Dead Poets Society, Russian Style

Before the semester started, I was told that I could teach one course on anything I wanted to. Although the possibility to teach “anything” seems nice at first glance, the vagueness really wasn’t helpful in narrowing down ideas, and I was glad to get advice from other teachers during our Moscow conference on what topic might be a winner. My fellow Fulbrighter Stephen gave me the great idea of modeling my class after The Dead Poets Society, a thought-provoking film in which a teacher played by Robin Williams inspires his students to push past rigid analysis to find the heartbeat of literature while encouraging them to question convention and think for themselves. The film gets its name from an old school tradition that the students resurrect in which they sneak off to a cave in the woods to read poetry.

The class has been both exciting and challenging for me as a teacher. Each week, we read either a short story or poem that is connected to a broad theme, such as “Suffering” with W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” then discuss the piece of literature, its themes, and its implications for our lives. I have really been impressed by this group of students’ desire to discuss these big issues and their ability to express complex thought in a second, or for many who speak Tatar, a third language. My fifth year students are about my age and for the most part have read more American literature than I have, which was intimidating at first, but I have to remind myself that a good teacher should have the attitude of a learner, and I really have learned so much from my students 🙂

The second Americano cameo in this post goes to my beloved neighbor in Naberezhniye Chelny, Hanna, who gave me the idea of hosting a poetry reading at my dorm, which totally fits into this Dead Poets Society frame. I haven’t had students over before, because I don’t have a kitchen or really very many chairs, but, excuses, excuses…how could I not do this? It was the best idea ever.

So, I invited my students over for banana-chocolate chip pancakes fried on my hot plate (which were devoured in minutes) and asked them to each bring a poem, in Russian, English, or Tatar, that they would like to share with the group.

First, a few girls shared some spoken word poetry by Neil Hilborn from the Button Poetry Project, which I had never heard of. It made me want to try my hand at some spoken word.

Most people drank tea out of glasses or used jam jars because I only own 3 mugs.

Next, students shared their favorite Russian poetry, both classic and modern. Some were familiar to me, like Pasternak, Yesenin and Brodsky, but I learned of some new poets such as Severyanin and Poloskova. Although my conversational Russian is pretty good, it was really hard to catch the meaning of most of the Russian poems that were read. One of my students shared some poetry that she had written, and I also shared a few of my poems.

My favorite one of the night was a piece by Boris Pasternak called “February,” which makes an appearance in a few lines of one of my favorite Regina Spektor songs “Apres Moi.” The first verse of the poem has been the perfect soundtrack to the slushy, wet introduction to the Russian spring.

Here is the first verse with a translation:

Февраль. Достать чернил и плакать! 
Писать о феврале навзрыд, 
Пока грохочащая слякоть 
Весною черною горит. 

February. Get ink, shed tears. 
Write of it, sob your heart out, sing, 
While torrential slush that roars 
Burns in the blackness of the spring. (http://www.kulichki.com/poems/Poets/bp/Rus/bp_3.html)

Sveta and her jam-jar mug.

Прекрасный вечер с прекрасными людьми 🙂

 

 

If the Master and Margarita had a Sequel

Last night, I finally hit the halfway mark in the first full-length classic I have attempted to read in the original, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita! (Well, I actually attempted The Brothers Karamazov last summer, but that turned out to be way above my level at the time.)

Portrait of Mikhail Bulgakov, graffiti from the stairwell of the Bulgakov House, photo taken December, 2010
Portrait of Mikhail Bulgakov, graffiti from the stairwell of the Bulgakov House, photo taken December, 2010

I first became enamored with the book back in 2010 when we read it in my literature class in Nizhniy Novgorod. It grabbed me from the first page with it’s deliciously creepy opening scene in 1930s Moscow where an eccentric “intourist” named Woland argues with two atheists against their claim that Jesus never existed, then predicts that one will die by getting his head cut off, which happens not an hour later when he slips on sunflower seed oil and falls in front of a tramvai.

It soon becomes clear that this foreign visitor is none other than Satan, who has come to Moscow with an eclectic entourage, including a talking black cat and a tall, skinny man in a checkered suit and a broken pince nez, to drastically change the lives of the city’s intelligentsia.  This story-line is successfully braided with the tale of a brilliant writer, “the Master,” and his lover Margarita, and the Master’s novel itself, which imagines the last days of a Jesus-based character Yeshua Ha-Notzri and his hearing before Pontius Pilate.

Although this book is extremely entertaining from a surface-level reading, it becomes even more intriguing when you delve into the layers of philosophy and criticism of Stalinist Russia that make up the meat of the novel. It is no surprise then that The Master and Margarita wasn’t published in the U.S.S.R. until 25 years after Bulgakov wrote it, and even then, 12% of it was censored!

"Manuscripts don't burn." A famous line from the novel.
“Manuscripts don’t burn.” A famous line from the novel.

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So while I won’t give any spoilers to the book (which I do recommend you read!), I will share a few reasons why I think that if The Master and Margarita had a sequel, it would be set in Elabuga. One of the reasons the novel stands alone is that Bulgakov found the sweet spot between fantasy and reality, (what literature nerds would call magical realism) to the point where the strange events that the Devil brings to Moscow seem chillingly feasible. I have found this little town in Tatarstan strangely mirrors the feel of the masterpiece. On one hand, as some have said, Elabuga is “the realest place on earth,” but at the same time, I often encounter little mysteries that make me feel like I’m in a fairy tale, sometimes wondering if Woland will step out from behind a tree and start talking to me.

Here are a few of my Elabuga experiences that have kept me on my toes:

Mystery #1: Woland’s distant cousin?

The novel opens up with the “intourist” Professor Woland, (Satan) predicting that Berlioz, head of a literature firm, will have his head cut off, and that his companion, Ivan, a poet who writes under the pseudonym Бездомный, or “homeless,” will find himself in a mental institution. While conversing, Woland gives the men his business card. I had a strange conversation in the lunchroom at my university with a guy I like to call “Woland’s distant cousin.”He even had gold crowns on his right teeth, like Woland. After finding out I was an American, he called me an “intourist,” the reference so common during Soviet times, then he used the word бездомный (homeless) in conversation. Finally, he started telling me about a Bulgarian Professor Lozanov, whom he had studied English under during the Soviet Union. The method was very intense, he said, for the first four months, you were allowed no visual aids or texts, you simply had to learn by hearing and remembering. The last five months of the the nine month program, however, you were given books. Then, he looked at me with a strange smile on his face and said,

“the thing is, it was so intense, that after that year under Lozanov, everyone in my group died except me.”

My eyes went wide, not sure if he was joking. He kept up his broad smile, his gold crowns shining, and said “yes, I’m the only survivor.” And then, to top things off, he handed me this business card:

Фото

This professor had basically covered chapter 1: gold crowns, business card, “intourist,” бездомный, and last but not least, death/mental overload.

Intrigued by this Lozanov fellow, I googled him and found almost everything this professor said about him to be true; his nationality, his methodology, the time period. The only thing I couldn’t find was information about a whole cohort of Soviets dying after a year with him. But as a Russian friend of mine said, “maybe it was secret information, and he accidentally spilled it.”

Mystery #2: The singing opera man

Around November, I started to hear this strange noise from inside my dorm room at random times. The sound would usually go on for periods of ten to twenty minutes straight, and sounded like a cross between an old-man singing opera and a ghostly moan. In November, everything in Elabuga seemed weird to me, and I think I just subconsciously accepted it as one of the quirks of my new surroundings. I didn’t tell anybody about it for over a month, and when I finally did, I realized how crazy I sounded. I mean, really? The ghost of an old man singing opera?

The sound continued, and around mid-December I had come up with a brilliant theory: it was the call to prayer from the mosque about 3/4 of a mile away from my dorm. After all, hadn’t I heard the call to prayer once in one of my classes, seeing how two of my girls closed their eyes and began to pray. An hour after that class, while walking home, I heard the opera voice not too far from the mosque.

But none of it really made any sense. I could still hear it loudly and clearly from the inside of my dorm room, a good 15 minute walk away from the mosque. One evening a friend came over who is also Muslim and she heard the sound. “What is that!?” she asked, scared.

I shrugged my shoulders. “I hear it every day.”

“If I were you, I would be scared to go to sleep at night!” She then assured me that it was most DEFINITELY not coming from the mosque. The next week, I heard it while I was outside of the dorm, the sound more resonant than I had ever heard it. I quickly grabbed my phone and began to record the sound, crunching through the snow, trying to find where it was coming from. I couldn’t tell if if was emanating from my dorm, or from another building that surrounds the mini-courtyard.

The audio file is as far as I’ve come in my little  investigation. No Russians I have asked have any idea where the noise could be coming from, and they seem to be just as intrigued as me.

And finally: The Devil’s Tower

This place makes me want to write books.

Фото

Фото

So it’s not exactly a “mystery,” per se, but it’s a really mysterious place, and with The Master and Margarita‘s obsession with the use of any form of the word чёрт, or “devil,” the Devil’s Tower would fit right into the narrative.

Фото

This sign tells us that the area surrounding the Devil’s Tower was inhabited in the “Early Iron Age” (7th-8th centuries), and that at the end of the 10th century the Bulgars built a military fortress. The tower with white-stoned citadels is the only remnant of the Volga Bulgars during the pre-Mongolian period. Archaeological and  architectural research has found a building on this site that is the remains of a fortress-mosque, built no later than the 12th century.

The view from the Devil’s Tower is a breathtaking panorama of wintry Elabuga life: against the backdrop of forest green and white, today I saw the tiny figure of a man ice-fishing in the Toima River, a man and babushka strolling down the slippery street far below, and beyond, the colorful churches and buildings of Kazanskaya Street. So in spite of all the strangeness and mysteries and unpredictability of this town, well, probably because of them, I’m really starting to feel a connection to this place. Whereas last semester, I was just trying to keep my head above water, now I have time to think and reflect and actually enjoy this town that is so very Russian, yet has a personality all it’s own.

No, You Can’t Kiss Me!

“Never talk with strangers.” Никогда не разговаривайте с неизвестными.* This simple advice would have saved me a lot of trouble if I had been conscious enough to heed it.

When I stepped on the train to visit my friends in Vladimir, I had no idea that I would soon be unwillingly locked in a Russian soldier’s embrace, his determined gaze meeting my horror-filled eyes as he got ready to plant an unwanted kiss on bewildered lips. Этого не может быть. Но это было. Here I was, stuck in an agonizingly long second, his homely face with pathetic brown eyes looking at me like I was a piece of grade A American beef…

THE STUPID GIRL WHO JUST WOKE UP

Now I won’t lie, the Russian platzkart has always exuded a bit of romance to me, the possibility for late night conversations with a handsome and charming traveler while speeding through the taiga has always seemed more epic than than a stale stroll on the beach. But just to get things straight, “Lieutenant B.”, as we’ll call him, was neither handsome nor charming. It all happened when I woke up on my platzkart bed to see a soldier in full uniform sitting on the bed across from me. He was homely and a bit stocky, with greasy brown hair and brown eyes. I must have looked startled at his presence, because he quickly said, “don’t worry, I’m just here to charge my phone, the only outlet is at the front of the train.”

File:Platz-Karte passenger car.svg

The layout of a Russian platzkart. Photo Credit: Glucke, Wikimedia Commons

“Oh, don’t worry about it. It’s fine,” I yawned, shooting him that reflexive, wide smile that my sleepiness had prevented me from censoring. That was my first mistake. In America, when a girl smiles, it’s polite. In Russia, when a girl smiles, it’s an invitation. Whether he heard my accent or not, I don’t know, but while my guard was still down, he asked me, “where are you from?”

Without thinking, I shot back “from America. I’m a teacher here.” Second mistake. Stupid, stupid, stupid girl. At the word “America,” something changed in this nonchalant Russian soldier, and before I knew it, he was sitting at the table across from me, ready to talk. Again, I stupidly took him at face value, thinking, “what’s the harm in some small talk? I only have an hour left on the train.” I asked him if he had a family, and his calculated response warned me of his real intentions.

“No.” he said. “I wouldn’t have gotten acquainted with you if I were.” With eager, puppy dog eyes, he told me “you’re very beautiful. It’s me who’s the ugly one.” Although I tended to agree, in reflexive “politeness,” I said “nyet,” and smiled.

When he offered tea, my first reaction was to hesitate; after all, the age old trick is the drug in the drink, but he seemed to read my mind, and said “relax,” and showed me a sealed tea bag to prove that his intentions were less than criminal.  He excitedly got two mugs from the conductor and poured us tea. Not wanting to be rude (stupid, stupid, stupid girl!), I sipped the tea very, very slowly, convincing myself that if the drink was drugged, then I wouldn’t get enough of it in my system to do any damage.

I joke about my “stupidity,” but in reality, by the time he had brought the tea out, I had realized that letting my guard down in those first few moments of consciousness had invited me to play this game of cross-gender interaction by his rules, rules that were very different from American girl-guy flirtation. There is a much more pronounced power differential between the sexes in Russia, and it became clear that this soldier felt a certain power over me. At this point, I did not want to make him angry. I had no idea how reactive his temper was, nor did I think anyone on the train would help me if something did happen, so I resorted to trying to play his game as best as I could, hoping that I could bide my time with fawning pleasantries until I could escape into the fresh Vladimir air. As the conversation went on, my nervousness took center stage, and the very words I didn’t want to say kept coming out of my mouth. Long story short, he found out I was single, and then he really turned on what he thought was the charm that might get him a green card.

RUSSIAN PICK-UP LINES

I don’t remember the sequence of Lieutenant B.’s wooing session, but the cheesiness and systematicity of his whole routine was hard to forget. In less than twenty minutes, this Russian soldier played me terrible Russian pop music to set a romantic mood, then sang me his own song, after which he said confidently. “You love it when I surprise you, don’t you?” (Ты любишь, когда я тебя удивляю.) He showed me pictures of himself as a child, and he asked me if it was hard for me to be without a man in my life. He could be my boyfriend just for the train ride. He could come to America with me.  He even bluntly asked, “so, do you like me?” But it was his Martin Luther King Jr. style speech that made me want to flee the train more than ever.

“What are your dreams?”he asked. After I answered, he began.

“I had a dream, to buy a car. I bought a car. I had a dream, to become a soldier. And I have a dream,” he looked at me suggestively, “to kiss a foreign girl.”

Oh no he didn’t.

“My friend dated an American, and he says they are so much more interesting to go out with. He says they’re different. And Russian girls have no soul. If you have money, they’ll be by your side, but if you lose it, they’ll leave you without a second thought.”

EATING PIG FAT

Yes, it got even weirder.

“Have you ever tried sala?” he asked. Now sala is a Russian food I had done a good job at avoiding on previous trips, but I had actually put it on my Fulbright Bucket list as something I wanted to try. From what I had heard, sala was gelled meat fat that you put on bread. Apparently, also the food of love. Lieutenant B. ran to his seat and brought me back a slice of brown bread with two chunks of congealed fat. I took a bite into the chewy, bacony fat and breathed a sigh of relief when it didn’t make me throw up. “So, do you like it?” he said.

“It’s not bad,” I said honestly, at which he decided to gift me with an entire bag of cut up fat and brown bread!

PHOTOSESSION

About this time, his soldier friend appeared in my section of the train, and Lieutenant B. asked him to take a picture of us. He wrapped his arms around me hard while his friend snapped a picture, and then, this was that fatal moment when he looked at me as if he was about to go for that foreign-girl kiss.

“Nyet,” I said firmly.

“On the cheek?” I made a face, and before I knew it, his mouth was planted on my cheek while another picture was snapped. Oy. His friend left, then he came over to me, combing his hair, (which apparently was supposed to be attractive?) and asked me, “Can I please just kiss you before you get off the train? I just want to feel the difference.”

What!?

Well, he would feel a difference for sure if he actually dared, my lips were so chapped they were cracked, and***ahem***, never having kissed anyone before, he’d probably leave with the impression that American girls were the worst kissers on earth. But more importantly, never having kissed anyone before, there was no way that I was going to let my first kiss be with some random soldier who saw me as nothing more than a check off a bucket list.

He was persistent though, and before I got off, he asked again, and in frustrated Russian, I said “I can’t!”

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

“I don’t kiss people that I’ve just met,” I told him. He deflated, finally accepting my “no,” and I breathed a sigh of relief as I exited the train. But I walked along the platform to the train station, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned around to see Lieutenant B behind me, shooting me a creepy grin. I quickened my pace, thankful that he didn’t decide to follow me. Soon, I was safe with my friends in Vladimir, memories of the soldier taking a more humorous than scary tone, but I will say that this experience opened my eyes to the need to be on my guard at all times while traveling alone, especially in a culture where what I consider to be simple politeness can be taken as an invitation to kiss me, then marry me and then finally, get that visa to America…

*The title of a chapter from one of my favorite pieces of Russian lit, The Master and Margarita. 

Ready or Not, Here I Come Dostoevsky!

When I tell Russians that I love Fyodor Dostoevsky and that my favorite novel is The Brothers Karamazov, they usually ask me, “Have you read it in Russian?” Until now, my answer has always been, “Нет, я не готова читать Достоевского.” (I’m not ready to read Dostoevsky). I can’t count the number of times that I have said those three words, “I’m not ready” when referring to reading Russian literature, Dostoevsky in particular. I usually smile and say that I can read some Chekhov (who is known at being the easiest for a second language learner to understand), but I always have balked at the thought of reading my favorite author in the original, always putting it in the “someday” category.

But I recently decided that I am never going to be “ready” to read Dostoevsky. No matter how long I wait, I’m still going to open The Brothers Karamazov and find quite a few new words and tricky philosophical ramblings. So I’ve decided that the only way to become “ready” to read Dostoevsky is to do it.

Now, I knew that to jump right in after not having any formal instruction since last summer might be a bit overwhelming, so I decided to warm up by reading a few детективы, or Russian detective novels that I picked up in Kazan a few years ago.

Photo Credit: e5.ru

The above book was called “Piercing for an Angel.” It had absolutely nothing to do with piercings or angels (other than the love interest was described as “an angel in the flesh,” go figure…), but it was a good read.

Photo Credit: lib.aldebaran.ru

The above book I finished this morning and I liked it even more than the first one. The premise is that a female secretary at a previously male-only private detective agency begins to help them solve murders using her “женская интуиция” (woman’s intuition) as her primary tool. A little cheesy, and not PC by from an American point of view, but a great language-learning tool!

Some of the favorite words I learned from this book were

Сюсюкать (Syu-syu-kat’)- to lisp (how’s that for onomatopoeia!)

Подсознание (Podsoznaniye)- subconscious (n.)

and Предательство (predatel’stva)- treachery

The detective novels were a perfect way to build confidence in reading something of substantial length in Russian. There were plenty of words I didn’t understand, but I found that I could usually figure out what was going on.

So tonight, although I am not “ready,” I am going to begin reading The Brothers Karamazov in the original. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Photo Credit: livelib.ru