02 July 2004

Behind the Iron Curtain.

After years of studying the Cold War, I’ve finally seen the (former) Soviet Union! Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski (PK), Russia, was surprisingly beautiful. It's one of the most geologically active places in the world, so it's surrounded by beautiful mountains and gorgeous scenery. On the first day, we were delayed getting off the ship for a few hours while the Russian immigration officials scrutinized everyone's passports and questioned a few people.

When we finally got off the ship, I walked around PK for a bit before returning to the ship for a field trip. The city is a bit dirty and chaotic, but definitely exciting. Locals kept stopping us to ask us where we were from, what we were studying, and how we liked PK, and just generally practicing their English. Everyone was extremely friendly, contrary to most people's expectations of stoic Russians. There are still a lot of remnants of Soviet Russia, including a giant statue of Lenin in the middle of the town square. The buildings are simple, plain and utilitarian, and look straight out of 1984, except a few of them have been painted over in gaudy colors in an effort to brighten up the city. Interestingly, the Kamchatka Peninsula recently elected the Communists into power, and the general consensus from most people is that life was better under Communism because the government provided everything, and now everyone is focused on making money. Definitely not what anyone expected!

An interesting note on post-Soviet women: since Communism valued androgyny and productivity over femininity, the concept of make-up and fashion is relatively new. As a result, women have “hyper-feminized” themselves- dyed red hair (or platinum blonde), heavy make-up, stylish clothes, and mile high stilettos (on crumbling sidewalks, nonetheless!). The men, on the other hand, don’t seem to be as excited about modernity. Open container laws haven’t caught on over here, either – it’s not unusual to see a man walking down the street at lunchtime in his business suit with a large bottle of beer in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Alcoholism is also a big problem among adult men here – perhaps there’s a connection?

My field trip was a fishing tour of Avachinskaya Bay, headed by the biology teacher. While touring the bay, she taught us to identify murre, cormorants, and puffins, which was educational. We went fishing in the bay- no fishing poles, just spools of wood and fishing line with sinkers and hooks. We caught a few little halibut, and ate a lunch of fresh fish, sandwiches, and Russian chocolates.

The second day, I visited a home in a Russian village, where we ate a huge traditional lunch of roasted potatoes, homemade sandwich meats, cheeses, and bread, fried fish, smoked salmon, Russian crepes and homemade jam, pastries, candy, homemade juice and berry wine, fresh milk, and Russian tea. Her home was small, but beautifully decorated with care, and we got to meet and talk to her son and daughter, and her mother brought over the fresh milk from her cow. It was an amazing experience, and definitely reaffirmed yesterday's observation that the Russians are a friendly people. All in all, I loved Russia, and was sad to leave, especially since we had five days at sea afterwards! Seeing PK made me want to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg to compare the two lifestyles.

No comments: