the next day. Exhausted, sore in parts we’d forgotten we had, we sat around under the tarp telling stories, looking at photos (yes, there is reception out there), and finishing off the rest of the food. Well, that’s Ladoga. You will get wet.
But what an adventure!!
Here is Alexander’s (Sasha’s) page on Vkontakte. You can find his contact information, check for new tour dates, or call for more information.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Свежие огурцы

It’s spring! -- although the obvious signs of this are currently limited to less ice in the early morning and more rain on my head. It seems that the natives aren't even fooled by the occasional presence of heat from the sun, as they're still shuffling around in coats, scarves, and boots. More than a few times, I’ve wondered if I’m walking along side them in a parallel reality as I blister inside my jacket and tee-shirt.
But here in Petersburg there is another sign of spring, and it smells like fresh cucumbers!
Yes, ‘tis the season for smelt (корюшки). Not a flashy or particularly large fish. But right now people are waiting in lines in markets and grocery stores for these little guys that are spending this month making their way up the Neva from the Gulf of Finland (Финский залив) to their spawning grounds in Lake Ladoga (Ладожское озеро). 
I  didn’t begin to appreciate fish in general until I was an adult so I’m a little behind in my knowledge of who’s who. That and I’m lazy. Instead of branching out in Portland for two years, I became somewhat of a salmon snob. Which means that before Petersburg, I’d never smelt a smelt.
But now I have, and -- WOW! They really, honestly and truly, seriously do smell like fresh cucumbers. This year’s season began about two weeks ago, and so a good friend dragged me to a bunch of markets so that I could stick my nose into a tub of fresh-caught smelt. He also thought to take pictures (thankfully, not of my nose).

These were actually what was left after the run on the bigger ones. Small is okay, but not for the connoisseur. And of course, the real delicacy is to find smelt that have not released their roe.

Saint Petersburg even has its own smelt festival. This year День корюшки will be held on May 12th and 13th (10-year anniversary).

Next is a great video about catching smelt along the Gulf of Finland. You learn how the locals catch, cook, and serve. Obviously, smelt are best cooked right after catching and served in the brisk outdoors!

Back in the city, if you’re out late enough at night, you might be able to spot fishermen on the bridges over the Neva. But even if you don’t wind up doing your own fishing or your own cooking, you can check out smelt cuisine in a multitude of Petersburg restaurants. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012


One component of the overseas program is an internship within a local organization. Most of the participating organizations are nonprofits working on various social issues. Alisha is working for a women’s rights organization. Richard’s organization is concerned with environmental protection laws, and Danny’s is engaged in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
The Work
If you let it, the work can be all translating all the time. These organizations are trying to get the word out about the work they’re doing, and so having the word in English will help it to reach wider audiences. For Richard, for example, this is perfect. Richard wants to translate for law firms, and this is exactly what he’s doing now. Added to that the cause, environmental protection, is one he feels good about supporting through his work.
In my case, I’m trying to learn about the state of education programs/programming in nonprofit organizations in Russia. This means I’m balancing translating and other tasks I’m being asked to work on with researching and learning as much about my organization’s education programs as I can.
A Note About Nonprofits
What I think is really interesting is a pretty substantial amount of activity and enthusiasm in the nonprofit sector. There are hundreds of nonprofit organizations in Saint Petersburg, and so one of the goals of my own organization, the Center for Nonprofit Development (CRNO -- Центр развития некоммерческих организаций, ЦРНО) is to foster greater cooperation between all organizations so that they can effectively meet the challenges of being a nonprofit.
The Good News
According to CRNO’s latest strategy update, the year 2010 showed an “unprecedented” amount of civil society activity through nonprofit organizations and also through initiatives supported by informal groups and social networks.
There is greater public awareness. This has been fostered by a general increase in civic youth engagement as well as greater influence of the internet and social networks.
The Challenges
There are many, as with nonprofits everywhere, but here are a few specific to the Russia context:
Funding/Finances: Nonprofit organizations must follow very strict guidelines on reporting where their funding is coming from. These guidelines change every year, and so one major function of CRNO is to research any changes in the law and set up seminars and training sessions for fiscal directors of other organizations.
In addition, funding sources are dwindling. Foreign granting foundations have cut back funding and narrowed the thematic orientation of various grants, while in Russia, there is no infrastructure for the giving and receiving of grants by nongovernmental bodies. For example, there are no privileges for corporate philanthropy.
Public Image: As I said, there is greater public awareness. However, this requires extra vigilance on the part of nonprofits to make sure that they’re getting the right kind of press. Even when it comes to municipal services, like snow removal, civil organizations can run the risk of drawing the ire of local authorities.
Education: There is a lot of enthusiasm in the third sector. However, there is a need for qualified employees and, more importantly, a way for employees to get qualified. There are currently no educational programs in nonprofit management and administration in Saint Petersburg.

However, organizations are tackling this problem as well. Through the forum, Social Petersburg ("Социальный Петербург"), a group has decided to discuss the issue of instituting a system for advancing employee qualifications in various areas of nonprofit administration and leadership. 

Opportunities for Flagship Students
This is an exciting but rocky time to be in the third (nonprofit) sector  in Saint Petersburg. The combination of increased public awareness and support combined with the increase in governmental restrictions underscores the necessity of the work that these organizations are doing. If you come here, you’ll have an opportunity to talk with your colleagues and learn about the issues they’re working on. Take advantage of it! You’ll have a chance to help them make a difference.


1. Центр развития некоммерческих организаций. (2011) Стратегии ЦРНО до 2014 г. Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Note About the Protests

Note: This is a re-posting of this entry. However, I thought this reflection on the December, 2011 protests was still relevant coming on the heels of the most recent demonstrations this past Saturday, February 4.

My immediate reaction to Time’s choice of “The Protestor” as person of the year was that it sounded a bit gimmicky. A late attempt to be on the right band wagon at the right time. But the article really paid a well thought-out tribute to what has been the catalyst for huge change this year.
And it’s not even late. Although it first seemed to me that momentum here in Russia was slowing after the December 10th meeting, there have since been two more rallies, the largest occurring on December 24th.
I have not myself attended any of the protest gatherings. It’s a complicated situation. Some of my Russian friends have asked me why I don’t go to show my support for their hopes for real democracy. I’ve had to point out that the Russian government has already accused my country of provoking the unrest. The last thing I’d want is for my presence in support of the protestors be used to diminish the legitimacy of their cause.
The situation was actually very confusing right after the parliamentary elections. Even Russians working with the opposition were divided on the causes for the protests. There were ideas flying around that the protests had been rigged by people paid off by oligarchs, who were looking to upset the gains that Yabloko had made in St. Petersburg. According to some, that party had won 20% in the local race.
At first, it looked like the Yabloko representitive who’d been elected in Petersburg, Boris Lazarevich Vishnevski, would be kicked out, but it didn’t happen. Everyone was blaming everyone. Yabloko sought charges against the Central Election Commission. The CEC then turned around and tried to accuse Yabloko of unfair practices.
Things settled a bit, and the elections were considered official by the government. That set off the bigger backlash. And as was brought up in the Time article, it’s young people who are frustrated. And with good reason. A heard one particular voting story about someone, who wound up having to go to a second voting site because the woman running the first one had been instructed to get votes for United Russia.
It’s a good tactic, one poor old woman being used to appeal to other poor old women to get their votes. What’s more important for women like them, a far-removed government and election system or day-to-day survival? She’d been told she’d lose her job if she didn’t get votes for United Russia, so she went around to all the old women she knew in that area and asked them to vote for United Russia so that she could keep her job.
And that woman, running the voting site, told the voter, “If you are not going to vote for United Russia, please go vote at another voting site so that I don’t lose my job.”
This is why people have been gathering. Everyone I’ve been around has said that the one thing people do not want is a revolution that will bring chaos, but they are tired of the corruption. However, on the other side of that, there are many who are afraid of losing their jobs if word gets out that they participated in a protest. The fear of instability brought by sudden change is still very fresh.
It’s really hard to say what the next months will bring. Will the movement gain momentum or lose its drive and support? How much worse will the situation have to get before people get really fed up? And then what? Will the government listen and change to fit the will of the people? So much could happen in the little time left until the March presidential elections. But whatever happens, I feel lucky to get to witness it. This is history.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Other Side of the Wall

In Petersburg, you will see some fantastic historic buildings. However, you will also see what one friend of mine called "Petersburg ruin." Many of the city center's historic buildings are literally crumbling. The difference between restoration and demolition is a matter of money -- more specifically, who has the money and what they want with the building. And for the people already living in these buildings, the reality can mean anything from living in squalor to sudden eviction.

Check out this 20 minute video on residents of Saint Petersburg, who live steps from the Hermitage. For those of you planning on spending a year here, this is a very candid look at a deep-rooted problem that you will almost certainly wind up discussing with teachers, host families, and friends:

Eviction on Millionaires' Street - Witness - Al Jazeera English

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ask a Stupid Question

Easier done than said and I say it’s even necessary. Although when I asked mine, I did so with some hesitancy. It was one of those questions the answer to which seems so logical that no matter where you are in the world, that answer would be the same. However, on the way home, when it was clear that the train I was on would not, in fact, be returning to the same station from which it had left, I knew that my question had been legitimate.

Obvious. Why on earth would I ask whether a train that was leaving Moskovsky station would then return to that same Moskovsky station? That line of perplexity was all over the face of the girl behind the glass, and it looked as though I was the first customer ever to have succeeded in bringing her to this level of disorientation. After a good pause, she pronounced the words, “In general, yes.”

And in general, I’d say ask the question. This is my conclusion after a number of years living overseas. In your home country you grow up with your home culture and your culture’s idea of what is logical. Once you leave, you’ve got to figure out someone else’s logic. Which is difficult because, well, it’s logic, which means you can’t argue with it. Even if it’s dead wrong.

I asked because I had to. I’d made the mistake of researching too thoroughly the various train routes that would get me to and from the city of Novgorod. Depending on the website, I was given a choice of a three-hour trip from Novgorod to Moskovsky station or a four-plus hour trip that would land me at Vitebsky station and tack on a metro ride into the city. Obviously, I wanted the option that would take less time and bring me closer to home. But no matter how many sites I tried, I couldn’t make the internet come to a consensus on what my reality would look like.

So I asked at the station. And I got my answer. And thirty minutes before my train left Novgorod to come back to Petersburg, reality showed its face. I thought about the wisdom in having asked that morning as I rode back on the train, not three hours to Moskovsky and not four-plus hours to Vitebsky, but somewhere in between the two. I was riding on a third option, which my research had not turned up (and I’m wondering if the first one really exists). I was going to Obukhovo station. It’s not in the center of the city but it is on my metro line, so things weren’t as bad as they could have been.

Yes, both the internet and the station representative gave me wrong information. I still say ask. In general. Living abroad requires a balance between trust and doubt. Asking a seemingly stupid question is good practice honing your intuition for “what might be,” especially when your gut is nagging you. Listen when your gut is nagging you. In a country of different logic, the reality of a situation can often be neither what you expect nor what you are told. Doubt is a step toward being a little more prepared for reality.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!!

Here are a few pictures of how it's done in Petersburg!

Some people stay home with their families, others run off to the dacha for the weekend. Still others take off for places like Finland or Dubai. But there are still plenty of people left in town to make for a decent street party!! We rang in the New Year with the crowd on Palace Square right in front of the Hermitage.

There were dancing, singing, and
other acts on the stage in the
middle of the square, too far away
for us too see, but that was fine.
We had plenty of entertainment
right in front of us, what with
people in the audience sending up
their own fire works!

And this ...

... is Nevsky!!