Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Вещи, которые я заметил - Русская версия / Things I've noticed - Russian Edition

Hey guys!
As it's now been a few days since my one-month mark in Russia (which is crazy), for the sake of tradition, here is my post of things I've noticed in my time here so far, as those I've written in Egypt, Turkey, Iceland, and Azerbaijan.

Disclaimer: in this post I claim and aim solely to impart you all with my honest impressions and observations of what I've seen and experienced in the month I've spent living here. Keep in mind that my experiences are informed and affected by the fact that I'm living in and have so far only really seen this country's capital and largest city, and I'm largely surrounded by foreigners in much of my day to day life.

With that out of the way, let's begin!

1. In spite of this country's massive size, Russian has incredibly minimal dialectal varieties. 
It never ceases to amaze me that countries far smaller than this, like Japan, Norway, Italy, even tiny Slovenia, have immense dialectal diversity, with subtle differences in pronunciation, cadence, and vocabulary discernible even between dialects of towns scarcely ten kilometers apart, and yet the Russian language, spoken in the largest country on the face of the Earth, larger than the entire surface area of Pluto, plus being an additional official language or a widely understood lingua franca in a great many surrounding former USSR countries, has almost no such variation at all. I've come to pick up on a number of potentially contributing factors to this: For one thing, the western third or so of the country is in many ways dominant - it contains the vast majority of the population, all the largest and most influential cities, and, crucially, is overall quite monolingually Russian-speaking. Most of the rest of the country was effectively colonized by a gradual eastward expansion of the Russian Empire, so Russian as a language was usually artificially imposed in these areas and is still spoken alongside local languages (tons of them across the country, in fact). Additionally, the long history of strongly centralized governing bodies that ruled over the gargantuan country for a long time, tsarist dynasties and Soviet Union alike, paved the way for an almost universal register of educational and official use that left little room for the development of distinct dialects.

2. What it lacks in dialectal varieties, however, it makes up for in this aforementioned regional variety.
Having only seen Moscow thus far (and soon St Petersburg!), any commentary of mine on this comes solely from impressions I've gained while doing my own research, or hearing from friends or teachers that have visited such parts of the country. Many of its numerous oblasts, okrugs, and other provincial units of varying autonomy are historical homelands of unique and dynamic national minorities, all with incredibly rich histories and cultures. Much of the Russian Caucasus along the borders with Azerbaijan, encompassing regions such as Tatarstan, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya, which are majority-Muslim and generally speak Turkic languages. The Leningrad Oblast and Republic of Karelia, near the border with Finland, are home to numerous speakers of Karelian and other Finnish dialects, with the borders having sinuously shifted back and forth across the region over the centuries. The border region with Mongolia and the -stans of Central Asia are home to such groups as the Tuvans, famed for their skillful throat singing. The perpetually frozen northernmost regions of Siberia are the traditional homelands of the Nenets and Chukchi, with strong cultural ties to the indigenous people of the North American and Greenlandic Arctic. And the Far East even hides the bizarre and fascinating Jewish Autonomous Oblast, one of the only political units in the world possessing Yiddish as an official language.

3. Moscow boasts a surprising quantity of spunky style. 
Though it must be said that as an overgeneralized whole, Russians (at least here in this city) generally tend to put a great deal more of effort and investment in their appearance in public, and look very trendy and fashionable as a result, as this country's metropolis, Moscow still sports a great deal of more eccentric expression. People weave through the crowds of the metros and drift across crosswalks with full heads of bright purple, blue, and green hair, or even in somewhat intimidating full-on punk regalia. On one occasion I even saw a middle aged man with long hair tied back, dressed in a matching white crop top and short shorts, zoom past me on roller skates. It feels almost comforting in a way to see this spunky big city eccentrism which mirrors some of the more outlandish forms of expression that I'm used to seeing on my liberal arts college campus.

4. Little traces of communism are everywhere. 
For the most part, they're not glaringly obvious, aside from the well-known old government headquarters and such. But even twenty-six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, bits and pieces of its legacy can be found in great number if you look hard enough. Red stars topping towers of older buildings. Hammer and sickle stickers chiseled into the walls of metro stations. Old murals of collective farms and former leaders. Ubiquitous surveillance cameras. It's a fascinating touch of a large and important part of the country's history written into the cityscape.

5. Though not exceedingly diverse by American standards, there still are numerous immigrant communities. 
I'll be straight up when I say that one of my first impressions of Moscow when I got here was that it was very white. As time has gone on, and I've gotten to form a better impression of the city, I've seen that the city, on top of being a very important touristic hub that welcomes guests from all over the world, is also home to a great many immigrants, in particular from the Eastern European and Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Many of them find Russia a logical and comfortable destination, given that Russian is usually widely spoken and understood in their countries, diminishing linguistic barriers, and the historical background of political and economic union and cooperation makes things easier from a bureaucratic standpoint. Many of these people, from what I can tell, are not seen as wholly foreign, due to their linguistic abilities and the shared cultural familiarity at play.

6. Stereotypes of unsmiling Russians are not (entirely) true. 
At its most generalized level, this is definitely a generational thing. I've found that, at least here in Moscow, younger Russians are generally a lot more boisterous, outgoing, and smiley, at least in public and when interacting with strangers, compared to their older compatriots. But even in the case of the older ones, it's not that they don't smile; they just seem a little more distant and closed off at first sight. But as you interact more with someone, they open up greatly after a certain level of mutual familiarity is reached. It's happened that people I've interacted with in bureaucratic offices or store settings that seemed a little cold and straight-faced at first, but who turned out to be friendlier, smiled by the end of our interaction, seemingly indicating an unspoken nod of social approval and friendliness. All in all, don't let stereotypes fool you; though perhaps more likely to maintain a poker face at first, especially if older, Russians laugh, smile, joke around, and enjoy themselves like any other group of humans.

7. For the most part, in spite of its immense size, Moscow is a pretty safe and calm city.
Of course, as with any metropolis, it pays to keep your wits about you in public spaces, particularly when crowded. But in most parts of the city, certainly in the central districts where I live and regularly move around in, serious cases of violent crime are quite rare. There's a park right across the street from my campus, where I've seen people walking their dogs or out with their children, even women jogging alone with headphones on, as late as 11:30 pm without a care. As interesting as it is to live in a city so much larger than any other I've lived in thus far, and as many unique opportunities and possibilities as that brings to my life that I'm thankful for, at times I'm very happy for that quiet and tranquility that I'm lucky enough to have so close to campus, even if I'm in the dead center of a place home to 20 million.

8. Official, efficient bureaucracy is valued. 
I'm not sure how best to word this part to get across my meaning, but this was something that I noticed even in the style of the announcements on my Aeroflot flight from New York, which sounded very, well, official. Having wrestled with the intense bureaucratic process of extending my visa (which, by the way, has now been completed successfully, and I am now no longer in a passport-less limbo land, thankfully), I can say I have witnessed the nature of the bureaucratic ins and outs that go into our presences here as Americans and foreign citizens close hand. Every step with these kinds of things is laid out in detail,  with specific steps and rules that have to be followed, and specific forms to be filled out with specific components to be completed. This meticulous rigidity dictates a great many elements of dealing with official aspects of the country.

9. There is great truth to the domestic stereotype of Moscovites always being in a hurry.  
Probably a stereotype that is applied to many cities of this size. But I think that it is truly a defining aspect of life and movement in this one. When riding the long escalators that descend into the subterranean world that is the metro, it is customary to stand to the right side to make room for people hurriedly gliding down the steps. If you are walking inside the metro tunnels, on sidewalks, or crossing the street, and are moving too slowly for the liking of the people around you, you will get passed. It's kind of a fact of life that people pass you, and that people bump into each other at times. No one really gets peeved about either of those things, they're just kind of things that happen, and then you move on. And the driving is not too insane - I mean, people on the road are quite crazy in their driving, and it's actually quite funny sometimes how people will literally lean against their horns for up to half a minute at a time if blocked by someone going to slow for their liking, mirroring the movements of their pedestrian counterparts. But without fail, even the craziest drivers will stop, or at least drastically slow down, well ahead of time to give any pedestrians passing in their path a wide birth - far more than can be said of the driving skills present in other places I've lived (*cough Azerbaijan cough cough*).

10. Visible history goes back only up to a certain point. 
Although Moscow recently celebrated its "birthday," having been founded in the year 870 (four years, incidentally, before the first Norse settlers arrived in Iceland), most of its buildings and traces of visible history don't go back much further than 1200 or so. This does make sense for a number of reasons, though. Namely the great fire that destroyed up to 75% of the city during the Napoleonic War. Nevertheless, as I've mentioned previously, it's quite beautiful and soothing to see the different historical eras intersecting in the city's architecture.

11. This is by far the city with the best transportation out of any of those I've lived in. 
And it's all thanks to the metro. I've gushed about it endlessly in some of my other posts since I got here, so I'll try not to repeat myself too much. But it's truly remarkable how wide a scope it has. I feel like it's possible to get pretty much anywhere in the city just using the metro, as there are simply so many stations and lines, many of which are conveniently connected to each other, that there is usually a way. The longest I've ever had to travel somewhere on the metro was about forty-five minutes, and that was remarkably good time given the distance. I've never had any need to use any other kind of public transportation just because it works so well (though other options do abound in the form of buses, trolleybuses - which are basically little street trams - taxis, and so on). The metro is like a little world onto itself, a subterranean city within a city, where stations vary from being palatially ornate to sleek and minimalistic, like something out of a modern architecture magazine. Incredibly talented buskers sing and play guitars, or even foreign drums and didgeridoos, by the entrances. Overall, it's just a very interesting, convenient, and beautiful way to get around the city, luckily lacking in many of the aspects that made the public transportation in Baku, for instance, incredibly frustrating and unpleasant.

That's basically all that comes to mind for now! If I think of anything else, I'll come back and add it. I'll try to write again soon for more updates and reflections. Be well for now, everyone!

^A Russian song that has been stuck in my head constantly 

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