Meeting Dostoevsky

Every time I open that last book of his, he tells me that before I go any further, I must submit to the lens of the only beautiful type of suicide, the kind that brings life. The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov  frames what’s to come in the words spoken and incarnated by Christ: that only when a seed sacrifices by burying itself to break and bloom will there ever be the longed-for fruit. However robust it is in its current form, the kernel cuts itself in half, confident that its death will bring a more glorious, more far-reaching new life.

It’s both the horror and the hope of these words that draw me back again and again. As a Christ-follower, I know that they apply to my few decades on earth. And Dostoevsky reaches out, telling me to un-tense my muscles and submit. Listen, Hope, and pray toward a better living of the truth. I read him again and again because his theology is a breath of fresh air to a mind grown in Western thought. This theology is lived in his characters: no 3 point application to take home and stick to my refrigerator, just the uncomfortable realization that I am the worst of these characters, and that in spite of it, there is the inexplicable presence of grace.

My relationship with Dostoevsky didn’t start with fireworks though, but with indifference and even a little dislike. One of the readings for my semester abroad was the Grand Inquisitor. I read it before I left the States without any context and hated it. Then, when we arrived in Petersburg, I strode right through Fyodor’s ghost in his apartment, passing by the roped off desk where some man wrote some novel about three brothers, then died in the next room over.

Our first true encounter is landmarked by a shady oak in a Russian quiet place, whose knobs massaged the back of a girl with a book in her hands. It was against that tree, away from my loud, bustling tribe of Americans, that I first met Dostoevsky.

For some reason, I had chosen the same book that had gotten my old professor reamed out by his uncle as he hid among the corn stalks of his Amish childhood, because what good could come from his reading about crime and punishment!?

But good would come from Dostoevsky’s words because they revealed the chilling truth of my human heart: hadn’t I thought, somewhere in my subconscious, that it was perfectly all right to crack someone’s head in half with a rusty axe?  That Raskolnikov, raskol’, schism, splitting-in-half man, the opposition of good and evil all bound up in one soul- he took shape while I wasn’t looking. But then, hadn’t he been there all along? Words had simply taken shape over a nebulous, but firm belief I already had. Dostoevsky put words and a face to this universal condition that I saw people striving, unknowingly, to ignore every day.

I wouldn’t say I continued to read him; it was he who read me, read my tangled thoughts and wordless angsts and translated them into a wild symmetry, a reckless precision. Explanations I’d never seen anyone dare approach he rushed with the passion of a bull at a matador. I learned that I was not the only one who groaned because to be too conscious is a disease, and that two plus two equals five sounds truer, most of the time, than Euclidian geometry.

But it wasn’t until I read about those brothers painted black that my voice was poured into more than words, but into flesh and blood. Ka-ra, two sounds signifying black, and ma-zov, denoting smear and paint, still taste like melted honey on my lips. The truth of the nations, poured into a name.

The raskol’ in Dmitri, heels up, having dove into depravity in the middle of a prayer, made me fall in ecstasy with him. (Ecstasy, one of Dostoevsky’s favorite words, is more intense than, but not as strong as love.)

Ivan, though, was love in the opposites attract way. I carried his heart around in my pocket; it beat to the drum of shuffling paper clippings about the suffering of children that un-deified God.

Alyosha and I had long conversations. He understood me. I found a filter to life in his eyes, which always seemed to say “brother, your mind has cannibalized your heart; my ideals have been shattered too, but Christ remains in love and certainty.”

Then he, that moon to the sun, told me if it was proven that Christ was apart from the truth, he would rather remain with Christ. I knew these words, written in a letter to his brother, weren’t empty, because he had lived and almost died through it all. Sentenced to death for revolutionary activities at age 28, he stood before a firing squad, awaiting the trigger and death.  At the last moment, he heard “stop!” The tsar had shown mercy.

That “stop” was Fyodor’s unexpected seed. Those syllables, os-tan-o-vi-tye in throaty Russian, burrowed in his skin and were watered by the pages of a tattered New Testament while he sat in shackles and exile.  From the fertile soil sprouted a pen that incarnated our schisms and His grace. And now, in books like letters strewn about my room, he continues to proclaim the truth, that I should prepare to die, because unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground in humble suicide, the longed for fruit will never be.

A version of this was originally published in Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature

A Few Things Off My Bucket List

Before I left for Russia in September, I created a short Fulbright Bucket List, in which I brainstormed things I wanted to do before I left Russia. These past two weeks, I have been able to check quite a few items off my list. Here’s a short chronicle of items on my bucket list I’ve conquered so far:

Item #4: Ice-skating without landing myself in a hospital, or worse, finding myself at the hands of a dramatic Russian dentist named Konstantine. Those of you who have followed my blog for more than a year know that last summer while studying in Vladimir, Russia, I was introduced to the Russian medical system after splitting my chin while ice skating. Ever since my fall, I have been nervous about skating again, so I determined to face my fear and make it through at least one round of skating unharmed.  When my friend Elmira and I first set foot on the ice, I was wobbly and stiff, memories of my chin slamming into the ice closer than they had been in over a year. But after about 10 minutes of holding onto the bar, I gingerly started to make my way around the circle, and after about 10 minutes of this, I felt confident enough to have a conversation while skating. Unfortunately, the site won’t let me upload the video Elmira took of me skating, but here is a picture of us after the fact:

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Item #10: Write a poem in Russian

I love poetry, and I have found it fun to play around with it in Russian, even though I probably don’t have a strong enough grasp on word nuances and connotations to be confident that I am saying what I want to say. The first time I attempted poetry in Russian was at the age of 14 in my beginner’s Russian class, where I wrote a sad poem about not getting noticed by the boy I liked (Увидеть меня ещё нельзя). Since then, I haven’t really worked at anything serious, and the last one I wrote was a parody of an Anna Akhmatova poem for one of my friends, which chronicles our memories in Vladimir. Right now, I am teaching a creative writing course at the university, and I had my students write a poem in English. Since writing poetry is especially intimidating in another language, I promised them that if they did the assignment, then I would write a poem in Russian. I decided to write a few lighthearted verses on the torture that is Russian pronunciation, since I needed some catharsis for the frustration that comes with each Russian lesson. As the Russians would say, the poem is “ещё сырое,” or still a draft, but if you read Russian, feel free to read my work in progress:

Русское Произношение

Вы знаете, мои друзья

Какой у вас язык богат

Но знайте, также, ваш язык

Причиняет мне страдать

Русское произношение-

Жестокое мучение

Мягкий ль язык не любит,

Мягкий ть он ненавидеть.

Особенно по магазинам

Когда продавцам я обращаюсь

Язык тормозит, чувствую страх

И, вот, опять, я заикаюсь.

Поэтому, я каждый день,

Когда по улице хожу

Скороговорки глупые

Я повторяю, повторяю.

Однажды я надеюсь говорить без трудностей

без проблем произносить и ни, и ти, и ли,

Но сегодня надо ждать вопрос:

“Девушка, откуда вы!?”

Item #13: Travel to a city I’ve never been to before.

This past weekend, I was so excited to be able to visit my fellow Fulbrighter Hanna, who lives in the neighboring city of Naberezhniye Chelny (try to say that five times fast). Although geographically Elabuga and N. Chelny are close (45 minutes on the bus 🙂 ), each city has a very different culture, due to the fact that whereas Elabuga is pretty much ancient, N. Chelny was built around 60 years ago when the Kamaz car plant was built. N. Chelny has less aesthetic charm than Elabuga due to both its short history and the reasons for which it was built, but despite the lack of apparent beauty, it felt great to be in a larger city again.

The best part about the weekend though, of course had nothing to do with the city, and everything to do with who I spent it with. Can I just say that it was a breath of fresh air to be able to interact with another American, to have deep conversations about anything and everything without having to modify our speech, to share stories and find commonalities in our experiences, and perhaps most importantly of all, to be able to share the moment when we saw this Halloween costume of one of Hanna’s students:

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I definitely decided to come on a good weekend, since Hanna was hosting a Halloween party for her students. They spoke excellent English, and we had a wonderful evening eating, toasting each other, playing mafia, and watching a “horror” movie that was hard not to laugh through.

Hanna created an elaborate slug costume, which we learned (and will never forget) is called слизняк in Russian. I didn't have a costume so a student lent me a spare pair of devil's horns.
Hanna created an elaborate slug costume, which we learned (and will never forget) is called слизняк in Russian. I didn’t have a costume so a student lent me a spare pair of devil’s horns.

Here is a picture of the spread of cakes, pies, and salads that the students treated us to:

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…which brings me to the next thing on my list.

Item# 6: try one of the foods I have avoided thus far while in Russia

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This, my friends, is known as “Herring Under Fur Coat.” This dish is a mouth-boggling layered salad of herring and onion, potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise and beets. I have nothing against beets, or eggs, or potatoes, but I feel that just about anything is ruined if you add salty fish with crunchy onions. I also don’t hate mayonnaise, but everything in moderation, right? And by the pink glow of the salad, you can tell that moderation was the last thing from this salad maker’s mind. I came, I ate, and I will do my best to never do such a thing again.

I also forced myself to try one of these, but I couldn’t finish it:

Bread, butter with what I think was horseradish, pickles and fish.
Bread, butter with what I think was horseradish, pickles and fish.

Note: my goal is not to bash Russian food, since as a whole, I actually prefer Russian food to American. I love the dairy products here, the breads, the cakes and most of the salads, but I still have yet to understand the Russian obsession with both fish and mayonnaise. And of course, one of my favorite aspects of Russian meals is the absolute necessity of tea. Here is a picture of a beautiful pot of tea Hanna and I ordered while we snagged internet at a local cafe.

"Огородны чай," tea with mint, apple, cinnamon and strawberry.
“Огородны чай,” tea with mint, apple, cinnamon and strawberry.

Now that I’m back in Elabuga, I already miss Hanna, but there will be certainly more visits to come, since the bus only takes 45 minutes from her stop to my stop! Let the adventures continue.

The Country Where the G.P.S. Scolds You: A Little Post on Cultural Differences

After about a month of being here, I am still finding it hard to adjust in certain ways. I am not yet used to what, through my cultural lens, appears to be unnecessary harshness and scolding. Although on the logical level, I understand that American and Russian communication styles differ greatly, I have still taken the seeming abrasiveness very seriously, avoiding or dreading situations that will involve being scolded. My knee-jerk reaction is to take it all very personally; for example, I still felt upset hours after a marshrutka driver yelled at me when I forgot to close the door to the bus. This was all until I experienced G.P.S a la Russe.

After a restful weekend in the city of Kazan (more about that in a later post), I ordered a charter taxi-van to bring me the 3 hours back to Elabuga. I was the first passenger, so the driver (who used so much slang I had no idea what he was saying) plugged other passengers’ addresses into his G.P.S., and off into the city we went.
So you know how in America, when we make a wrong turn, a robotic but decidedly female voice says, “recalculating”? Well, when the taxi driver decided he knew better than the G.P.S., a slightly less robotic male voice blurted out in an irritated tone, «Зачем отклонились от маршрута!?», “Why did you go off the route!? You must turn at the next left!”

I thought I had misheard; after all, in my mind, there was no possible reason for actually programming scolding into a G.P.S. system. As the driver wove through the city traffic, I listened closely, and heard it again and again. “Why did you go off the route!? Why did you go off the route!?” Just to make completely sure, I typed it into Google on my phone, and sure enough, it yielded lots of results for Russian G.P.S. systems. As the taxi gained more and more passengers, not one Russian seemed to think that the constant scolding was anything but normal. As for me though, I was trying my best not to burst into laughter, both at the absurdity of programming scolding into a GPS system and at the Russians’ non-reaction.

I am sure it will still take me quite a bit more time to get used to the Russian communication style, but at least I am starting to understand it more. My experience with the G.P.S. showed me that Americans and Russians perceive scolding in very different ways. I have yet to understand exactly why scolding plays such a prominent role in Russian communication or how exactly Russians perceive it differently than Americans, but I realize now that I shouldn’t take it personally. So the next time I am scolded and am tempted to hang my head in shame, I’ll remember the irritated voice of Mr. Russian G.P.S. and do my best to crack a wide American smile.

The First Blow is Half the Battle

The theme for this week’s meeting of the Elabuga English Club was “English Proverbs,” and the proverb I was asked to explain sums up these first few weeks. “The first blow is half the battle,” accurately describes the front-loaded nature of adapting to a new culture, job, and social group simultaneously. These first few weeks have had ups and downs intensified by the newness and disorientation of a new way of life, but I have finally started to settle into something resembling a routine, and I can confidently say that I really think I’m going to like it here!

The biggest concern for me while preparing for my time here was teaching; after all, I wasn’t an education major and I had had little experience. You can imagine then how overwhelmed I felt when I found out that I would be teaching 4 classes on the college level. Five months ago, I was taking 14 credit hours, now I was expected to teach them! There was little time to reflect on my role change, however, as I was given a textbook and thrown right into the classroom. I am happy to say that it was not as scary as I had imagined it to be. My students (who are only a year younger than me!) are a joy to teach, and I already see the seeds of positive relationships being built, the development of which was one of the main reasons I wanted to teach.

A little about what I am teaching: I teach two sections of conversational and written English for fourth year students. My first group is from the English department, and they are definitely at an advanced level of English; we have already had many interesting conversations about the government shutdown, Syria, politics, and cultural differences. I also teach a current events/news class for them once a week, which they seem to be very interested in. My second group is from the Tatar Department. Basically, there is a separate department for those who want to study Tatar Language and Literature (usually ethnic Tatars), but there is also an English track within the department. Their level of English is lower than my other group, but I have found that the textbook they are expected to use doesn’t help. It is way above their level, and if I were in their position, I would feel overwhelmed and discouraged. In addition, the teachers seem to have given up on them. I have heard quite a few times, “they really can’t speak English. You just have to do drills and vocab with them.” It is true that they really don’t have the ability to speak conversationally, yet! It is going to be a challenge to learn how to teach them effectively, but I already had a small success yesterday when I modified an assignment on reported speech. By the end of the lesson, I felt like they all understood the concept, and they had fun doing it. I even got to teach them “hangman,” which they were really good at!

Finally, I am teaching a creative writing class once a week, which I am creating completely from scratch! Well, not completely from scratch. I had the privilege of taking a Creative Writing nonfiction class last semester with an excellent professor at Gordon College, and I am modeling the format of the course after this class. In short, each student will write a poem, short story, and personal story in English, and there will be lots of peer review and workshopping. I started the class by writing a cinquain as a class (an easy form of poetry), and the students chose to write about how terrible school was, which was actually really funny. I told them I understood, since I had been in their shoes just a few short months ago. Then I asked them to write their own cinquains, and I was very impressed! I believe every one of them has a poetic bone in their body. I read them “A Psalm of Life,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and I don’t know if they understood all of it, but I sure felt like Anne of Green Gables reciting “The Lady of Shalott.” We will also be starting a wordpress blog to showcase student writing, so be on the lookout for that!

Oh, a side note: students at the university had never even heard of a syllabus before! I think this speaks alot to the differences between American and Russian culture. As a person who loves syllabuses/syllabi (take your pick), I very nerdily and enthusiastically explained about how wonderful it was to know what was coming in the future and what was expected of you (two things which don’t seem to exist here).One of my students put it best in her essay comparing Russian and American higher education: in America, students get a syllabus, but “in Russia, it’s always a mystery.” I have made a syllabus for two of my classes so far, and the students seem to like it.

Socially, things have gotten much better too! Two of the teachers from my department, Lenara and Albina(such beautiful names!) took me out to lunch and a movie, and I really enjoyed their company. I also visited the local English club, and people have been eager to befriend me there. I went out to pizza last night with two high school girls from the club, one of whom wants to be a translator. The head of the English club has also asked me to give a presentation on my state next week, so it seems that I may have to start saying “no” to invitations if I am to have any time to myself to recharge.

Finally, I am taking Russian lessons with the head of the Russian Department, who is an excellent teacher. At the beginning of our first lesson, she looked at me and said, “all the other teachers have been praising your Russian and said you spoke so well, but I’m not so sure.” Needless to say, this was an intimidating way to start a lesson, but by the end she had become convinced that I could say more than “Da” and “Nyet.” My Russian is at a point now where I understand probably 70-80% of what is being said, but my speech hasn’t caught up with my head. But unlike other times in Russia, I finally have enough time for my speech to do the catching up! I have no doubt that if I work hard, I will make great strides linguistically during my stay here.

The Russian version of the first blow is half the battle” (хорошее начало, полдело откачало) is translated loosely as “a good beginning is half the work.” It has been an overwhelming, tiring beginning, but overall, it has definitely been a good one, and I now that I have thrown the first blow, I am excited to see how the rest of the year will unfold.

A Humorous Look at Russia Through Memes: Умом Россию Не Понять

Long before Winston Churchill famously said that “[Russia] is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” the Russians had their own proverb acknowledging the enigmatic quality by which foreigners are both fascinated and frustrated. Thanks to an 1866 poem by Fyodor Tutchev, when a foreigner is befuddled by the crazy things that go on in the Motherland, the Russian will casually shrug his shoulders and say, “Умом Россию не понять.” Russia cannot be understood with the mind.

“Умом Россию не понять” has become a popular meme tagline, and I hope you enjoy this humorous look into the wild and crazy world of Russia as much as I did!

УМОМ РОССИЮ : не понять...The sign says “cut out this coupon.” Looks like someone did. Photo cred: demotivation.ru

The ad with the two guys says “All for men.” Except it happens to be underneath “Ladies’ World.” Photo Credit: demotivators.su

I guess the rules are more like guidelines… Photo Credit: bomz.org

23 hours around the clock! (круглсуточно is synonymous with our “24/7”)

Photo Credit: prikolisti.mirtesen.ru

Photo Credit: 24open.ru

Photo Credit: vk.com

“Do not throw trash here!” and “Parking Forbidden!” respectively. Photo Credit: valentina-panina.ru

And we’ll finish with a cute one. Photo Credit: joyreactor.cc