The law of adoption ban in Russia

As a person adopted from Ukraine, this relatively recent issue has been of substantial interest to me. In essence, Putin has made it impossible for American citizens to adopt children from Russia, which now includes Simferopol, the city from which I was adopted. When I tell people that I’m adopted from Simferopol, the issue does tend to come up.

The first person I spoke about it with was my professor Svetlana nikolayevna, who asked me if I had heard about the law. In her opinion, it’s not very good because children are denied a potentially good home. Hers is an opinion with which I agree.

The next person I spoke to about this was my language partner, and she told me an interesting story. When the law was being decided in the country, rumors were spread around about a child who was adopted from Russia to go live in America who had died in a car crash. It was decided then, by the country, that it was too dangerous for children to go to America. People were frantic and worried that kids were going to die.

The last person I spoke to was a woman who I’ve become friends with over the course of my stay here. She said much the same thing as my conversation partner, if a little more broadly. She is under the impression that it’s common for bad people with incorrect motives to adopt children from Russia. That there is no screening of individuals from America who wish to take on Russian children.

I approached this issue, inwardly, with a fair amount of skepticism. I find it hard to believe that there truly was any intention to hurt children from Russia. What I believe happened was the use of a few terrible instances, freak accidents, to reach a political end. This issue is an easy one to scare a population about, children are involved. It’s very easy to look at a terrible instance that my have happens one time and convince a population that it’s reoccurrence is imminent and inevitable and that children should be protected. As one of the aforementioned children, however, I can say I turned out fine. Yes there are a few things I like to complain about, but my parents love me extraordinarily much and I would be much worse off without them. In an attempt to stray away from a sample size of one, I can say that I have connections with others who came out of similar circumstances, some of them great friends. I’ve never heard of something bad happening to a child whose parents wanted them so badly, that they travelled all around the world to get them.

The danger in this kind of misinformation and fear spreading, is that children are denied homes with perfectly willing, capable, loving parents. If this law had been enacted before my time, I would be living a much more difficult, probably tragic life. That I know for sure.

I suppose the takeaway here is that it’s easy to scare people, and fear has consequences. It could be a lesson to us, to be wary of scare tactics of our own politicians, and to always keep an eye out for the political gain to be had, like a fight back on American sanctions against Russia.

Attitudes toward the US

To start with the most positive, I had lunch with a new aquantaince of mine and we spent a lot of time talking about literature and the books we read. This woman is about 27. Her favorite authors are Steinbeck and Fitzgerald and she mentioned something to me I thought was interesting. She said that she felt much closer to these books, that she feels like in a past life she was American and really wants to live in America. It was a little strange to see that kind of fascination with my country from someone else. It’s almost akin to the fascination I’ve had my entire life for Russia and Ukraine. She likes the openness and frankness of American literature, and the energy of the country. It was overwhelmingly positive

The second person I’ve spoken to about this is my friend Mikhailo, about 19. His view of the country is that there is more opportunity for being entrepreneurial. He’s a very forward thinking and forward minded person and craves the business opportunity in our country, and laments the relative lack of opportunity her feels in his

The final person is my dear friend Baba Natasha. She thinks that America must be a cool place to live but has very little concept of what’s in America. She once asked me if ice cream is the same. What I get from her is the notion that it must be a good place but little else. She asked me what kind of food we eat and how I spend my time, questions about the university system and is it common to live so far from your parents?

My takeaway is this: regular people in Russia have regular opinions. Especially in St. Petersburg, everyone is aware that people aren’t the politics of their countries. Baba Natasha has a fierce love of her country and traditions though, visible even through her excitement in learning more about me. People are kind and good and driven and interesting everywhere, and so far, seem to be aware of that even when speaking to a person from a different country. I might be an American but I’ve so far not seen any bad connotation with that fact

Borshch, a traditional Ukrainian dish

When most people think of Russia they think of potatoes and beets. So in a restaurant one day, I ordered borshch. I asked the waiter about it and was surprised to learn that borshch is actually Ukrainian in origin. Ukraine and Russia are very close, and it’s easy to see how the dish spilled over but according to this waiter, Ukraine did it first. The special part of its presentation? A bay leaf sitting in the broth for only five minutes before the soup is ready to be served. The role of soup is very important in Russian culture, as a warm dish would be in such a famously cold country. It’s one of the easiest dishes to make in times of struggle with whatever happens to be on hand and it therefore makes sense that it would catch on. I was in a bar once speaking with the bartender and mentioned that I want to practice russian more, and his first advice to me was to go to the old “Soviet stolovayas (cafeterias) where they serve s**tty soups.” Despite the roughness of the comment, the noteworthy part is his mention of soup before any other dish. So the most well known Russian dish in the most important food group of the country, is apparently Ukrainian. I’m sure many would refute me on that, but it’s just what I heard.

New Year’s Eve

I’ve always heard that New Years in Russia is a much bigger deal than in the US. Since the country was officially non-religious for so long, it became like Christmas. To be honest I was a little surprised when I heard so little about presents. After talking to a tour guide about the holiday, I learned that a lot of people celebrate it and that there is actually a big celebration in the square of the winter palace, but that it’s more of a tourist attraction than something many natives attend. From the family that I’ve spent time with, I learned that for most, New Years is mainly a time to take a little time off work, travel, see family, and have a little fun. So not that different, except for the fact that Christmas hardly rivals it.

Salted Fish, Anecdotes, and Present Perfect

As I’ve mentioned in other blogs, I’ve made friends with a family in my dvor (apartment complex). This week the mother of the children I play with has invited me to dinner almost every night. I’m finally eating properly! While my host family was a relative disappointment, with awkward conversation and bad food (and not enough of it), I’m really lucky that the other families where I live have opened their homes to me. My first night, after dinner, I sat with Oksana (the mother) and we drank coffee and talked about love and life until two in the morning. I’ve gotten to see her children in their home and learn how the youngest is learning to talk (sometimes we even make the same mistakes). Her food is wonderful, and there’s a lot of it, thank goodness. I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better cultural experience. Last night, I even got my moment with Oksana’s husband and really, for the first time in St. Petersburg, got to experience some of the culture here. Her husband is actually Ukrainian, so you could say I got some Ukrainian culture in there too. Yevgeniy, Oksana’s husband, sat down with me over a salt cured fish, yes a whole fish, and shared with me, told me how to eat it. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. Over the fish (and beer, out of a mug, because that’s how beer is drunk with fish according to Yevgeniy) he asked me about american culture and tradition, all of my answers were poor, but fortunately he was comfortable enough talking. Then he told me anecdotes, which is the common form of humor in Russia. A lot of them had to do with Moldovans, whom he really enjoyed making fun of. Interestingly enough, he told me that old Soviet anecdotes aren’t funny anymore, they’re just “stupid.” He explained to me why Russians (but mostly Ukrainians) are so resourceful and explained his opinion on politics, Kiev, and a host of other things. I can’t say I understood everything, but I understood a lot. I am coming to realize that the Ukrainian accent is harder to understand for me. I didn’t speak very well, these were all topics for which I have little vocabulary, but I listened a lot. Honestly it was a little startling at first to just have Yevgeniy start peppering me with questions so intensely. In class I rarely got that kind of questioning, and I’m used to the subjects that I talk about with peers. This was a different generation, and older, more soviet generation and it was visible. I really felt like I was interacting with real Russians for the first time. Interestingly enough, Russian is Yevgeniy’s second language and he would sometimes ask Oksana how to correctly say something. The whole evening was an incredible window into how people live here. This family has opened up their home to me, fed me, let me play with their kids. Yevgeniy told me that he used to eat fish and drink beer with his father, and then he did so with me. I felt so honored and so welcomed. It was unlike anything I could have ever imagined and I’m so blessed to have had the random chance of meeting these people. I’m so glad I’m returning for a semester in the spring. Two months is not long enough, and I only just started to get to know this family. It takes time to build friendships here, and I’m fortunate that the friendships that I’ve had the chance to build aren’t going to end on August 9th.

But that isn’t all. After my evening with Oksana and Yevgeniy, I and a few friends went to the Present Perfect electronic music festival. As far as Russian culture, it was another experience entirely. The festival was held in the outskirts of the city on the property of an old factory. It was the young people of Russia, the weirdos and the hipster rave crowd all gathered into one place. St. Petersburg is a relatively progressive place in Russia, there’s a large population of hipster youth, and it was really cool to be able to see the hub of it. My friends and I stayed out all night dancing and experiencing the deep underground nightlife of St. Petersburg. Honestly, I didn’t think that I was going to enjoy the experience that much, but it was really fun. Dancing all night and actually having a crazy youthful moment right after my finals was a really fun way to spend a weekend. The counterculture is rich here, and for a night I was part of it. 

Никто не забыт и ничто не забыто

Никто не забыт и ничто не забыто

“no one will forget and nothing will be forgotten” written on the wall in the Piskaryovskoe memorial cemetery

As I sit here, in the sunlight shining through towering birch trees gazing out around me and the hundreds of graves and mass graves holding hundreds of thousands of people, I would like to get a few things out in the open about Russia, things that are now easily forgotten.

When people in the US think about and talk about Russia, it’s about Putin, and Bears wondering the Russian streets, and about alcoholism and the evil soviet army. I’ve not yet seen a bear here, no I don’t know how Putin is doing, TVs advertise non-alcoholic beer, and the Soviet army wasn’t always evil. That doesn’t mean that this country doesn’t have its problems. There is still a population crisis and alcoholism is still a problem, especially in the older generation, but even my expectations, formed by years of studying Russia and speaking with Russians and people who live there, were not exactly accurate. There are certainly cultural differences, but the Russia of today is not even like the Russia of 10 years ago. And even when thinking and talking and making fun of Russia’s soviet history and the strange, almost otherwoldnesss of Communism with a capital ‘C,’ things are easily looked over, to make a prettier picture of the American stereotype.

In 1941, the German Nazis attacked the city of Leningrad, now known as St Petersburg. From that time forward ensued an 872 day long blockade of the city, which most people know as the Siege of Leningrad. Now the siege was mentioned during high school as one of the battles that took place in Russia, but from my Russian classes in college and now from my time in the city itself, and it’s memorial, I realize that what I knew about the event was greatly underemphasized. A city of over 2 million innocent people was subjected to the German wish to wipe the city out. The casualties of the Siege of Leningrad exceeded those of the battle of Moscow, Stalingrad, and the bombing of Tokyo. The German Army cut off almost all flow of goods to and from the city, save a sliver of ice that as many people died on as were evacuated. People died from starvation, dysentery, tuberculosis, as an entire city was subjected to a winter with an average temperature of -22F on 200 (125 if you were elderly or a child) grams of bread a day; bread that consisted of 50% sawdust. Every person suffered. Children were left without families. One girl, Tanya, famously wrote in her diary after all her family were killed “all are dead, only Tanya remains.”

This is a human tragedy on par with the holocaust. It is widely known that over 1.5 million people died, but not all the information was released by the Soviet government, and the number could be much higher. It was an ethnically determined attempt to utterly wipe out an entire city. And it wasn’t supposed to end there. Adolf Hitler planned to follow his destruction of Leningrad with the destruction of the Donetsk Basin, and finally Moscow. He wanted to thus wipe out an entire country, but he didn’t get the chance. He didn’t get the chance because of the resilience and bravery of the country he was trying to evaporate. The people of Leningrad never stopped fighting. Stepping over dead in the streets, soldiers held the blockade. When spring came the entire capable city gathered to plant vegetables. Libraries still functioned, the theater was open. Even after a winter during which the 2 kilometer walk to get food was as deadly as the starvation without it, the city survived and fought. I’ve hardly heard a greater success story than that of the survival of this, then communist city.

But this is forgotten when we joke about drunk Russians and soviet repression, during which, by the way, soviet people suffered psychological and real terror as they and their sons and daughters were made slaves to the gulags for “political crimes” they knew nothing about. Russia is far away so we laugh it off. We think of Russians as cold oligarchs and ruthless abusive mafia, while almost every person in this city is a descendant of one of the mothers and daughters and brothers and fathers who suffered and survived this immense tragedy.

People in DC avoid Russians, don’t trust them, and look to lessen our President because of his involvement with them. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but we as a country, liberal or conservative, have decided to categorize an entire nation based off of its leader and his politics. I myself am guilty of bashing communism and its countries. I very rarely hear Russians spoken of in terms of the repression they’ve suffered ethnically, it’s much more common to hear stories about evil Russian spies or hackers tampering with our elections in service to a completely authoritative and iron-fisted leader who rides on the backs of bears. We can’t seem to wrap our minds around Putin’s popularity, despite the fact that Russians are living better than they have in their entire history. After suffering centuries of subjugation as serfs and a century of terror and poverty under the soviet fist, people here are now freer than they’ve ever been, and living comfortably. But we ignore that, we refuse to pay attention to it as we loudly and assuredly claim the repressiveness of Putin’s regime, because it isn’t identical to what we have at home.

Walking past the graves and feeling thе weight of what is around me, the bickering about Russia that goes on in our everyday media seems so very small. This is a place of people, of strong people who have endured tragedies we couldn’t even imagine. People, who then were Communists with a capital ‘C.’ I’ve gotten a chance to reorient my perspective here and add a little humanity to the narrative touted in our country, and perhaps reading this you might do the same.

Individual graves and the Piskaryovskaya Memorial Cemetery

Frustration and Joy

It’s now been almost a month since I arrived here, and as I predicted in my last post, I haven’t had the easiest time here. To be honest, as far as language progress goes, I’m a little disappointed in myself. My vocabulary is very poor, and I’ve spent a lot of time wasting time, rather than sitting down and working on my vocabulary like I should. That isn’t necessarily true, because I do have a job now that takes a few hours out of my day, but there is a lot of time that I spend not doing anything at all, even seeing the city, and I’m starting to get a little frustrated. In class it’s showing, when day after day I’m the only one in the room who doesn’t know a word, and it’s tiring. Furthermore, in class there is one student who has very little respect for the rest of us and it shows, he’s dismissive, and sometimes outright rude, and takes up a lot of valuable time talking when the rest of us could be working our conversation skills and learning something. The frustration I feel, with myself mostly, is very real and sometimes a little difficult to handle. It gets very emotionally exhausting, especially when I feel like I have very few friends here. I have people I can talk to, and the students on the program with me, Russian and American, are all very kind, but there isn’t anyone here I feel like I can confide in, and the atmosphere in my host home is always a little awkward. I didn’t realize this could happen, but there is a very real stress that comes with not having a place in which you feel comfortable or a person with whom you feel comfortable. Nothing is terrible, I have people I’m friendly with and my host family is very sweet, but the emotional load just feels heavy sometimes, especially coupled with my disappointment in myself.

On a lighter note, I have created some very wonderful connections in my first month here. My second week in, I went to the little playground in the courtyard of my apartment building to work on some words for myself. Out of the building came a Бавушка (grandmother) and her grandchildren, two boys. They started playing and eventually I worked up to talking to them, and then playing tag with the boys. The youngest (two, Архипка, Arkhipka) was at first a little suspicious and adorably protective of his older brother (Захарка, Zakharka), and they’re both very active. I proceeded to spend the next two hours running around with them, and learning the Russian rules to a familiar game from my childhood. If you care to find out: the person who is “it” is (водит) (leading) and you’re safe if you’re в домике (in the little house). That day was the happiest I’d been in the country so far. The kids and they’re wonderful Баба Наташа (Baba Natasha) were so welcoming and inclusive, despite the fact that I was a stranger and foreigner. Since then, they’ve taken me into their routine. I’ve met their mother, who loves talking to me and learning about english and helping me figure out how to say things in Russian, some other children: Федя, Соня, Стёра, Маша) (Fyedya, Styopa, Sonia, Masha), and yesterday a wonderful old man with whom I talked about the music I play. They’ve shared ice cream with me, and Sonia even gave me a picture she drew!

It says Рите! Which means, to Rita, which is what Im called because I introduced myself by my Russian name, which is Margarita

Baba Natasha has really brought me in to her home, the family talks about me, and the kids wait for me to come outside and play with them. I feel really blessed to have met these amazing people, and to have been accepted into their little playground world, my terrible Russian and all. To be honest, I learn much more from them and from practicing with them than they ever could from me, and playing with them is my favorite part of the day.

I’m also lucky, because I got to overhear a student in my program asking about volunteer opportunities with kids, and shamelessly asked if I could tag along. I’m glad I did. Five days a week, from five to seven pm, I am an English teacher at a learning center on the edge of the city. The kids range from 4 to 7 years old, and it’s absolutely an energetic bunch. I get the songs they learn stuck in my head mercilessly, but it’s so worth it. I even learn Russian during the moments when the kids refuse to speak English! I love working with them, and on friday, I even stayed after and talked with the other teachers, who are Russians, and got to do even more language practice!

If I’m proud of one thing on this trip so far, it’s the connections I’ve made with kids. I’m so lucky to have this world of interaction and play and joy open to me while I’m here. It lightens the load of everything else, and is probably my saving grace on this trip.

St. Petersburg, A City of Gardens and Water

I’ve been here now for about a week and a half, and I can’t say I’ve seen a more beautiful city. It isn’t just the architecture, which was to be expected, but the White Nights bring a real magic to this place. On Saturday night, at around two am, I watched the sun rise with the bridges on the Neva after walking past the Hermitage Museum. It was like walking through the wildest dreams of my childhood. That sounds corny, but let me explain:

I was adopted from Simferopol, a city in Crimea. I spent the third year of my life in an orphanage, and the first two somewhere only God knows. Now this part is going to get a little silly, but bear with me. My favorite movie as a child was Anastasia. If you’ve seen it, you know its about a young orphan in Russia who finds out that she is really a princess. Perhaps it is a little bit far fetched to have dreamed that I, too, was really a princess (sometimes I also had a secret, long-lost twin) but, outside of daydreams, I strongly identified with her. She was like an older sister, a role model, and a very real influence in my life. We both, left at train stations, had humble and obscure beginnings. I wished that I, like her, could go from being “a skinny little nobody” to someone extraordinary. The first scene of that movie opens on to the Winter Palace, now the Hermitage. On Saturday, walking across that square, with the palace lit and the sun rising, it really did feel like some long-hidden and forgotten daydream had been achieved.

Just being in this city is achieving something for me, but I’m not here just to realize childhood daydreams. As much as learning Russian is apart of my childhood wishes, it is real work, and it is the part of my past that I hope will bring me into my future. Arriving here has shown me that I’m perhaps better than I thought I was, but that doesn’t mean that I’m very good. At orientation in DC, the told us that there would be good days and bad days in the languages, and I’ve definitely experienced both, consecutively, in fact.

Monday was not a good day. I was very tired and since all of my classes are completely in Russian, that certainly didn’t help. Conceptually, of course working your brain in a new language is tiring, but you don’t quite know how tiring it can be until you feel it. On monday, I understood very little of my classes and it was frustrating. I did click off after my second ad penultimate class. On the street, I tried to speak Russian, but halfheartedly, and just let it happen when shopkeepers and waiters spoke to me in English. The evening was a little better. A group mate of mine pushed me to speak Russian to him and the concerts I went to were very interesting. The first was Mendelssohn and a piano concerto, both of which were very impressive, but the best part of the evening was the second concert. After dinner at an Indian restaurant with my friends (yay! food with seasoning!), I went to a concert of Egyptian music. Because the Russia-Egypt game was the next day, there were a lot of Egyptians in Russia, and many at the concert. The music was of a contemporary Egyptian composer who performed on the piano. The music was entertaining, cinematic, which made sense because the composer has done a lot of film work. It definitely sounded like Egypt, but it most sounded like Egypt at the end. During the last song, the Egyptians in the audience clapped and sang in Arabic. Because the concert was held in the Mariinsky Theater, which is an enormous and beautiful hall, the singing sounded distant, yet, at the sam time, seemed to surround us. After we left, I spoke entirely in Russian with the Russian friend who brought me and went to bed very gratefully.

One final note about the concert before I move on to the better day: I have heard from music teachers that in Russia, the audience claps in unison. I can now safely say that that is very true. The collective still exists in Russia, and getting to feel it in that way, to be apart of it, was a peculiar experience to say the least.

Now, to yesterday (Tuesday) and my good language experience in class. To be honest, I rocked it. In grammar I talked as much as our resident know-it-all, and in phonetics, I was told I said the word completely perfectly more than once. Even in politics I managed to ask a question and contribute some to the class discussion. on the street was perhaps the best part. I went to a cafe for lunch, and not only did the waitress actually answer me in Russian, she didn’t even look at me funny when I spoke to her. After class, I had a non-alcoholic mojito and actually managed to do some much-needed vocabulary work. I haven’t talked much about my host family (don’t worry, I will) but the short end of it is that I can only understand like 30% of what my host mom says to me. Yesterday, however, we managed an entire conversation at dinner, with both of us talking!! I’m even comfortable enough to ask her to repeat herself!

In conclusion, I’ve had good moments and bad moments here, and in the next six and a half weeks, I’m sure to have many more of both, but at least now I know what I’m in for. As I sit here, on an island in the middle of a pond in one of St. Petersburg’s many gardens, watching people feed the fat pigeons while I write, I know how lucky I am to be here. To get to walk into a dream and work towards gaining a skill that I’ve wanted as long as I can remember makes me think that I might be slowly stumbling my way towards an ending better than Anastasia’s.