Saturday, October 27, 2012

10/26 - Halfway Point

It's hard to believe that I've already made it halfway through my study abroad experience in Moscow. It's already October 26, and my departure date is scheduled for December 18. Midterm grades are starting to come our way, and I've been extremely satisfied thus far. I have mostly A's (5's in Russia) and B's (4's in Russia), and my professors have taken note of my progress thus far. I'm humbled by their remarks, since I've been logging in a ton of time outside of class to do homework, and work on vocabulary without being asked to do so. Even my host mother, Elena, has been mentioning that my speech has quickened and my vocabulary has grown substantially. In this post, I will talk about two excursions, since I did not post last week. 

First, on Friday, October 19, we went to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная война), which is named as such to commemorate the victory of the Allied Forces and the Soviet Union during World War II (1941 - 1945). Soviets take great pride in this war because millions of their forefathers sacrificed their lives to defend the homeland. Moreover, the Nazis had invaded some of the USSR's largest cities including Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), and Stalingrad (now Volgograd). Our tour guide took us on a tour of these dioramas, that depicted the sights and sounds of the war. It was extremely interesting, but also disturbing at the amount of death that occurred during that time. 

Statue in Victory Park (Парк победы) of a Soviet Soldier slaying a Nazi dragon

Diorama of the Battle of Leningrad (Битва ленинграда)

Last weekend was also a great time because I celebrated two birthday parties with my friends Bridget and Dan, who both turned 20 on back-to-back days. Seeing as I'm almost 22, this made me feel old! However, we went to a few bars around the city and had a few drinks. 

Yesterday, I had one of the most exciting excursions to date (besides the Volga River Cruise), and the location might surprise you. Not Red Square, not the Kremlin, and not some historical Russian cathedral - it was a Middle School or Средная школа (srednaya shkola). Unlike American schools, these middle schools usually host children that are aged equivalent to elementary age all the way up to senior year of high school. We had the unique opportunity to attend three classes, and essentially audit the students. Well, we thought that we would only sit an listen but, it went almost exactly the opposite in two of the three classes. I'll outline the happenings in detail.

Class 1: English (Английский язык) - Grade 9

To the surprise of Bridget, Brooke, Amanda, and myself, we were going to be the highlight of this English class. Primarily because the professor wanted us to speak about the United States to the class, and then engage in dialogues with the students individually. I had the opportunity to talk to two students, which was highly enjoyable. They were given a short script (in Russian), and they had to start the dialogue with me - it was simple things - like playing sports, going out to eat, etc. The students that talked to me had excellent conversational skills and grammar, even after the teacher warned us about simplifying our vocabulary and use of slang words. It was the favorite part of the day for me, and it made me want to teach English to Russians someday!

Class 2: Mathematics (Математика) - Grade 4

It was a great experience to see elementary age children learning math skills early in the Russian classroom. The teacher even wanted us to take a short exam with the students on writing out numbers and doing obtuse/acute/right angles! Thankfully all 4 of us received 5's (or A's in our system). But the elementary-age classroom is much more participation heavy, and students are highly active. They had to draw the problems on the board, and were active in singing songs/doing small activities amongst themselves. 

Class 3: Russian (Русский язык) - Grade 7

This class kind of scared me in a lot of ways. The Russian students (around middle-school age) were working on Russian grammar, and doing really well at it. In fact, they were working on techniques that English-speakers often take years to master. However, our resident director, Jon, warned us that oftentimes it will take years to achieve fluency, and to not be discouraged when you hear children speaking better Russian than you. Regardless, it was a great experience, and I learned some grammar techniques myself. 

Snow on Leningradsky Prospekt

Lastly, yesterday was the first snowstorm in Moscow this season. It was freezing, but the snow hardly stuck to the ground. As per usual for a first-of-the-season snowfall. I missed it though. Thanks for reading, and I'll continue to post these on a weekly basis.

Countdown to returning home: 52 Days

Monday, October 15, 2012

10/15 - Volga River Cruise

I always start with news from home in my blog posts. Just today I submitted my choices for Air Force bases, and where I want to work when I complete my undergraduate studies.  I decided that it would be best for my family, girlfriend (Daniela), and my family to stay on the East Coast, which has always been my home. Although I had the option to choose bases in Japan, England, Germany, and Italy, I decided against it. Here is the list I submitted this afternoon: 

1. Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland
2. Bolling Air Force Base, Washington (DC)
3. Langley Air Force Base, Virginia
4. MacDill Air Force Base, Florida
5. Dover Air Force Base, Delaware
6. Pope Field, North Carolina

This end of this week was the conclusion of probably the longest, and most eventful foreign journeys of my entire life. I was fortunate enough to visit 6 Russian cities over the course of this week. Starting with Nizhny Novgorod and ending in Volgograd, I want to share some of the most memorable experiences on this blog with you. At the beginning of the week, we boarded a cruise ship (теплоход), and it was absolutely gorgeous. We dined like kings, getting three course meals for lunch and dinner. Every day, we would go to the roof of the boat, and look out at the beautiful natural shorelines along the Volga River. At night we would stargaze (often after a few drinks at the bar), and the lack of light pollution even allowed us to see the Milky Way. The Volga River (Волга) is the longest and largest river in Europe, and it is over 2,300 miles long. It were hardly able to sail over all of that. 

 Map of the Journey (minus Volgograd)

Our Cruise Ship named the Anton Chekhov (Теплоход имени Антон Чехов)

I. Nizhny Novgorod (Нижний Новгород)

Nizhny Novgorod is literally translated to "Lower New City" in Russian. It is the fifth-most populated city in Russia, and we got to spend nearly an entire day there. Highlights included seeing the Nizhny Kremlin (Кремль), which is translated to "citadel." They had a beautiful version of "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," where guards paid reverence to the fallen soldiers in World War II. Our most memorable moment was a race up the staircase in the middle of the city to overlook the Volga River. Our sea voyage began here.

Skyline View of Nizhny Novgorod 

 Within the Nizhny Kremlin, on top of an Old MiG aircraft

II. Kazan (Казань)

Kazan is the capital of the Tatarstan Republic in Russia, and is the eighth-most populous city. It was easily my second-favorite city on the trip. Not only because of its beautiful summery weather, but the city offered a new perspective on Russia. The Kazan Kremlin was designated a World Heritage Site in 2005 by the United Nations, it represents an area where Christians and Muslims live in harmony. Also, Russian and Tatar are both spoken by many of the Kazan inhabitants. I'm not a soccer fan, but the city is going to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup, so its consistently gaining attention. My favorite experience was seeing the Kremlin, and the giant Mosque that stood there. 

Near the entrance to the Kazan River Station

The Kul Sharif Mosque (Кул Шариф Мечеть)

III. Ulyanovsk (Ульяновск) 

Ulyanovsk is not known for its huge skyscrapers and urban appeal, but for its name and its former dwellers. It is best known as the place where Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the creator and leader of the Soviet Union's Communist Party, was born and raised. Everywhere, we saw statues of Lenin, and we were even able to visit his former home. He was raised in a moderately wealthy family, and his childhood inspired him to create the Bolshevik Party that would eventually overthrow the Imperial regime in Russia back in 1917. Interestingly enough, Lenin's birth name was Ulyanov, which is why the city was called Ulyanov(sk). We were also able to the museum that was built to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of Lenin's birth. 

Nick, Seth, and I imitating Lenin and his comrades

Here Lived Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov-Lenin (Здесь жил Владимир Ильич Ульянов-Ленин)

IV. Samara (Самара)

Next stop on the Volga River was Samara, the sixth-largest city in Russia. It is most well-known for being "the second Soviet capital" after Moscow during the early years of World War II. Between 1935 and 1991 it was known as Kuybyshev (Куйбышев). My most memorable moment was our time spent in a Cold War bunker built for Stalin, simply known as Stalin's bunker (Бункер Сталина). It was 8 floors deep, and even had a war room, and bomb shelters built at the lowest levels. In case the Soviet Union was ever bombed, former Soviet Premier Stalin had a place to hide. As we ascended the stairs, many of the students fulfilled the spirit of the area by singing the old Soviet national anthem. I would have joined in if I knew the words!

Amanda and I near a Soviet Space Shuttle

Stalin's War Room on the bottom floor of his bunker (бункер Сталина)

V. Saratov (Саратов)

Out of all the cities we visited, I was the least impressed by Saratov. It is the 16th most populated city in Russia, but it had little to offer. We went to a park, and visited an art museum, which basically comprised our entire tour. The one interesting thing is that thousands of Germans (Немцы) migrated to Saratov, and has a enormous German influence. In addition, my second-year Russian professor at American University was born and raised in this city. During the Soviet years it was considered a "closed city," as it was a shipping point for military ammunition and supplies throughout the USSR. One famous person of note lived in Saratov. Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, lived in the city for many years. There are not many pictures of note to post, so I will move to the next city.

VI. Volgograd (Волгоград) 

By far, Volgograd was my favorite city on this trip. Before we left, one of the ACTR professors gave us a lecture on her father's experience in Volgograd (formerly known as Stalingrad) during the years of World War II. The Battle of Stalingrad, which lasted for 5 months between 1942 - 1943 is the city's shining moment, and often most horrific memory. It was a decisive during point for the Soviets, and ultimately the Allied Forces in driving the Nazis out of Eastern Europe. At the end of the Battle in February 1943, the Soviets won, but took over 400,000 casualties, with the Nazis accumulating over 750,000. Currently where the battle took place stands the second-largest statue in the world, known as "The Motherland Calls!" or "Родина мать зовёт," which stands at only two feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty in New York City. I wish I could have stayed a few more days in Volgograd, it was amazing. In addition we witness a changing of the guard at the Battle of Stalingrad memorial, the Russian soldiers looked as sharp as ever. It was great to watch and allowed me to reminisce about my marching with the Air Force. 

In front of a MiG near the Stalingrad Museum

The Motherland Calls Memorial (Родина мать зовёт!)

I'm proud of you if you made it all the way through this post, but I had to document as much as I could about my journey while it was still fresh in my mind. This was one of the most rewarding journeys of my life. I feel honored and privileged to be able to see sites that some Russians never get to see in a lifetime. Thank you for reading!

Countdown to returning home: 64 days

Saturday, October 6, 2012

10/6 - AFSC, Retro Cars, Sakharov Center

This week brought fantastic news - I finally know my job for the next 4 years in the United States Air Force. Surprisingly, I will be unlikely to use my Russian language skills in my awarded position. I will be a Logistics Readiness Officer (21RX) upon my graduation from American University. After completing training at my assigned base, I will be working with other officers and airmen to distribute fuel, airplanes, and direct the management of these operations as needed. Within a week, I have to submit my base preferences next week - my top three right now are Andrews Air Force Base (Maryland), MacDill Air Force Base (Tampa, Florida), and Bolling Air Force Base (Washington, DC). I even have choices to work at bases in Italy, England, Japan, and Germany, but I prefer to stay close to the area where I went to school. Also, the chance to live and work in Andrews or Florida would really be a dream come true. 

On Tuesday evening, my tutor took me to the Retro Automobile Museum near Ilyich Square or Площадь Ильича. This museum featured an array of foreign cars from Western Europe, and the United States. Moreover, the largest exhibit featured cars built during the Soviet era, the majority coming from the times of Stalin and Khrushchev. There were too many cars that I liked so I decided to not post all of them here. However, it was a huge accomplishment for me to talk almost the entire time in Russian with my tutor. To go an hour and a half straight in my second language is a big deal.

Yesterday, we made a trip to the Andrei Sakharov Center (Сахаровский центр). It was a great historical experience, as the museum highlighted some of the key moments of the early Soviet Union era, especially the repressions and terrors that occurred under the infamous rule of Soviet Premier Josef Stalin. Millions upon millions of Soviets were killed, deported, and exiled in the 1930s and early 1940s if they were considered "enemies of the state." 

Sakharov Center Poster (Сахаровский Центр)

Lists of those executed during the Stalinist Terrors (Расстрельные Списки)

Moreover, why is this museum named after Andrei Sakharov? He is best known in the Soviet Union as a nuclear physicist, but also as a human rights activist in a time when it was the hardest to hold his ground.  He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his work to advocate for civil liberties and civil rights reforms in the Soviet Union. He often stood at a ideological disagreement with Nikita Khrushchev over the use of nuclear weapons as a form of defense during the time after the Cuban Missile Crisis. He thought that this would eventually lead to nuclear war, which he described in his manuscripts. In the 1980s, Sakharov was arrested, and put in to exile. In 1984, he began a hunger strike campaign to advocate for his wife and human rights missions. His legacy lives on today.

"Andrei Sakharov, Thank you!" - Андрей Сахаров, Спасибо!

A Piece of the Berlin Wall outside the Museum

Next week, I will be embarking on one of the most eventful journeys of my life. We are taking a weeklong cruise along the Volga River, seeing multiple Russian cities from Kazan to Hizhny Novgorod to Samara to Ulyanovsk, and ending with Volgograd. I will be mostly out of contact this week, but I'll try to update the blog if I have time. Its a beautiful cruise ship that would be equivalent to a 5-star liner in the USA. Some Russians wait their whole lives to see these sites, and we are lucky enough to be seeing them in our first trip to Russia. Its really an honor. Below, you can see the trip map of our journey, it is in alphabetical order of the trips starting on 8 October and ending on 14 October. 

Thanks for reading! I'll look forward to updating you on my journeys next week.

Countdown to returning home: 74 Days