Tag Archives: Culture

Racism in Russia

As I was hanging out by the Gulf of Finland recently, a Russian acquaintance engaged me in a conversation about U.S. politics.

“Do you think Obama can solve the U.S. economic crisis,” he asked.

“I think he’s working hard on it – I think he has a good chance,” I responded.

“But,” the Russian persisted, “Obama is black.”

This exchange wasn’t the first time I’ve heard Russians question Obama’s competence based on his ethnicity (though I have relatively few conversations with Russians, in part due to my limited Russian skills).

More broadly, it fits into a pattern of racist attitudes held by some (but certainly not all) Russians towards people who are not white Europeans.

The media has overlooked this attitude, even as newspapers and TV stations have reported on Obama’s efforts to improve relations with Russia as he visits Moscow.

But for those harmed by Russian racism, this pernicious social fact cannot be overlooked.

Visibly foreign students, particularly Africans and Asians, sometimes face harassment and even violence in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities, as documented by the BBC in several 2006 articles.

A lot of the violence is perpetrated by Neo-Nazis, such as the ones described in this TIME article. But the attitude goes beyond the skinheads.

There are also the subtle looks at minorities, the passing comments made about people from “the south” (Largely Muslims from Russia’s southern regions and the bordering former Soviet republics), the police harassment (see this article, for example), the recoiling of subway passengers from dark-skinned people, the racist chants targeting black players at Zenit football matches — all of which make Russia an unfriendly place for those who are not white.

One of our Russian teachers, a middle-aged woman, began class by asking each of her students what we had done the week before.

After we finished describing the museums we had visited, she said, “It’s great that you get out. The Chinese students never go anywhere. Only to the store.”

The same teacher also told us about the “problem” Russia has. People from “the south,” she said, are moving into St. Petersburg and other major cities and giving birth to many children. She worried that these people (who are strong and able to produce lots of kids because they don’t drink, as she put it), will soon outnumber white Russians.


The Saint Petersburg Mosque

The Saint Petersburg Mosque

The Saint Petersburg Mosque

The St. Petersburg Mosque, when it was completed in the waning days of the last Tsar, could hold many of St. Petersburg’s 8,000 Muslims. The massive mosque stands tall near the Neva River, not far from the Peter and Paul Fortress and other central St. Petersburg landmarks.

That the mosque survived the Bolshevik Revolution and the siege of Leningrad is incredible. However, the beautiful building was used as a warehouse starting in the 1940’s, and was only allowed to again function as a mosque at the request of Indonesia’s president in 1956. The mosque continues to serve St. Petersburg Muslims to this day, and the interior of the building is open only to members

The American Embassy

We went to the American Embassy in St. Petersburg today.

It has golden arches and serves Биг Мак and гамбургер (That’s Big Macs and hamburgers).

Seriously though, the McDonalds menu is almost identical in Russia—all the food items are transliterated in Cyrillic, even my филет-о-фиш (fillet-o-fish), and there really isn’t anything uniquely Russian.

The McFlurrys (Макфлурри), though, do come in different flavors: chocolate-caramel and chocolate-cherry. I tried chocolate-cherry. It did not disappoint.

The restaurant itself, across from Pushkinskaya Metro Station, is rather upscale by American McDonalds’ standards.

It boasts free Wi-Fi, and dinner time saw a crowd of well-dressed Russians besiege the cashiers (lines work a bit differently here), while others, mostly student-looking types, sat on brown faux(?)-leather stools and chairs and pecked away at laptops perched on bright white tables.

Country music played in the background as families enjoyed their fast food, wrapped in packages identical to their American counterparts, except for the Cyrillic script.

Even the friendly McDonalds atmosphere seemed to infect the joint, to a point—the cashier smiled as I fumbled the Russian words for chocolate-cherry, and thanked me after I had paid for my ice-cream drink and fish sandwich, in English!

The Museum of Erotica

Forget about the title. For titillation, turn elsewhere. This post is actually about medical privacy.

Dr. Igor Knayzkin, the chief prostate researcher of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, runs a venereal disease, prostate, and general sexual health center in a light pink building on the edge of the Tauride Palace gardens.

Dr. Knayzkin’s clinic, however, also houses a small collection of erotica in glass cases in its white, medical hallways.

Enter the center, proceed past the first images of naked women, pay the receptionist—the same one that checks in patients—100 rubles ($3), and you’ll be given blue plastic covers to put over your shoes.

Slip the covers over your shoes, proceed past the patients in the waiting room, and enter the medical center hallways to examine the cases of sexual sculptures, phallic figurines, coffee mugs with balls, and the requisite Greek and African erotic art.

Make sure to stay out of the way of the white-coated attendants exiting exam rooms in the same hallway and the patients fresh from their various intimate appointments.

Russians, apparently, aren’t quite as fanatical about their medical privacy—HIPAA remains an American innovation.

But even if you are a bit embarrassed by camera touting tourists traipsing by as your testicles are examined, perhaps there’s good reason to go to Dr. Knayzin’s clinic. And that reason has nothing to do with the prominent doctor’s medical skill, or all the ads he has bought in the St. Petersburg metro.

You see, the medical center houses the embalmed 30 centimeter penis that allegedly once belonged to Grigori Rasputin, an incredibly odd character and close adviser to the last Tsar, Nicholas II.

Simply viewing the member is said to cure impotence (Warning: Link contains an image of said device). In any event, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than any scientifically proven remedy.

Pravda, the newspaper of Russia’s Communist Party, covered the museum’s 2004 opening and scored an apparently-exclusive interview with a Rasputin descendant:

Rasputin’s great grandchild John Nekmerson is currently living in the US. He is a grandchild of Matrena Rasputina, Rasputin’s favorite daughter. After her father was murdered, she fled to Europe and afterwards migrated to America, where she began working as a tiger-tamer. She died in 1977. Recently, John Nekmerson has visited St. Petersburg in order to see his ancestor’s private part with his own eyes. The great grandson exclaimed, “This is really it, I’ve got the same one!”

Five Strange Things at the Supermarket

Paterson (Патерсон) is our 24/7 supermarket of choice in Russia. Now that I’ve gone shopping too many times, here are five Paterson oddities, or perhaps just general Russian supermarket oddities.

  1. Eggs come in boxes of ten. I always feel like I’m getting ripped off.
  2. Red caviar flavored Lays potato chips. Also: шашлик (shashlik—sort of shiskabob/Russian BBQ) flavored Lays.
  3. There are no granola bars. No chewy bars. No Clif bars. No cereal bars. No breakfast bars. No fruit-filled bars. No low-fat diet bars.
  4. Lots of mayonnaise. But no tomato sauce, damn it.
  5. Plastic bags cost 6 rubles. This is perhaps the most environmentally friendly feature of St. Petersburg (awesome subway system aside) that I have seen thus far.

Drink, Drank, Drunk

The verb drink is irregular in both English and Russian. In class today, we learned how to conjugate it. We also got a few Russian drinking tips, tailored to an American audience:

  1. Russians drink vodka like Italians drink espresso. Be careful!
  2. Russians drink their vodka straight. And quickly. Be careful!
  3. It’s important to have a big meal before drinking a lot of vodka. Be careful!
  4. If you don’t have time to eat a big meal, at least eat a piece of buttered bread. Be careful!

Alcohol in Russia is a bit more accessible than it is in America. There is a sign at the grocery story saying that it is forbidden to buy cigarettes if you are under 18. There is no such sign for alcohol.

And Russian kids appear to enjoy the relaxed rules. Groups of teenagers, probably no older than 16, gather on sidewalks, drinking from big cans of Nevskoe Ice, smoking and killing time. Public (and underage) drinking is technically illegal, but I haven’t seen the St. Petersburg police give anyone any trouble.

Kids aren’t the only ones who drink in public, though. Grown men often walk in the streets, a cool Baltika 7 (or again, Nevskoe Ice – It’s apparently pretty popular) in hand. Sadly, I haven’t taken part in this Russian tradition—quite frankly, the Militsia, as the leather-jacketed police are called, scare me more than a bit.

But there are plenty of options for drinking beyond the street corner.

Every restaurant, pizza place, fast food joint, and coffee shop has an alcohol selection bigger than some American liquor stores. You can get a cheap shot of Ruski Standard vodka or a several thousand ruble bottle of wine with whatever food happens to be available at your chosen dining establishment.

The alcohol selection at the corner grocery store is even more mind-boggling. There’s a full aisle of hard liquor, another of wine, and another of beer. There is also a locked cabinet for the really expensive stuff, and beer fridges placed strategically throughout the store for those who get thirsty while shopping.

Why my name sucks in Russian

My name sucks/is funny in Russian for two reasons:

  1. Zach sounds like зек, pronounced zek, which is a Russian slang term for prisoner. To avoid this problem, I’ve taken to pronouncing my name as Zaaaaak.
  2. Zachary sounds like закурить (zakooreet), which means “to start smoking.” I haven’t figured out a way to avoid this problem yet.

Gay Rights Parade Attacked, Protesters Arrested in Moscow

BBC reports:

Police in Russia have broken up a protest by gay rights activists in Moscow, staged to coincide with the final of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Some 30 campaigners had gathered near a university in defiance of a ban on their march and many were dragged away by police when they shouted slogans….

The Moscow mayor Yuri Luzkhov has described gay parades as “satanic”.

Anti-gay groups had threatened to take matters into their own hands if the police failed to stop the protest.

We watched OMON (Russian Special Forces) break up the protest and drag the protesters away on BBC, one of several English-language channels we get.

As you can tell, the attitude towards homosexuals in Russia isn’t exactly tolerant. I’ve seen a few lesbian couples on the street, but no gay couples. According to my guide book, St. Petersburg is more tolerant of homosexuality than other parts of Russia because it’s more European. I’m not really reading the Russian news here (I can’t, really), but I’ll let you know if I see anything in it about the protests.

The State Memorial Museum of the Defense and Blockade of Leningrad

A million Leningraders died during the 900 day siege of the city during the Second Great Patriotic War. Some starved, some froze, and some were killed by German guns and bombs.

The siege plays a heavy role in the city’s collective memory. I’ve already written about Victory Day, but beyond that single day, memorials to the dead and reminders of the city’s heroic sacrifice are everywhere. Incidentally, there was even one on the wall of the movie theater we went to after we left the State Memorial Museum of the Defense and Blockade of Leningrad.

The museum itself is contained in a plain building, across a canal from the flashier parts of Petersburg. The exhibits—old Soviet and Nazi German uniforms, maps, guns, photos, letters, and lots of other items—line the walls of a single large warehouse room. Massive paintings of battle scenes and Soviet leaders sit higher on the walls, above the exhibit cases, framed by large gray curtains.

I was amazed by the sheer concentration of World War II stuff in the museum, although I couldn’t read most of it. There were photos of the Soviet leaders I’ve read so much about, including a particularly cool one of Gen. Eisenhower and Georgy Zhukov, a Soviet Marshall who led the Red Army to Berlin.

There were also plenty of weapons, from AK machine guns to partisan bolt-action rifles—and even an anti-tank gun—and a bunch of bombs and mines. As for uniforms, there were some Soviet ones (from what I could tell, they had belonged to Heroes of the Soviet Union) filled with medals and ribbons, as well as some Nazi ones, including SS uniforms with lightning bolts and Totenkopf, or Death’s Head skulls.

Between the military paraphernalia, there was a reconstructed blockade-era apartment flanked by photos of people living day-to-day, looking just slightly healthier than concentration camp survivors. The only sound was the ticking of a metronome on the radio—the beating heart of Leningrad.

There was also propaganda… Lots and lots of propaganda. I gotta say, I loved it. I mean, who doesn’t love Nazi soldiers portrayed as either evil or incredibly stupid? The great thing about propaganda, too, is that it’s mostly visual. So while we couldn’t figure out most of the words, the meaning got through (It helps that the word for fascist is pretty much the same in Russian).

One that was particularly amusing involved three panels:

  1. Nazis reading a complicated list of orders.
  2. Nazis marching with a full band.
  3. Soviet soldiers popping up, surprising the Nazis, and wiping them out. (The caption was something along the lines of “Our orders are simple. Kill the fascist occupiers.”

We’re planning to go back and get an English-language tour of the museum at some point so that we actually understand what’s going on a bit more.

Tonight is Museum Night in St. Petersburg. 150 Rubles to get into a ton of museums around the city—and the museums are open from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. There are buses running between the museums all night, but we need to be back on our island before the bridges go up around 1:30 a.m.

We’re planning on checking out the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Artillery Museum, where you can apparently climb on tanks and artillery and such, the Museum of the Political History of Russia (and the attached, and closely connected Museum of the History of the Political Police. Seriously.), and several others.

Also – Kirov’s apartment. The assassination of Sergey Kirov in 1934 (incidentally in the Smolny Institute, where we go to school every day) helped start Stalin’s purges.

Traffic lights and metro doors

The traffic lights in Russia are a wannabe racecar driver’s dream. There’s no guessing when they’re going to change—they go from red to yellow to green, giving drivers time to rev their engines and start edging forward as pedestrians scurry for safety. And once they’ve turned green, timers count down to the next red light, so drivers know exactly how quickly they need to speed to make it through.

The life of the Russian pedestrian is less fun. There’s no requirement in St. Petersburg, as far as I can tell, that cars yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Sure, sometimes they’ll slow down for you, but just as often, they’ll speed up—get out of the way or face the consequences.

What’s really fun, though, is crossing the street at a place without a stoplight—it’s sort of like human Frogger. St. Petersburg’s residents apparently have an excellent sense of timing.

But crossing the street isn’t the only place where the state won’t give you much of a helping hand.

When you’re getting on the metro, and the chime sounds signaling that the doors are about to close, you’d best be on the train. These aren’t nice American doors that open if you hurriedly shove a hand in. They close with a sharp thud, and you’re either in or you’re out.

I got “closed on” yesterday—it’s more surprising than painful, since the doors are at least padded with rubber. But whereas in America, one learns to shove an arm into the door to get on the train, here such stupidity doesn’t pay off.

It’s kind of nice, actually.

You have to take more responsibility for yourself—but you won’t be surprised if the striped paint on the street doesn’t make cars magically stop or if your rush to get on the train is rewarded with a bruise.