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  • Writer's pictureGregory T. Wilkins

Russia (2012)

April 26, 2012 Dr. Elizabeth Sandell with Minnesota State University, Mankato and I began discussion of going to Russia in the summer of 2012 in spring 2011. She had heard from Caryn Lindsay in the Kearney International Center that I had a passion for world travel, volunteerism, and adventure. When she approached me I lept at the invitation. I have always wanted to go to Russia. When I was an undergraduate at Warren Wilson College one of my major courses of study was history. I sat in Dr. Thomas Showalter's course intrigued with Russia, especially after reading the book Nicholas and Alexandria by Robert K. Massie. It is set against a lavish backdrop of luxury and intrigue ending in a doomed empire and death. It was an excellent read about Imperial Russia showcasing the Romanovs’ lives: Nicholas’s political naïveté, Alexandra’s obsession with the corrupt mystic Rasputin, and little Alexis’s brave struggle with hemophilia. I also studied art as a minor which led me to work at the Smithsonian Institution and a longing to one day visit the Hermitage (one of the largest and oldest museums on earth with nearly 3 million items in the collection and the largest collection of paintings in the world). When I was at warren Wilson College my freshman year, I wrote 10 to 12 pages of all the things I might want to do the rest of my life. If it came into my head, I jotted it down--world travel, career possibilities, volunteerism, etc. One of those items on my list was to visit Russia--especially St. Petersburg. I decided that when I turned 40 years old I was going to go. Long story short, 40 came and went. My initial goal did not materialize as I was between jobs and my focus was finding a new opportunity versus traveling. So when this chance came along again into my sphere of influence I was delighted at just the thought of its possibility. I went to Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago to read more information about Russia with a particular focus on the Russian language. I got a small phrase book and began to study it. Well, I didn't get far. To begin with the cyrillic alphabet is a bit confusing...all squiggles and dots. But that's not fair to say's just different from my first language (English). Yes, it's not Spanish but it wasn't too far long ago when I couldn't even speak that language and now I am more advanced than I once thought I could ever become. There are small things that do help, especially knowing some other Greek alphabet as some letters are similar. What I have found in a short period of time is that learners begin to get a understanding of a language first by hearing it, then by repeating it and later seeing it. The sound of language is important. Russian is not like Spanish using phonetics (or at least I don't think it does from what little I know). Hearing is important. I remember when I was trying to learn French when I was partially hard of hearing in my left ear. The French formation of words is not phonetic and found it very challenging...especially when I could not hear words correctly.  The aggravating thing is that I, like so many people, want to be able to understand quickly. Russian is not easy, and I find it very challenging. Submersion is the most effective way of learning. One month will not do me justice but at least gives me a small taste of feeling outside the norm and rock my boat. It does not frighten me...if anything, I find it exciting! Getting to Russia is no easy task. Hopping on a plane and paying for the ticket is easy in comparison to the hoops you will have to go through just to arrive on Russian soil. We may be in 2012 but the bureaucracy of Russia is transparent (for the most part) when preparing to visit. I have traveled extensively around the world and find the obstacles to get into Russia daunting. For example, to get a sponsorship we had to scan EVERY page in our passport and send it to them. But don't let that and the many requirements stop you from visiting. The challenges getting there will be forgotten (or at least make for a great story) once you arrive and enjoy the gardens, palaces and people. While the Cold War wall may have come down, it feels mighty still indeed when trying to get a visa.

ENTRY / EXIT REQUIREMENTS FOR U.S. CITIZENS: The Russian government maintains a restrictive and complicated visa regime for foreigners who visit, transit, or reside in the Russian Federation. A U.S. citizen who does not comply with Russian immigration laws can be subject to arrest, fines, and/or deportation. Russian authorities will not allow U.S. citizens to depart the country if their visa has expired. Travelers must wait until a new visa is approved, which may take up to 20 days. Verify the expiration date of your Russian visa, and leave Russia before your visa expires! Sponsorship: Under Russian law, every foreign traveler must have a Russian-based sponsor, which could be a hotel, tour company, relative, employer, university, etc. Even if you obtained your visa through a travel agency in the United States, there is still a Russian legal entity whose name is indicated on your visa and who is considered to be your legal sponsor. In many cases, organizations with sponsorship ability are being paid informally by travel agents to act as a legal sponsor, in violation of Russian law. Please ensure the name of the sponsor indicated on your visa corresponds with the organization you intend to visit, or those who are arranging your travel in Russia. If the sponsor named on your visa is not the person or entity you intend to visit, you may encounter problems with Russian immigration authorities. If you intend to work for a non-government organization (NGO) or engage in religious work, be sure to apply for the specific type of visa required by Russian law (usually a humanitarian visa). Russian law requires that your sponsor apply on your behalf for replacement, extension, or changes to a Russian visa. You should ensure that you have contact information for your visa sponsor prior to arrival in Russia, as the sponsor’s assistance will be essential to resolve any visa problems.

Entry Visas: To enter Russia for any purpose other than short transit by air, or some cruise ship and ferry passengers,  you must possess a valid U.S. passport and a visa issued by a Russian embassy or consulate. You cannot obtain a visa upon arrival, so you must apply for your visa well in advance. U.S. citizens who apply for Russian visas in third countries where they do not have permission to stay for more than 90 days may face considerable delays in visa processing. If you arrive in Russia without an entry visa you will not be permitted to enter the country, and could face immediate return to the point of embarkation at your own expense.

A Russian entry/exit visa has two dates written in the European style (day/month/year) as opposed to the U.S. style (month/day/year). The first date indicates the earliest date a traveler may enter Russia; the second date indicates the date by which a traveler must leave Russia. A Russian visa is only valid for those exact dates and cannot be extended after the traveler has arrived in the country, except in the case of a medical emergency.

Russian tourist visas are usually granted only for the specific dates mentioned in the invitation letter provided by the sponsor. U.S. citizens sometimes receive visas valid for periods as short as two days. You may wish to have someone who reads Russian check the visa before departing the United States. Ensure that your visa reflects your intended activities in Russia (e.g., tourism, study, business, etc.) If you are denied a visa, you may seek clarification from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 32/34 Smolenskaya-Sennaya Pl., Moscow, Russia, 119200,

Limitations on Length of Stay: Most foreigners may remain in the Russian Federation for only 90 days in a 180-day period. This provision applies to business, tourist, humanitarian, and cultural visas, among other categories, and is typically noted on the Russian visa. Those whose visas permit employment or study are not normally subject to this rule. If you plan to remain in Russia for more than 90 days, consult your visa sponsor to ensure that this is not a violation of visa regulations.

Exit Visas:You need a valid visa to depart Russia. If you overstay your visa validity by less than three days you may be granted an exit visa at the airport (at the discretion of the Russian Consular Officer). If you overstay your visa by more than three days, you will be prevented from leaving until your sponsor intervenes and requests a visa extension on your behalf. Russian authorities may take up to 20 calendar days to authorize an exit visa, during which time you will be stranded in Russia at your own expense. You may also have difficulty checking into a hotel, hostel, or other lodging establishment with an expired Russian visa. Again, be sure to leave Russia before your visa expires. If you lose your U.S. passport and Russian visa by accident or theft, you must immediately replace your passport at the U.S. Embassy Moscow or one of the U.S. Consulates General. You must then enlist the assistance of your visa sponsor to obtain a new visa in order to depart the country. It is helpful to make a photocopy of your visa in the event of loss, but a copy is not sufficient to permit departure.

Visas for students and English teachers sometimes allow only one entry. In these cases, the sponsoring school is responsible for registering the visa and migration card and obtaining an exit visa. Obtaining an exit visa can take up to 20 calendar days, so students and teachers need to plan accordingly.

Migration Cards: U.S. citizens entering Russia must carry a migration card, while in Russia. These two-part cards have traditionally been provided to foreign passengers before landing in Russia, to be filled out by the traveler. Upon arrival, Russian immigration authorities retain one of the identical halves, and the other half is carried in your passport for the duration of your stay in Russia. In 2011, Russian authorities launched a new program in Moscow’s Vnukovo and Domodedevo Airports, by which migration cards are electronically completed and provided by immigration officials. If you receive an electronic card, continue to carry your migration card in your U.S. passport and submit it to immigration authorities upon leaving; however, the loss of an electronic card does not present difficulties to departure, but the loss of a hand-completed form may. While only these two airports are currently issuing electronic migration cards, the Russian Federal Migration Service plans to expand their use to other international airports in the future.

Visa Registration: If you intend to spend more than seven days in Russia, you must register your visa and migration card through your sponsor. If staying at a hotel, the hotel reception should register your visa and migration card on the first day of your stay. If you choose not to register a stay of less than seven days, we advise you to keep copies of tickets, hotel bills, or itineraries in order to prove compliance with the law.

Russian police officers have the authority to stop people and request their identity and travel documents at any time and without provocation. Due to the possibility of random document checks by police, you should carry your original passport, migration card and visa with you at all times.

Transit Visas: If you intend to transit through Russia by land en route to a third country, you must have a Russian transit visa issued by a Russian Embassy or Consulate. If you are transiting through an international airport in Russia, and will depart from there again in 24 hours to an onward international destination, without leaving the customs zone, Russian law does not require you to have a transit visa. However, this law is sometimes misinterpreted by travelers and customs officials alike, and we recommend you obtain a Russian transit visa if there is any doubt about your transit plans. Foreigners who arrive in Russia without a valid visa, who do not meet visa-free transit requirements, may be forced to return to the point of origin at their own expense.    

International Cruise Ship/Ferry Passengers: You are permitted to visit Russian ports without a visa for a period of up to 72 hours. If you wish to go ashore during port calls you may do so without visas, provided that you are with an organized tour at all times and accompanied by a tour operator who has been duly licensed by Russian authorities. These special entry/exit requirements do not apply to river boat cruise passengers and travelers coming to Russia on package tours. These travelers will need to apply for visas prior to entry, and should follow the general guidelines for entry/exit requirements.

Restricted Areas: There are several closed cities and regions in Russia. If you attempt to enter these areas without prior authorization you may be subject to arrest, fines, and/or deportation. You must list on the visa application all areas to be visited and subsequently register with authorities upon arrival at each destination. There is no centralized list or database of the restricted areas, so travelers should check with their sponsor, hotel, or the nearest office of the Russian Federal Migration Service before traveling to unfamiliar cities and towns.

April 27, 2012 -- Russian Influences in Childhood My twin sister and I were born in Chicago during the famous Chicago blizzard of 1967. It was a storm from which myths are made and parables told. Allan Johnson, a writer with the Chicago Tribune, described it well.

"At 5:02 a.m. on this date, it began to snow. Nothing remarkable about that. It was January in Chicago, and, besides, 4 inches of snow had been predicted. But it kept snowing, all through this miserable Thursday and into early Friday morning, until it finally stopped at 10:10 a.m. By the end, 23 inches covered Chicago and the suburbs, the largest single snowfall in the city's history.

Thousands were stranded in offices, in schools, in buses. About 50,000 abandoned cars and 800 Chicago Transit Authority buses littered the streets and expressways.All most people wanted to do was get home. One woman who worked downtown and lived on the city's North Side--normally a 35-minute commute--spent four hours making the trip." Cold was born into my bones and left a permanent chill with me always scrambling for another layer, woolen sweater or blanket. I have always yearned for warmer days of spring with blooms and new growth. And with the testament of spring came the Christian holiday of Good Friday, Easter, and of course...a good ol' egg hunt.

Easter for the Wilkins household was different from most. We spent weeks if not months plotting egg decorating ideas, church outfits for the local Presbyterian church, and home-styled baked goods. My mother the homemaker spent hours on end scouring McCall pattern books for our Easter clothes and planning the annual egg decorating extravaganza. I am not sure if my mother actually enjoyed crafting or if it was just a good excuse to keep 14 hands busy cutting, painting, and dying.

At our home on 1465 West Collum in Ravenswood, our residence sat on a corner of the alley with a long row of grapes spiraling down the fence line. Russian and Greek Orthodox women would knock on our front door and ask if they could pick the grape leaves for cooking. My mother always obliged.

I remember old women that could pass as my grandmother in long skirts, aprons with pockets and sweater covered arms that never saw the light of day. Looking out the window I would see covered heads bent over with a low hum of songs of the motherland. My mother encouraged us to not pester these saint-like ladies and leave them to their work, And as they prepared to leave, they would reach into their apron pockets and bestow us liquid sunshine lemon drop candies, and for children this was far better than an handful of gold. I don't know if it was this relationship or my mother's love of all things international when she began to teach us the art of Russian/Ukranian egg painting. (She did not do the process like the official decorating Ukranian way with a fire flame as we were children and safety was always first. She experimeted and found a safer solution for us, and in the wee hours she would do the other.) Returning from the market she would set-up shop along the kitchen counter for the process to begin----pins, eggs, bowls for the yolk, extra paper cartons for blown-out eggs. Poking the egg on each end, we would begin to huff and puff to remove the yolk from deep within the shell. Lips perched and with full concentration our eyes would go crossed and cheeks burst with ache as we painstaking would go from egg to egg until several dozen were done. Each would then be washed and dried for round two the following day or week. (For those of us who didn't have the ability to blow eggs, Mom would do hard boiled ones.) The next part of our process would be the design phase. We would go to the library and cart back with us coffee table sized books of patterns and examples of sheer brilliance. Then would be our chance to replicate the ancient art. We would draw with a crayon or broken candle pieces designs onto the shell. This was always a challenge because too much pressure would break the egg's shell while not enough would leave the design privy to color seepage during the dying process. One by one we would go down the line of egg cartons. From there we would start with the lightest color (usually yellow) and do our first dye. And then the process of more wax would go on to the egg and prepare for the next color (orange). We would inch our way up the rainbow spectrum--red, blue, green, violet, and black. All along the way putting more layers of wax. After the entire process was over, Mom would put the eggs into a hot water bath removing each layer of wax. What would emerge were patterns of kaleidescope colors and stainglass-like amazement. Squeals of joy could be heard throughout the house as we would admire our spread and begin guessing which egg was more beautiful than the next. And more importantly, which would be crowned the house favorite as it would find its way on Easter to the preacher's pulpit as a Wilkins surprise during his sermon.

April 28 -- World Travel, Backpack on Wheels I have traveled all over the world--Central and South America, U.S. Territories, all 50 U.S. states, Indonesia, Asia, etc. For the majority of my adventures I have used a backpack with expandable pockets. The pockets always come in handy because I know I am going to go shopping and return home with treasures galore. I go with an empty pack and return with it over stuffed like Santa Claus. In fact I have been teased at the aritport terminal by gate agents when they see my empty bag only to return to get a last laugh. This time around I am still planning on taking a backpack but will upgrade to one that looks like a suitcase but converts to a backpack. I plan to buy the Eagle Creek Switchback Max Wheeled Convertible Luggage. It comes in 22" and 25" but understand that the 22" fits the plan overhead while the other needs to be checked. It comes with wheels as well a zip off smaller day pack that I can be taken onto the plane with me, and once landed can zip it back on to the larger bag if checked.  There is also an additonal luggage strap in the front that can attach additional baggage. The smaller pack also has a compartment for a laptop computer and is padded. I plan on getting this bag in the 22" (see pic above and below) -- It is more than I would normally pay ($325), but with this excursion being work-related I will take it as a tax write-off. (I ended up getting the 25" bag.)

Video on the product... May 2 2012 , - Visa Joys When my team and I were scanning pages of our passport to Russia, I made the comment that with all my world travels maybe mine would be a challenge...then again maybe not as some of the countries in question could be seen as Russian allies (Pakistan, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Turkey). This of course was just a joke not expecting the following below. ********** This is from our potential host in Magadan, Russia:

Дорогая Элизабет! Я отнесла документы в авир. В авире возникла проблема с паспортом Gregory Wilkins. Повтори ксерокопию его паспорта. Фотография и данные должны быть хорошо пропечатаны.  Ксерокопия паспорта должна быть у нас на руках 3 мая.  В противном случае приглашение будет оформлено только на троих. С уважением, Ольга.

English translation... Dear Elizabeth! I classified documents in the Awir road. In авире has a problem with a passport Gregory Wilkins. Repeat a photocopy his passport. Photography and the data should be well-smeared print. Photocopy passports should be in our hands on 3 May. Otherwise, an invitation will be decorated with only the triple. With respect, Olga. This was Dr. Sandell's reponse: Уважаемая Ольга,  Я не понимаю, в чем проблема с паспортом Грегори Уилкинс.Вложений в одной из моих предыдущих электронной почты включены отсканированные страницы с фотографией и личной информации паспорт. Это было за пределами архива, но получил отсканированную копию важной страницей его паспорта. Все страницы, фотографии и марки были для меня ясно.  Мы не хватает времени и, возможно, не сможет приехать. Это занимает слишком много времени. В наши планы входит покинуть США на 22 мая и провести время в Санкт-Петербурге на нашем пути в Магадан.  Пожалуйста, спросите их, знакомиться с материалами снова. Мы придем, только если все четыре из нас есть приглашения.  Элизабет

Dear Olga,

I do not understand what the problem is with Gregory Wilkins' passport. The attachments to one of my previous email included the scanned pages with his photograph and personal passport information.  This was outside of the zip file, but you have received a scanned copy of the important page from his passport.  All pages, photos, and stamps were clear to me.

We are running out of time and perhaps will not be able to come. This is taking too long. Our plan is to leave the US on May 22 and spend time in St. Petersburg on our way to Magadan. Please ask them to review the materials again. We will come only if all four of us have letters of invitation.



I am a huge planner. Dr. Sandell and I have been discussing this for almost 9 months and to have this drama unfold three weeks before our departure date is very unsettling. Beth and I went over every page in my scanned passport documents. The only one that I think maybe of concern is page 6-7 which shows my address and an emergency address. It is a bit fuzzy; so, I went over the address again in pencil and scanned a new copy to Dr. Sandell. I hope it will get the kinks worked out for the Russian visa approval. I would hate that my information is what stops us from going.

Magadan is important to Beth and the graduate student going. Beth has been to Magadan at least 8 or so times with the most recent one being 4 years ago. For the graduate student this visit is important because of the research she is pursuing about the Gulag. she has been diligently working with the Institutional Review Board and having this part of the trip go belly up would be disappointing.

I am sitting on pins and needles. And, I won't rest with ease until an invitation is done and visa is in hand. It is all a bit frustrating. I will have to have faith that it will all come together. Good news is ahead. This trip is destiny. May 6, 2012 -- Gay Russia, Maybe Not On Friday this past week, Nikolay Alexeyev was fined $167 for gay activism in Russia. He was accused of spreading homosexual "propaganda" after picketing St. Petersburg city hall in April with a poster that read: "Homosexuality is not a perversion. Perversion is hockey on the grass and ballet on ice." Alexeyev is the face of the modern, queer movement in Russia. Future fines could go up to $16,700!

The trial was said to be the first on specific gay associated charges in Russia since the Soviet era. To be quite honest, I am not sure what all the fuss is about. Gays and lesbians have been on the planet since the dawn of humanity. A law and/or crackdown is not going to stop LGBTQ people from existence.

LGBT persons in Russia may face legal challenges not experienced by non-LGBT residents, though many advances have been made in the past two decades. As of 2008, gay men were finally allowed to donate blood (gays in the USA still cannot give). Russia has no criminal law on federal level directed at LGBT people, but since male gay sex acts were decriminalized in 1993, there are no laws protecting against discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. It will be interesting as to how this unfolds. It is my understanding that Alexeyez will attempt to have the fine dismissed, but I am not holding my breathe. If anything Russian queers and allies may see this as an assault on human rights and speak out for justice. LGBTQ and ally attempts to hold Pride parade in Russia has been met with arrests and assaults. In time justice will prevail but a significant amount of education will have to take place before justice is served and victory won. It is my understanding that gay bars open and close faster than a hurricane; while people on the fringe still meet in parks, bars and eating establishments frequented by non-gay people (assimilation is grand). A lot of work has yet to be done for gay equality in Russia. May 8, 2012 -- Hermitage The State Hermitage (Russian: Госуда́рственный эрмита́ж) in Saint Petersburg, Russia is one of the largest and oldest museums of the world. Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great (Екатерина II Великая), the Empress of Russia, she ruled what is now known as the Golden Age of the Russia Empire. The museum has been open to the public since 1852. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise nearly 3 million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world. (I can't fathom such vastness.) The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along Palace Embankment, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors. And among all this beauty toils hate and deceit with a looming surge of Nazis aggression in the 1941 siege. With the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, before the Siege of Leningrad started, two trains with a considerable part of the Hermitage collections were evacuated to Sverdlovsk. Nazis Germany had a taste for art and some argue would have stolen significant part so of the collection. The people of St. Petersburg saved a vast part of the collection from going into the hands of Nazis, while some works have still yet to be rediscovered. Two bombs and a number of shells hit the museum buildings during the siege.

The siege lasted 872 days and caused unparalleled famine in the Leningrad region through disruption of utilities, water, energy and food supplies. The deaths of up to 1,500,000 soldiers and civilians and the evacuation of 1,400,000 more, mainly women and children, many of whom died during evacuation due to starvation and bombardment was the result. Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in Leningrad holds half a million civilian victims of the siege. Economic destruction and human losses in Leningrad on both sides exceeded those of the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Moscow, or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The siege of Leningrad is the most lethal siege in world history, and some historians speak of the siege operations in terms of genocide as a "racially motivated starvation policy" that became an integral part of the unprecedented German war of extermination against populations of the Soviet Union generally. But enough of war and destruction... As a young man in college I had always dreamt of walking the Hermitage palace hallways and grounds--twists and turns--maddening to think of cleaning the place.(Fits of memory flash into my brain as I remember when my eldest sister Marli placed Anastasia in a play at the State Theatre in Florida.) The thought of heralding this storybook dream will soon become reality. My fear is that I will have but a small glance into its majesty. There is so much to see that my time will be short lived--a butterfly to the flame. Even before I arrive I am already dreading my loss...too little time, a moment, a blink of an eye--a string of cliches. But I will not cast blindness into my desperation, but rather soak in its glory filled space, inhaling all of life and its rich history no matter how fleeting the experience. I remind myself that looking into the eyes of God fills the spirit and relaxes the soul if only for a partial breathe and then distinguished. Let the glory of the Hermitage be. May 10, 2012 -- Russian visa, The Saga Continues... Oh the joys of trying to acquire a Russian visa. The saga continues--wait a few minutes (no longer than a few days) and the outcome changes just as soon as you thought it was resolved.

First, I scanned fifty pages in my passport for the process to begin. Then, I had to fill-out the initial request to enter the country which involved listing every country I have visited in the last 10 years, the names/places/address/phone numbers of the last three places I worked, the names/addresses/phone numbers of the last 2 places I attended college, and promising I have not worked with nuclear weapons, know how to make a bomb and other military expertise. More pictures had to be taken (remember, no smile) and more paper work and forms. Sending it off in the mail special delivery with a nice fee attached, we waited patiently for the process to move forward. But no...forward it did not go but rather into a tailspin of more paper work and another sweet fee of $115. To add insult to injury the consulate would be closed for 3 days to observe Russia Victory Day. All the while the clock ticks closer to departure--tick, tick, tick.

And do I sleep?...oh no. Being the planner I am, I toss and turn with every possible scenario churning in my pretty head. I only want to get us there.

But getting there is only half the battle. It was found that the tourist visa rules and regulations changed--now only allowing 30 days. We would be there 31 which stirred the pot into a boil of issues requiring more paper work and more money. (And Americans thought bureaucracy ran rampant in the USA...what a laugh.) Big government keeps the Russia autocrats lumbering slowly toward the finish line with no end in sight, a jack ass sloshing toward carrots. Like a bad dream it reminds of running ever so slowly, never gettting past go, while crowds cheer all around you, your heart racing, sweat pouring down into your eyes, and with a sheepish grin thinking you are moving toward progress. I keep being assured by the consulate that it will all come together, but the snail and molasses pace with new discoveries on the top of every hour do not rest well in my spirit.

It appears we will get the visa one day before leaving...possibly two if the wind is blowing in the right direction. (Good thing passenger pigeon season is not here; one less hunter snatches up dinner and our precious documents.) With a 6 a.m. departure on May 23, time is of the essence. The film footage climax is drawing to its close-up and ready for the next scene to lead us into the cast of characters. Meanwhile, Dr. Sandell reminds of the Russian saying, "NEXT...problem."

Humor is truly the best medicine. Let's hope I can keeping laughing. May 15, 2012 - One Week and Counting This time next week I will be putting the finishing touches on my journey to Russia. The visa drama is still lingering over my head, and Beth is told that everything will be in order by Tuesday. I hope that is the case (if not sooner) as we leave Mankato to the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport at 6 a.m. on May 23. I have thought and rethought what I will bring and know that something will be left out of my backpack--the joys of travel. To be quite honest, the idea of heading to St. Petersburg has truly not even phased me as  of yet. It seems so far off in the planning for one's death--so impossible and so unreal.

Chatting via Facebook with Corrine in Moscow, it sounds like finding straws by bulk maybe a challenge. I plan to use them as part of my educational lesson at the 5th annual Global Studies conference. (I went to the Dollar Store and bought 4 packs of 180.) I have no idea how many people plan to attend the conference or number of attendees to my workshop but figured it's best to be safe than regret. And if it ends up that not so many are needed, I will leave them as a gift with the hotel housekeeping staff.

There are so many unknowns in this trip which will be good for me as I tend to plan and prepare for what I can. To have faith that it will work out is a task for me. The month will pass so quickly and want every moment to be special. From shoes to trousers to layers of wool to keep out the Siberia chill---there is a lot to think about and ponder indeed. If forgotten I will improvise, and I look forward to gathering over breakfast and hearing from others their stories unfold of what was left behind regardless of the amount of time spent planning. It makes me giggle inside as I get excited about this coming special time. May 21, 2012 -- Visa Putin is in tears knowing that my colleagues and I are not going to be on our original time schedule to visit Russia. Despite our many attempts to stay with our original itinerary, it looks like we will not prevail--oh the joys of bureacracy and finger pointing. Beth and I did everything in our power to  work with the 3rd party visa caretakers to get us through the process--more passport copies, more money (feels more like bribes), and even more patience.

If St. Gregory hadn't already snatched the title, I think I would make a great cause for sainthood. While St. Gregory is known for being the patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers--I think he and I fit the same mold with my addendum of being a good ass kicker and some might say ass kisser. Humor will truly get me through this chaos, even if I die laughing.

While St. Gregory's right hand is raised with two fingers pointing upward, at this juncture I say forget the dove and replace one of the those fingers with the true "finger".

But in light of all of this, I am being harsh. It is outside of our control, and bringing some peace to the entire matter knowing that Beth and I are going to come up with an amazing solution despite the process will bring this all to resolve.

Russia, listen up! We are coming. Putin, get ready. You haven't seen anything yet until the Minnesota State Mavericks sweep through town. Let the continued wait unfold because destiny will triumph. May 22, 2012 -- Russia, Okay Beth and I spent last night as well as the morning at Emerald Travel going back and forth on travel choices as our Russian visas did not arrive in the mail yesterday and appears it won't be here today either. This is aggravating because our departure was to be tomorrow at 6:15 a.m. Tracking our visas on-line, we believe they should be in Mankato, Minnesota by Thursday, May 24. (Beth has been a godsend, and we balance each other well.) To celebrate, we will all meet over breakfast with passport and visa in hand as well as revised travel itinerary.

Now revising a travel itinerary is not as easy as one might imagine, especially when it comes to international travel--hotel arrangements, connecting with our Russian host(s), finding new accommodations, etc.  With each plane redirection comes another financial cost to be considered and each consideration reviewed to meet the outcomes we have set as a team and personal goals each of us want to accomplish. It is a snowball that grows with each turn, and like dominoes, one task affects the next task that affects the next outcome and so on, and so on, and so on. To top it off is the international time change and telephoning to Russia with the hopes that our St. Petersburg miracle worker can do her magic to help us in the transition.

With each calculated decision, Beth and I have made good decisions on the experience that we and the students will gain. The revisions will allow us additional time in St. Petersburg to explore the city's historical monuments as well as save us dollars at the end by leaving Moscow earlier than anticipated. Students will get a rich cultural exchange that is historical, impactful, educational as well as meet their research interests while also presenting at the 5th Annual Global Studies Conference.

Okay Russia...we are ready for the adventure of a life time! May 24, 2012 -- All Systems Go... The visas and passports arrived into Mankato via Washington, D.C. this morning at 10:30 a.m. Beth received the items and bestowed them to us over lunch at Best Western. Everyone is excited! In addition she provided the flight schedules. Below is our flight plan: May 27      MSP to JFK                        7:00 a.m.  10:49 a.m.

                  JFK to Moscow                   7:00 p.m.  12:25 p.m. May 28      Moscow to St. Petersburg    3:25 p.m.   4:50 p.m. June 4       St. Petersburg to Moscow    6:35 p.m.   7:50 p.m.

                  Moscow to Khabarovsk        9:20 p.m. 12:05 p.m.

June 5       Khabarovsk to Magadan      2:25 p.m.   5:45 p.m. June 17     Magadan to Vladivostok      7:15 p.m.  11:50 p.m. June 18     Vladivostok to Moscow      10:35 a.m.  12:45 p.m. June 21     Moscow to JFK                   2:40 p.m.     5:00 p.m. JFK to MSP                         7:30 p.m.   10:12 p.m.   Grand TOTAL $2346.52

Travel Insurance $147

It's nice to finally have ticket and visa in hand. Now all I have do is get my butt on the plane. At this juncture we are planning on going up to MSP on Saturday, stay the night at a hotel, and then leave to the airport early. The final details are not yet in place, but Beth will put the finishing touches on it. Russia, here we come! May 25, 2012 -- Russia and the Soviets, Myth to Destiny As a boy growing up during the Cold War, Russia seemed so off limits to me. Fierce and stern, the image of what Russia was was burnt into my small-minded brain. Western propaganda cinema, Presidential speeches on television, magazine ads and comedy sketches of what "real" Russian women looked like were spawned into my being. Myths became truth, truth became legend, and in my adolescents I began to peel back the layers of the lies to gain my own understanding of preconceived notions.

People, places, languages, history--each built on a new idea of what rested behind the Iron Curtain. The Wall kept out truth and many us believed the lie. With Reagan and new developments in the 1980s, morsels of human stories came into existence. What we were told was true was either confirmed or dispelled. And in that discovery, a new German nation was built. While no country is without fault, it spurred into my own being a yearning to experience that which I was told could never be.

For me it's like seeing the moon in the distance. As children we are told it's made of cheese, and the face of the man on the moon is truly there. And as we mature and cast away such fairytales, this yellow orb is found to be so much more and begging to be explored. And like an astronaut on earth wanting to walk on new destinies, what emerges instead are dreams of what might be. Slowly tilting, so close yet so far away, it tickles the fancy as images conjure of what might transpire. And with each day's passing, it seems so impossible to ever know it. 

The visible invisible--this is what Russia meant to me. So close, yet so far away and with each attempt in my past unable to grasp its greatness, truth, and beauty. And in a few days forthcoming, I will have the opportunity to feel Russia's grace as I walk on ground I have only imagined, observe foundations of palatial temptation, grace churches and temples painterly splashed in technicolor splendor, inhale smells and taste flavors of entres perfected.

This will be my Russia. This will be my dream come true. 

This is my destiny. And, I am forever thankful.   May 26, 2012 -- Inclement Anticipation A new day has begun. In less than one hour I will hit the road and begin my excursion to Russia. I am filled with anticipation and excitement. While grey skies overhead have left the land drenched, it only spins the wheels in my head to review my packing options. I am prepared, and only time will tell what I may have forgotten. (The great thing about the modern age is that one does not have to go far to find a store to replenish what may have been overlooked and cast off.)

Despite an inclement forecast, I am in a good mood. In between rain and downpour, birds remind me to be joyful. Singing tunes of hopefulness, it puts a smile on my face as my ears listen more intently. And for a silver lining, at least I am in doors safe from it all. Being wet when traveling is never a joy, and I have experienced my fair share of dampness.

My first trip abroad in the 1980s brought me to Costa Rica. A group of students and I from Warren Wilson College spent 4 months in the rainforest of  Monteverde. We received a grant to build the first native tree nursery in the country as well as built an extension to the local Quaker school and a research science center in the jungle for National Geographic.  While living in a rainforest sounds romantic, you quickly learn to never quite dryout from it all. Slithering on underwear that is half damp still makes me squirm and toweling off in the shower with a limp piece of cloth makes me shudder even to this day. And upon returning back home to the States, most of us left our clothes for the local ticos to split among themselves. I have spent casual moments on the internet reviewing the forecasts in Magadan, St. Petersburg and Moscow. There is rain but nothing too drastic to cast one into a foul mood. And to prepare for any such surprise, I have a very nice tote umbrella that set me back $20. It's small enough to keep packed but large enough for a canopy sweep to keep me dry. I would rather much have it and not need it than vice versa. I have never traveled abroad before with an umbrella and this will be a new experience.

I also packed this time a swimmers towel...think a giant shamwow for your car. It packs tightly and absorbs water well. I have been using one at the gym and have found it to be perfect. It dries quickly too. Not knowing what towels would be like in Siberia and unsure of my accommodation, I thought it would be best to prepared. I wish I had traveled with one went to I went to Southeast Asia, and managed with thread bare rags. I remember once too in Thailand when I was towel-less and found my way into the neighbors yard for a souvenir. At least this time, I am prepared. Let's see if it comes to use. May 28, 2012 -- Privacy I read at the exhibition From Thaw to Meltdown: Soviet Paintings of the 1950s-1980s at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, Minnesota that there is no official Russian word for privacy. (The exhibition examined the themes of industrial work in Soviet painting in the post-Stalin era.) Later Dr. Sandell informed me that there this is a listing in the dictionary but it's two words. The on-line dictionary gives me конфиденциальutность, but this actually means confidentiality. Privacy. It's something that Americans are very glad to have and even encouraged from an early age. As children closing the door to use the bathroom is important. Not asking about personal matters at school or work is respected. Not disclosing your health status to an employer is okay. Etc., etc., etc. The discussion we had about privacy with Elizabeth reminds me of the Russian bath (российская ванна) or banya. It's a communal experience soaking, opening your pores with the beating of a birch branch, drinking/eating, sharing about the week, etc. Nakedness is not something that is cast off as peculiar. Bathing is not a private matter historically, and in modern times private bathing has become expected. But even this these "modern" times, the banya lives.

I remember my first public bathing experience in Istanbul, Turkey. I visited the country in December 2000 to January 2001. One of the things I wanted to experience during my visit was the turkish bath, or hamam. The one I went to is called Cemberlitas Hamam. Getting there I paid an entrance fee and was given slippers and a towel. I was escorted up a winding  staircase to a private changing room. I took off my street clothes, draped the red/white checkered cloth around my waist and placed the slippers on to my feet. I entered a large, dimly lit room with domed ceiling that smelled of sulfur. And in the middle of the space was a fantastic, round, marble slab with bodies outstretched. Baking your body on the slab, you could feel the heat from beneath roast you as you would begin to relax and mind wonder. Sweat beads your brow and down your arms as the rooms drips with water droplets falling from above. A tellak (a man who washes you) takes you to an alcove and dowses your body with scorching hot water. You want to leap up desperation in but remain seatted on a tiny stool. He pours yet another bucket of water on you but this one is freezing. He lathers you up scrubbing your arms, back, chest, head, etc. Every dead cell of skin on your body is removed and makes you wonder if you were ever clean enough in the past. Returning you to the slab, the tellak beats your body with a birch branch leaving your mind uneasy and questioning if this is pure pleasure or is it pain? He then massages your body and readjusts your spine leaving you refreshed and ready to take on the world. Which brings me back to privacy and the Russian's understanding of it. We are staying at Sabrina Hostel in the center of St. Petersburg. The hostel is housed in a former communal Russian building. According to Wiki, a communal apartment or kommunalka (коммуналка, коммунальная квартира) appeared in the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, as a product of the “new collective vision of the future” and as a response to the housing crisis in urban areas. A communal apartment typically consisted of an apartment shared between two to seven families. Each family had its own room, which served as a living room, dining room, and bedroom for the entire family. The hallways, kitchen, bathroom and telephone were shared among all the residents. The communal apartment was the predominant form of housing in the USSR for generations, and still exist in “the most fashionable central districts of large Russian cities.” This kind of set-up is perfect for a hostel. Sabrina Hostel is tucked into a alley. If it weren't for our kind hostess and driver that picked-up us from the airport it would have been a challenge to find. It's a classic Old World space with worn tiles, peeling plaster, rickety ornate metal railings, high ceilings, and all good things that make for a great adventure. Hauling our luggage about six to eight flights of stairs, we were greeted by a charming space, warm tea and snacks, and a room filled with Uzbeki spirit. Our hostess was keen to get us settled, familar with the layout of the floor, and acquaint us with the house rules. To our delight there was a washer in the hostel as well wireless wi-fi. (The red dots signify where the different Sabrina properties are located.)

Albina, the goddess of all things hospitable, got us together and shared with us ideas of haunts about the city that we might want to explore during the week--Hermitage, Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Isaac's Cathedral, Nevsky Monastery, Church of the Savior, Nevsky Prospekt, etc. She is simply remarkable. And even as we shared that Elizabeth and Dr. Sandell's request to extend their visas for 2 days was needed, she began to gather potential solutions to the dilemma. As we are all exhausted, we bid Irina farewell as we settled for an evening of quiet reflection and early bed. Now the question will be...what time will the sun go down for White Nights? May 29, 2012 -- St. Petersburg Saint Petersburg, Russia is everything you have read about and so much more; words cannot truly express its magnificence. It's truly one of those special places on earth that must be experienced to truly capture its essence. Located on the Neva River at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea, it was the vision of the Tsar Peter Great Peter that changed this landscape forever. It was in 1914 the name of the city was changed to Petrograd (Петроград), in 1924 Leningrad (Ленинград) and in 1991 back to Saint Petersburg.

Saint Petersburg was founded on May 27, 1703. From 1713 to 1728 and from 1732 to 1918, Saint Petersburg was the Imperial capital of Russia. In 1918 the central government bodies moved from Saint Petersburg (then named Petrograd) to Moscow. It is Russia's second largest city after Moscow with almost 5 million inhabitants.Saint Petersburg is a major European cultural center.

Saint Petersburg is often described as the most Western city of Russia and compared to Venice because of its many canals. Among cities of the world with over one million people, Saint Petersburg is the northernmost. The Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, our group spent the day getting a taste and flavor of all things St. Petersburg--churches, gardens, buildings, monuments, etc. Taking bus and boat, we sought out what makes this city so special to Russians and the world. From late morning to midnight we meandered in and out of boulvards, streets, alleyways and canals. With each turn came another surprise--a park, cathedral, statute, etc. It is a city that cannot be replaced if it were to be destroyed. I want to write so much more but need to go to bed. It's 2:30 a.m. and tomorrow will come quickly. Before heading to sweet dreams, I encourage you to look at some of pictures of the day on my Facebook page. There are many more to come and this will give you a flavor of what's in store. I promise I will write more in the days ahead. Church of the spilled blood: June 1, 2012 -- Peter and Paul Fortress Last night we received word from Albina that our rooms at the Sabrina bed and breakfast in the heart of the city were booked, and we were going to have to vacate our space by 9:00 a.m. She was very apologetic and embarrassed by the entire ordeal. The ol’ Russian adage of “next…problem” has reared itself true. Albina though went into action and found a solution. The Sabrina had another space set-up like a hostel across town. They would pay for a taxi service to shuttle us over and get us situated. Packing 5 people with a truck stuffed and our laps full, our driver sped us across the city to a residential neighborhood. Behind a fortress of gates and interior patios, our new accommodations spring forward, and we were greeted with smiling faces, helping hands, and a sparkling new space. The hallways had that new car smell. The hallways and rooms were freshly painted with Ikea furniture and fixtures. The rooms were barely lived in. At the end of the hallway were we escorted and provided a cluster of rooms. We thought we were going to squeeze all the women into one room and I into a closet of a space; however we later found that the entire suite of rooms were ours. Beth took one, the students the larger, and I the closet. It would do the trick well. I was specially elated knowing I was not having to sleep with one eye open for fear that my things would be pilfered. YEAH! We took a public bus to Novensky Prospekt. While the students and I went shopping in the Singer building for postcards and books, Beth ventured to a cellphone store to make a purchase. For around $30 she got a great phone, and Kim upon hearing the news decided she too was going to get one. While Beth and I waited for them we headed to a Catholic church and poked our heads inside. The Roman Orthodox church is the main denomination in Russian. There are 23 other faith traditions in the city. They are respected but are seen more as cult than Christianity. For example, all Roman Orthodox churches are on the right side of the road pointing toward Moscow. All other faiths and denominations are on the left side. We spent the day at Peter and Paul Fortress …Gorky was imprisoned here. Women were hung for treason. The church was undergoing restoration and the gold gilting was being laid.

One of our goals today was to go shopping. We wanted to get some souvenirs, and we were recommended to visit Beluga. The space is by the national theatre and the Arts Square. Buzzing ourselves in, we found our way into a very slick, modern store with rows of rooms, mirrors, crystal chandeliers, and all things stereotypically Russian (mustraka dolls, furs, amber, lacquered boxes, etc.). And overhead for our listening “pleasure” was the sound of techno music that in mind would drive one mad (Beth had to take a break from it) as it would pulse and throb the listener into convulsions. I was hoping to find some affordable amber and lacquered boxes, but this was not the case. Thrifty Greg was not sold and decided to wait. I did though purchase a black mink scarf and another silk one with mink tails for around $200 total. They will pack easily into my luggage and a great value compared to prices in the United States.

Coming back from shopping, we observed the streets lined with police officers and paddy wagons. Overhead a helicopter hovered in the distance. Something was either happening or about to occur. Watching the officers gather and chat, it appeared as if something was going to take place. Was it a dignitary, special event, parade?

Beth and Elizabeth did investigative work and were told that Occupy St. Petersburg had happened. It was appeared over, and Elizabeth and I went over to the national theatre for picture taking.

Returning back to the park, I saw in the distance marchers moving forward in mass. At first I thought it might be tourists scampering about but then noticed reporters and cameramen. Was Brad Pitt and Angelina visiting? The Occupy Movement was not over, but rather just beginning.

A gentleman with a walking cane, black hat, missing teeth, beard and dreadlocks was inching his way forward to Pushkin Park, and a sea of people parted to welcome him into the fold. Reporters huddled around him to hear his prophetic words, while along the outskirts of the park the men in military uniforms began to encircle the gardens. Men with helmets and face guards took position. We slowly began to take a back seat to the action, and we made sure we spoke English loud enough so that they knew we were tourists in case things got out of hand. Words were exchanged between the Occupiers and police force. The demonstrators did not have a permit were not in compliance with the law. More police arrived and formed a line of resistance. June 5- 8 , 2012 -- Occupy St. Petersburg and so much more We received word from Albina that our rooms at the Sabrina bed and breakfast in the heart of the city were booked, and we were going to have to vacate our space by 9:00 a.m. She was very apologetic and embarrassed by the entire ordeal. The ol’ Russian adage of “next…problem” has reared itself true. Albina though went into action and found a solution. The Sabrina had another space set-up like a hostel across town. They would pay for a taxi service to shuttle us over and get us situated. (Remember to also check your hotel bill, they wanted to charge $900R for the taxi transfer, but Beth caught it and got it worked out. YEAH!) Packing five people with a trunk stuffed and our laps full, our driver sped us across the city to a residential neighborhood. Behind a fortress of gates and interior patios, our new accommodations spring forward, and we were greeted with smiling faces, helping hands, and a sparkling new space. The hallways had that new car smell. The hallways and rooms were freshly painted with Ikea furniture and fixtures. The rooms were barely lived in and ready for us to call it home. At the end of a dark hallway with one window, we were escorted and provided a cluster of rooms. We thought we were going to squeeze all the women into one room and I into a closet of a space; however we later found that the entire suite of rooms were ours. Beth took one, the students the larger, and I the closet. It would do the trick well. I was specially elated knowing I was not having to sleep with one eye open for fear that my things would be pilfered. YEAH! We took a public bus to Novensky Prospekt. While the students and I went shopping in the Singer building for postcards and books, Beth ventured to a cellphone store to make a purchase. For around $30 she got a great phone, and Kim upon hearing the news decided she too was going to get one. While Beth and I waited for them we headed to a Catholic church and poked our heads inside. The Roman Orthodox church is the main denomination in Russian. There are 23 other faith traditions in the city. They are respected but are seen more as cult than Christianity. For example, all Roman Orthodox churches are on the right side of the road pointing toward Moscow. All other faiths and denominations are on the left side. According to Wiki, the Russian Orthodox Chuch (ROC--Russian: Русская Православная Церковь, Russkaya Pravoslavnaya Tserkov) is headed by the Moscow Patriarchate. The ROC is said to be the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the world; including all the autocephalous churches under its umbrella, its adherents number over 150 million worldwide—about half of the 300 million estimated adherents of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Among Christian churches, the Russian Orthodox Church is second only to the Roman Catholic Church in terms of numbers of followers. Within Russia the results of a 2007 poll indicated that about 75% of the population considered themselves Orthodox Christians. According to figures released on February 2, 2010, the Church has 160 dioceses including 30,142 parishes served by 207 bishops, 28,434 priests and 3,625 deacons. There are 788 monasteries, including 386 for men and 402 for women. One of our goals today was to go shopping. We wanted to get some souvenirs, and we were recommended to visit Beluga. The space is by the national theatre and the Arts Square. Buzzing ourselves in, we found our way into a very slick, modern store with rows of rooms, mirrors, crystal chandeliers, and all things stereotypically Russian (matryoshka dolls, furs, amber, jade, lacquered boxes, etc.). And overhead for our listening “pleasure” was the sound of techno music that in mind would drive one mad (Beth had to take a break from it) as it would pulse and throb the listener into frantic convulsions. I was hoping to find some affordable amber and lacquered boxes, but this was not the case. Thrifty Greg was not sold and decided to wait. I did though purchase a black mink scarf and another silk one with mink tails for around $200 total. They will pack easily into my luggage and a great value compared to prices in the United States. Coming back from shopping, we observed the streets lined with police officers and paddy wagons. Overhead a helicopter hovered in the distance. Something was either happening or about to occur. Watching the officers gather and chat, it appeared as if something was going to take place. Was it a dignitary, special event, parade? Beth and Elizabeth did investigative work and were told that Occupy St. Petersburg (aka White Ribbon campaign) had happened. It was appeared over, and Elizabeth and I went over to the national theatre for picture taking. Returning back to the park, I saw in the distance marchers moving forward in mass. At first I thought it might be tourists scampering about but then noticed reporters and cameramen. Was Brad Pitt and Angelina visiting? The Occupy Movement was not over, but rather just beginning. A gentleman with a walking cane, black hat, missing teeth, beard and dreadlocks was inching his way forward to Pushkin Park, and a sea of people parted to welcome him into the fold. Reporters huddled around him to hear his prophetic words, while along the outskirts of the park the men in military uniforms began to encircle the gardens. Men with helmets and face guards took position. We slowly began to take a back seat to the action, and we made sure we spoke English loud enough so that they knew we were tourists in case things got out of hand. Words were exchanged between the Occupiers and police force. The demonstrators did not have a permit were not in compliance with the law. More police arrived and formed a line of resistance. We crossed the street toward the Europe Hotel and decided it was time to leave the excitement behind. Glancing backward it looked as if no heads were going to be busted tonight as we headed back to the bus stop for our return home. time will if The St. Petersburg Daily (English speaking newspaper) would cover the events. We later found that earlier events protesters were arrested and fined not for the event and not having parade documents but rather for J-walking. A day in Saint Petersburg without grey skies is rare indeed. So when you get sunshine, soak it in because it won’t last. Inclement weather brought us to a new day all things glorious in this “Venice of the North”. Still sleepy eyed from last night’s excursion to see the draw bridges rise over the Neva, we did not return home until 3 a.m. or so. The sun never quite dips away from light; days can turn into weeks. Fuzzy moons are cast in clouds and head winds on our boat did not chase them away. Rain came in the wee hours of the morning and never stopped until the end of the day around 9 p.m. Running  late, we scampered to the bus.  It was going to be a fun-filled journey with all things Hermitage. The State Hermitage (Russian: Госуда́рственный Эрмита́ж) is one of the largest and oldest museums of the world (the Louvre and British Museum are larger). It was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852. Its collections, of which only a small part is on permanent display, comprise nearly 3 million items, including the largest collection of paintings in the world. The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors. Out of six buildings of the main museum complex, four, named the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage and New Hermitage, are partially open to the public. The other two are Hermitage Theatre and the Reserve House. Albina greeted us at the Hermitage with tickets in hand. Dashing through the crowds, we hightailed it through the museum in 2.5 hours. It was a whirlwind of activity from room to room and gallery to gallery. I could have easily spent the entire day here and taken more time to experience the art and architecture…next time. And maybe next time too, the theatre will be open. With 3 million artifacts in the collection and only a smathering of them on display, it would take 7 years to see them all if you spent one minute at each piece. Time will tell what the future holds. Skies overhead met our day as we headed to church (forgot the name but will find it later). With map in hand and a sunny disposition, we took every twist and turn to find our destination. Down one canal, over a bridge and down another canal we jokingly made our way through the streets of Saint Petersburg. Through the process of elimination, we saw in the distance the blue steeples and gold crosses of St. Nicolas Russian Orthodox Church. Tour buses lined the streets as gawkers oohed and awed the space.

Being ol’ hats, we meandered our way through the front door and through the side staircase up to the second story to the summer church. Rich, dark blue walls and gold embellishments brought us to celestial bliss. Women with covered heads, small children and the occasional man stood transfixed. Crossing themselves repeatedly—head, chest, right shoulder then left with a small bow--waiting for the moment for the priests to begin the mass.

Ducking under the chain link divider, the students and I eased our way to the standing room only crowd. Seeing there was more excitement around to the left, I jigsawed through the crowd to the front. We were only 3 minutes late and the choir was just beginning. The priest came through the door on the left, the golden altar gates swung open, and the choir burst into jubilant cantation. The priest in a baritone voice would bellow out and the choir would respond in unison. This continued for more than an hour.

I never witnessed so many priests in a service before. There was the main priest with richly adorned green and gold robe with a rounded-like crown richly adorned with jewels and gold thread. The sub-priests wore matching green and gold robes with a raised section along their shoulders making their adornments appear like a super hero cape. The entire collection of men ranged approximately eight in number. One would pop out of the left door, sing a few stanzas, sometimes carry a holy relic, pace to the front of the congregation and back again and then disappear behind the door. It reminded me of a German cuckoo clock with dancers. The clock would strike on the hour, the music would start, and polka dancers would entertain the viewer. Describing it like this sounds almost sacrilegious, but in truth was truly a lovely procession of pomp and circumstance. What I particularly enjoyed was the voices in song. The priest’s deep guttural sounds reverberated throughout the room. Hauntingly it put you into a place of contemplation. (I have music recorded from the service that will be forthcoming.) Albina was baptised in this church as a young girl of four years. Her mother and father were both physicists and did not have a faith practice. Secretly, her grandmother took her off the church and informed her parents to their chagrin of the baptism. According to Wiki, in 1914 in Russia, there were 55,173 Russian Orthodox churches and 29,593 chapels, 112,629 priests and deacons, 550 monasteries and 475 convents with a total of 95,259 monks and nuns. 1917 was a major turning point for the history of Russia, and also the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian empire was dissolved and the Tsarist government - which had granted the Church numerous privileges - was overthrown. After a few months of political turmoil, the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917 and declared a separation of church and state. The Russian Orthodox Church found itself without official state backing for the first time in its history. One of the first decrees of the new Communist government (issued in January 1918) declared freedom from "religious and anti-religious propaganda". This led to a marked decline in the power and influence of the Church. The Church was also caught in the crossfire of the Russian Civil War that began later the same year, and many leaders of the Church supported what would ultimately turn out to be the losing side (the White movement).

During the Stalin era, The main target of the anti-religious campaign in the 1920s and 1930s was the Russian Orthodox Church, which had the largest number of faithful. Nearly all of its clergy, and many of its believers, were shot or sent to labor camps. Theological schools were closed, and church publications were prohibited.

It's surprising the church even survived--even with the Soviets in modern control. Fortunately many of the churches and cathedrals remain and were not destroyed. Today, there is a resurgence. What I also found interesting is that the state pays for the majority of the reconstruction and renovation of the church facades.

Traveling Sick :( Traveling when sick is never a joy. It feels like your head is going to explode. Aches and pains, runny nose, etc. you want to scream, “Do over” but know that it will do no good. I am a glutton for punishment, and without even asking for mercy I pop a pill with the intention that it will be the cure all. But no, it lingers like a frustrating gnat buzzing in your ears and never goes away. And so I put on a smiling, happy face—attitude is everything, right?—but even with a faux grin plastered from ear to ear leaves me no better off that when I first woke. I jump into the shower hoping that the hot water will ease the tension but even that is a failed attempt. Oh, the joys and tribulations of travel. To keep myself from glorifying in my misery, I write in my electronic journal. I had hoped that we would find internet but that too was a disappointment. I would have expected that Russia would be more connected; my excursion to Cambodia was ridden with internet access…different place, different expectations. And so I resort to writing my thoughts as a Word document so that when I do have access I can upload my thoughts in one full sweep.

What was entertaining was going to the pharmacy and with charades describing what I needed---saying "da" every so often I would pretend to sneeze, grab my head as it is was pounding, make googly eyes and look back at the pharmacist to see if she even cracked a grin. I would mutter words like sudafed, antihistamine, Advil with the intentions that one might ring a bell. I felt so very Jerry Lewis in an ol' 1970s film. (I could only imagine what the pharmacist must of told her husband that night over the dinner table with what walked into her store. And I am sure I will account for many hours of giggle and tears in the months ahead at her dinner parties with colleagues.) Whatever I managed to do and with Beth's gentle persuasion the pharmacist recommended us a couple of drugs. Not knowing what I am taking, I pop one in every so often with the idea that if I die on this trip at least I did it with a goal met of seeing Saint Petersburg. Thus, this morning I kept myself tucked deep inside of my cocoon of polyester blankets and bed cushions.

Magadan....Arrival We spent the entire day yesterday traveling across Russia. With nine time changes, three airports, and lots of plane food I tried my best to keep my head from exploding. Air travel with a pounding headache, runny nose, and ears that pop at every elevation changes is not my cup of tea (or chai as we say in Russian). Even the medicine that I got from the Russian pharmacist is not having an effect. god, I am so ready to be well. It's amusing that every airport has a different process of going through security. Some require taking off your shoes, watch, jewelry, belt, etc. while others giving your the keys to the kingdom and have you stroll through the pearly gates. I don't quite understand the rationale to it all but giving me full granted access beats having to get half naked before entering the terminal. The other difference is finding the different expectations on ADA accessibility. Every so often you might find a ramp at the strangest angle, a gate for entry or possibly even a washroom but this happens for less often that you might imagine. The bathrooms are particularly challenging as many toilets are up some stairs once you get into the facility. Or in a local hotel, the shower too may be raised and unable to get into the space to wash. I will say the sidewalks are better than I would expect in other emerging economies as well as the curbs. Many of the streets in Saint Petersburg had ramp curbs by the cross walks which was surprising. Arriving to Magadan at the Sokol Airport, we were greeted with a warm entourage of approximately ten people--both students and faculty. Irina, Stan and Andrew were especially helpful and full of energy as they assisted us getting through the line to baggage, our to the parking lot and baggage loaded to the city. Happy faces and warm personalities made the transition into Magadan joyous! Magadan is a city of approximately 100,000 people. Magadan (Russian: Магада́н) is a town on the Sea of Okhotsk in the Gulf of Tausik. Founded in 1929, it was a major transit area during the Stalin Gulag period. From 1932 to 1953, it was the administrative center of the Dalstroy organization—a vast and brutal forced-labor gold-mining operation and corrective labor camp system. In the 1940s, Vice President Wallace visited Magadan, and he did not know the severity of the labor camps. The guard towers were taken out, prisoners were hidden, and he was misinformed of the atrocities that were occurring. The bumpy ride on the Kolyma Highway into town was entertaining as we exchanged small talk of life back in the USA, what we liked to do, study/research interests, etc. The main road into town (aka as the Road of Bones**) brought us through the artery of the city with city park, schools, church and such lining the side streets. The mountains and hillsides were still covered in snow and told they will not entirely melt. Our hosts took us to the Sea of  Okhotsk with mini icebergs floating throughout the water and shipping vessels set off in the distance. I asked about exotic, wild life and was assured that killer whales graced the seas and on land an occasional bear would wander its way into town (and just last week one came into the city and had to be put down my the local police). The landscape is carved with human presence in simple homes, communal housing, and rocky landscape. Such extreme temperatures is a test to the spirit of the human condition to survive. Coming here is a humbling experience.

**The Road of Bones was constructed in the Joseph Stalin era of the USSR by Dalstroy construction directorate. The first stretch was built by the inmates of the Sevvostlag labor camp in 1932. The construction continued (by inmates of gulag camps) until 1953. The road is treated as a memorial, because the bones of the people who died while constructing it were laid beneath or around the area. Unpacking and settling in for the night, we were greeted with a warm cooked meal. It will be good to rest and prepare for an action filled time here in Magadan. It is good to be here.

June 9, 2012 -- Magadan, a Glimpse The screech of the gull calls out, echoing across the valley as it greets the Magadan morning. Fog fills the iceberg bay with shipping vessels dotting the sea into the beyond. Stray dogs forage the steel dumpsters for scraps while forming packs; there is safety in numbers. This is my day as I glance out my thick, paned window watching children bicker as to whom gets to go on the next bike ride, fathers setting off to work or stumbling home in a vodka stupor, and mothers hunkering low to keep the wind from burrowing down on her soft, Russian skin. And the one thing that is a saving grace is the sun bringing inspiration into this climate of extremes. This weather can be harsh, no pity on the merciless. Blue skies overheard plays games to the modern eye because extremities will become frost bitten seconds if not properly prepared for the elements. And in the course of a day, temperatures and climate can change on the edge of a dime cutting you into pieces making your curse the earth and on the ground you walk. I keep patting myself on my back for bringing long, wool underwear. My days would be short lived without this extra protection—small blessings in disguise.

Yesterday, Beth and Elizabeth and I went to the Youth Cultural Center. We had a meeting with their programming staff. (They consider youth 14 to 30 years of age.) The building was a former Soviet party headquarters with offices and an auditorium for 600 seats to 1200 standing. On the main level was a student exhibition on indigenous art and craft. What particularly caught my eye were the fur hats. Made by hand and unique in design with beading, wool lined and pointed-like ears resembling a fox--each was different. Stan came to pick me up for a town excursion, but before leaving I wanted to show him the hats to see if he would make a phone call and have the artist come and visit with me. I did not want to spend more than $150. The artist arrived—a man in his 50s, over 6 feet tall, gentle and soft spoken. He opened the display case and took out a half dozen of them. Walking downstairs to the lower level, we found a wall mirror. Pulling each one on, some fit snuggling as if made for me. I was particularly fond of a grey fox.

The artist said that they were valued at over $400 each but was willing negotiate. Stan said the man could use the money, and how much was I willing to spend? I revised my limit of $150 and told him $200. I pulled out four crisp bills reading for the exchange and to show evidence that I meant business. The man decided not to sell.

While disappointed, I can appreciate a person who knows the value of their work and not willing to depart with goods. I figure he has Stan’s cell number and can always call him later once he gets home and begins to ponder that he had a potential sale that he did not capture. Besides, I don’t really need another fur hat; I already have more than enough in my collection.

Looking Beyond the Illusion of Magadan Russia, like Houdini, casts a shadow on what you “see” is not what you see—myth and reality are interchangeable, and it takes a deciphering eye to know the difference. There is an underlining understanding that is buried within truth. And in that truth is an inexplicable knowing of what they want to show us as practice versus reality. The question that stirs with you is, is this truth or a representation truth. I think of it like the apartment that stands outside our window…Miami pastel colored walls—periwinkle, pink, violet, and sea foam green. The shell of a plastered foundation shines new and tall, piercing the landscape like a fine, painted lady with parasol and lace petticoat. But behind the adornments are broken doors, loose floor boards, smashed windows, and single light bulb hallways. Or in the case of the youthful beauty queen, rests instead an old, haggard woman with skin pulled tight to hide her wrinkles injected with silicone and Botox, hobbling on a wooden leg under her fine dress with lovely, blonde curls woven into her balding head, balancing a crown stitched into her skull. This is Magadan. Appearances are important, but under the veneer is a life burdened, sad and decaying. Yesterday we went to a children’s center for activity. Library walls were filled with new books. We were told that students could take them home, but in reality it looked like they were never opened. Reality and practice are two different extremes. What is muttered on one corner of the mouth and what is spoken from the other are not congruent. In the distance you can hear children playing games to music as if almost on cue. And when the doors are closed and we are escorted out, there is silence. The games are extinguished; the Americans have left the building.

It reminds me of broadcast news. When I lived in Washington, D.C. there were “riots”. As soon as television cameras went live, stones and tear gas flew by; and almost just as quickly things settled down once cast and crew called it a night.

I received calls from my mother concerned about the D.C. “riots”. But from my lived experience, this was a fallacy. There was no war in the streets, merely a squirmish of disgruntled adolescents that emerged to heap chaos into a finely tuned city of bureaucracy. Yes, people were unhappy, but no riot had broken out--a city in unrest, streets divided, a nation broken. Despite the dichotomy of what is or isn’t in Magadan is an exuberance of possibility, change and evolution. While Russia is rich in history, Magadan is a new beginning—a slumbering bear that is awakening after a long winter of discontent. The question remains to be answered if it will repeat the days of folklore or step on the shoulders of giants. Only time will tell if this city will become the leader it dreams itself to be, a place of modernity, or get caught in the false trappings of power, selfishness, conformity, orthodoxy and traditionalism. I hope the youth will set themselves free and be renewed in the power of possibility and nonconformity. I will await to see how the clock shall strike. June 10, 2012 -- Master Bone Stone Carver Piles of bones and horns are stacked on shelves, floors, corners and closets. Everywhere I turn is tools, fragments and piles of dust. Figurines in varying stages of progress rest on windowsills, nooks and crannies. Phase one of configuration is complete and prepared for the next. Alexiy was taught by his father, and he too will teach his sons. Generations of expertise from whittler to apprentice to master carver have spent countless hours of technique. If only these walls could talk. Oh, the stories they could tell. Alexiy finds his medium walking the land, searching the earth and water beds, and special purchases in the settlements. Developing relationships with the indigenous people, he has forged trust and cooperation. He has continued an art form that is centuries old from seamen, traders and hunters. With each chisel and saw cut, he casts the future of another generation—stories yet untold, experiences to be continued, and memories of adventure. A rough and raw element that is discarded is reshaped, polished and refined into something elegant, pure and beautiful. Where one person sees trash, another beholds a treasure—a fist full of coal, a hand full of diamonds. Hands rough from weather, foraging and skill, he and his team of master carvers leave a legacy that is centuries old, a figurative story of the ancients. These fragments will be their life’s continuation. I am in awe of their ability and talent. This is Magadan--mysterious, powerful, and engaging. The call to prayer rings out across the valley and fills the downtown streets with good news and joy—proclaiming that Christ the Savior has risen indeed. The toll begins low and slow. With each pull of the cotton threaded rope, another exaltation echoes through the mid-evening air. First slow and then more deliberately they beckon the prayerful, and later more triumphantly the bells are tolled picking up momentum. In the spaces between there is no sound and quickly behind the bass tones are six more bells of higher octaves that repeat the sounding joy. With each full stanza the bells reach a feverish speed, and I could imagine young boys leaping with laughter as their feather weight pulls them up the bell tower with each succession. Yo-yos of pure delight are cast upward, and I secretly wish I was there to join in the festivities. People scurry up the low lying steps into the cathedral—one, two three—and through a small wooden door no more than seven feet tall. To the left and right are vendors selling candles, books and religious iconography. Women with covered heads scramble into their coin purse in pursuit of an offering. The voice of mass is forward and lures you into a large vault-like structure with arches and ornately painted walls with saints and angels—pastels colors on the arches and into the heavens with a major gold wall in front that is divinely inspired. A massive, gold and brass chandelier that is at least one story tall rests in the middle of the room with lights encircling each tier and additional saints painted on plaques surrounding it. The majority of women stand to the left and the men to the right. Occasionally a young family will be gathered together or parents may be separated with a carpeted aisle in between as children scamper from mother to father pending who will hold them in their arms. No more than seventy people are attending the service which surprises me. A nation so raptured with the Russian Orthodox Church remains at home and behind their communal apartments. I ask Andrew how often he attends, and he tells me every three or four months. He asks how often I go and reply weekly. He explains my response away by saying I probably sin too often. I giggle at the reply. Andrew is particularly concerned that we not draw attention ourselves. He repeats twice that we should not make large movements and to speak softly. I figure that no matter how much we might attempt to assimilate, we stick out like a sore thumb. After all, how many people travel to church with an orange backpack on their shoulders? The students put on their headscarves, and we settle toward the back.

Jun 12, 2012 -- Picnic in the Countryside This past weekend is considered the independence day of Magadan.  Monday and Tuesday there is no official work with tomorrow being a large festival throughout the town plus fireworks over the bay. I am told that many indigenous people come into celebrate as well as neighboring former Soviet Republics. I am excited to see what will transpire…or not.  Yesterday, we went to the countryside to have picnic with our North-East University friends. Rolling out of town, we turned left off the Road of Bones to an area with shacks, mud puddles, and bog-like ground. It reminded me of rural Appalachia in the United States. The place was unsuitable, and the group decided to venture to another location. We got there too and it was booked with too many people. Venturing even further toward the settlements, we traveled past a monastery and burned out factories and luges, to an area with a running stream. Moving off the paved road to gravel, we traveled several miles—bumpty, bumpty, bump, bump, bump.

We set up camp along the river, brought out portable picnic tables with an array of food—marinated meat, fresh tomatoes, apples, cucumbers, homemade fruit juice, red bell pepper, onions, etc. Like hungry beasts ready to devour our prey, we gathered around the feeding trough. Filling our plates we sat around the unlit campfire telling stories about our families, aspirations, and passions. One by one the students and I told our new friends about ourselves. Later, we took a hike with the intention of jumping across the stream, but we never made it across. What I find peculiar is that Russians have great national pride, but it is not mirrored with the care of the land (the same can be said for Americans). The earth is a resource that is precious, but all around us was heaps of trash in the landscape and water…broken bottles, plastic bags, garbage strewn about--both buried in the soil, resting in trees, and protruding from the stream. Majestic mountains reach toward the sky, but the view is obliterated with signs of human filth. It’s disheartening to witness, and I am shocked that this behavior is persistent throughout the environment. In the United States, this would be criminal and unsure of how the law reads here. I remember one of our guides in Saint Petersburg sharing with us the lack of environmental concern by Russian national and corporate leaders. She mentioned that companies pollute the water and land, and little to nothing is done about it. People in power are more interested in economic wealth without little attention to the future or the betterment of all people. The same can be said for America but with less extreme of atrocities. No country is without fault, but I am surprised in this day and age that it continues without little recourse and conscious. The earth is a living organism. We are blessed to share its bounty. Humans are parasitic in nature, which is neither good nor bad. Either we can live in harmony with our host or be expelled. The choice is ours.

Russia Vodka and Libations Every street corner, restaurant, coffee shop and grocery that I have seen sells vodka, beer, and other alcohol choices. It does not appear that Russians have ABC laws (Alcohol and Beverage Control) the way we do in the United States. If you can open a business in the motherland, you can serve booze. (The official drinking age is 18 as well as purchasing cigarettes.) Another surprise is the ability to drink on the streets with open containers. In the U.S. we have open container laws that do not allow such behavior. Here it is an everyday occurrence. Men buy beer on the street and stroll down the avenue. What is interesting too is I have never observed a woman doing this, only men. I wonder if it is frowned upon or if town gossip would get the best of her. If I were a community leader or had a place in government, I would address the alcohol concern. Russian students speak about the stereotype, but it is more truth than fiction. I would be intrigued to know what percent of the Russian population is considered alcoholics and the influence it has on national production. While you cannot eradicate it, it can be addressed. In the end it has to be something the nation wants to address and rests to the ol’ adage of “Where there is a will, there’s a way.”

June 13, 2012 -- Random Differences We are so blessed to have such wonderful hosts and translators during our trip in Magadan. Prompt and ready for action, they meet us, get us from one appointment to the next and check-in to ensure that everything is in order. My experience would be drastically different if it was not for them, and I am thankful. I have particularly enjoyed the opportunity to share with each other walking from destination to destination. They have asked us questions about the USA—costs for housing, education, raising a family, politics, fast food and obesity, etc. Some of their ideas about us are spot on while others leave them questioning even more (e.g. LGBT rights and involvement in university life). It was particularly interesting when Andrew asked us if men and women could be friends. Leeza said that she had many guy friends, and I confirmed I had many women friends. Andrew cracked a smile and laughed, and we were informed that men and women cannot be friends. “Women cannot be trusted,” was the reply. There is definitely a distinction as to what women can do and where women can go and compared to men here in Russia—especially outside large city and metropolitan centers. It appears that a more traditional role is expected of women. While they can work and hold a place outside the family, the immediate family is the first priority. Women are to be caregivers for their children and husband, maintain the house and household duties, and observe the wishes of her husband. I definitely hold a more feminist view. Here are a few differences:

  • Women are paid money by the government to have children

  • Women do not have to go to work for approximately 18 months so that they can raise children and are financially supported  by the government

  • Housing is often times provided by the government for free or for a minimal  cost

  • Healthcare is free, accept for elective cosmetic surgery

  • Education is free—primary school thru university

  • Men do one year of required military service

  • Drinking age is 18

  • It’s expected that a person be married before they are 30, if not they are labeled

  • It’s expected that a married couple have children

  • Some Russian men carry a murse (man purse)

  • Wedding rings are worn on the right hand and not on the left

  • Summer camp is provided free to students (elem. to junior high)

  • A guest never pays when going out with friends (especially women--men always pay

Russian Van Ride--a.k.a. Sardine Excursion Grasping tightly inside my black, velvet, jacket pocket is $20R for the bus ride back to our communal apartment—two $5Rs and one $10R. Coins clenched in my fist so that I do not lose them in the hurriedness of getting on board, we wait for #22. Stan grins at the thought that what we are tempting is a bizarre request but is delighted at the proposition. Coming up the street, our van awaits and pulls to the side to let half a dozen passengers off as we suck in our guts and squeeze into an already too filled space; we are sardines at its finest. Stan jokes that a least another half dozen families of four could get on with us.

Russians stare at us in potential disbelief that we are riding with them. Curious onlookers sit perplexed either questioning as to where we are from or what has possessed us for this circus-like excursion. I adore it! And with each abrupt halt, we grab the safety bar and brace or bodies along windows and doors for possible vehicular collision. Giggles of delight are shared as “new best friends” are made with total strangers as we gracefully attempt to balance backpacks and packages while praying to not end up in their lap. I can only imagine how absurd it must all look from the street with our fannies pressed against the window glass.

June 14, 2012 -- Weather Difference One major difference between Magadan and Saint Petersburg is the weather. The sun is a rare occurrence in Petersburg; while in Magadan the sun shines but the wind will capture your soul. I am not sure which I refer more—sun and desolation or grey skies and palaces. I forget how much the weather affects one’s wellbeing until faced with extremes. (I can only imagine what life must be like in the arctic.) As the ol’ adage goes, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” But each has its innate beauty. Life of extremes is not a life for me. I prefer somewhere in the middle. It gives me a better perspective. It’s like the story of The Three Little Bears. Too far in one direction and it’s too hard, the other way is too soft and then, “Juuuust right”. Dualistic thinking has always been a challenge for me. And while living a life of black and white has its place on the fashion runway, there is something to be said for a nice shade of grey. Our interpreter shared with us yesterday that there are some in Russia who would like Stalin to return. And while it’s a minority view, they welcome the fascist extreme. It reminds them of a “simpler” time. How quickly we forget our history. And in the back of my head I tell myself that I am sure there are some Germans who would like Hitler to return, and this is one element of history that I trust never prevails again--touché with Stalin. I wish we could all be more Christ-like in our words, actions, and more importantly our forgiveness. We rank our sins as to which are more dire than the next. There is no difference in the eyes of God. But there is a difference in what he said was his greatest commandment…to love one another.  But do we do this? If we embraced the word of God and Christ there would be no war, no homeless, no hunger, etc. We are a selfish bunch and more concerned with ourselves and ego than our neighbor who is less fortunate. We are made in the image of God, and it’s distorted as we begin to think we are God.

Magadan Hospitality One thing I will remember of Magadan is the hospitality of the people. We are fortunate to have such generous and warm friends to greet us, help us along our journey, advise us, and bestow kind-heartedness. From the break of day to evening, there is hospitality. It is truly appreciated, and I hope that we have not been too burdensome on our hosts. Planning our escapades takes diligence and the patience of a saint, and not once have I heard grumbling. A special appreciation and thanks goes to the students of North Eastern University. Upon our arrival to their city, we have put a disruption into their everyday lives; gallantly they have taken on the charge. People are what connect us, like a finely woven fabric. Two different fibers that on the first glance may appear incongruent, but with each thread a stronger weave is woven—a tapestry of brilliance. Rich beyond measure these connections of conversations, debates, and deliberations offer each of us an opportunity to learn and grow. I am not the same person as I entered Magadan, and the same is true for our friendships. Miles may separate us and governments may disagree, but it is people that create a vibrancy that is richer than any nation may hope to become. Even as we return to normalcy, a piece of us will remain and recall our memory to supremacy. Words cannot alone express my gratitude; and with this I say, “Thank you, Magadan.”

June 23, 2012 -- Sleep Deprived The trip to Moscow took over one day. Our flight from Magadan to Khabarovsk to Vladivostok and then Moscow was a journey in itself. We had not planned to connect from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok. To add more discomfort was squirming in an airport terminal seat and trying to get in shut eye over a blaring television. Never truly sleeping and not ever getting situated in the chair, I pushed and pulled my wool sweater to act as my pillow with the intention of getting at least forty winks in over the night. But that was a failed attempt and foolhardy as sleep never came. As soon as I thought I might be out, Russian music would come blaring down on me and off I would toss to the other side of my chair. Armrest to armrest, suitcase to backpack it was unending. And once I finally "woke", we were off to Moscow. Even before we left the tarmack I was asleep and barely even budged in my seat.

Moscow Moscow is a fast paced and action packed city of 11 million people and named after the river it sits along (Moska River). With 49 bridges spanning the river and one of the largest metro subway systems in the world, it's a place on the move. It is the capital and the most populous federal subject of Russia. The city is a major political, economic, cultural and scientific center in Russia and on the continent. Moscow is the most northern megacity on Earth, the most populous city in Europe, side by side with Istanbul, and the 6th largest city proper in the world. It's also the largest city in Russia. Based on Forbes 2011, Moscow has the largest community of billionaires in the world. Everything about the city screams, "GO"! And go we did from the Kremlin to the Bolshoi to the Olympic Stadium. There is so much to see and do in Moscow that it is impossible to do it all in a week. There was so much more I wanted to experience but did not have enough time to do because of other commitments at Moscow State University. I will have to return again.

June 24, 2012 -- Moscow State University ...and more

Lomonosov Moscow State University (Russian: Московский государственный университет имени), a.k.a. MSU, is arguably the oldest and largest university in Russia. Founded in 1755, the university was renamed in honor of its founder, Mikhail Lomonosov, in 1940. It also claims to be the tallest educational building in the world. It is disputed whether Moscow State University or St. Petersburg State University is actually the oldest higher education institution in Russia. While the former was established in 1755, the latter, which has been in continuous operation under the moniker "university" since 1819, claims to be the successor of the university established on January 24, 1724, by a decree of Peter the Great together with the Academic Gymnasium and Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences. The main building is part of the seven (orignally eight) skyscapers envisoed by Stalin. The "Seven Sisters" is the English name. Muscovites call them Vysotki or Stalinskie Vysotki (Russian: Сталинские высотки). They were built from 1947 to 1953, in an elaborate combination of Russian Baroque and Gothic styles. They remind me of something yo might see in a superhero comic strip representing an idea of Gotham City. Strong and steadfast they rise up from the earth and can be seen across the cityscape. They are a dominant force and draw you in like a moth to a flame. While each is different, they are powerful to witness as they dwarf the pedestrian and make you wonder how they were erected. Stalinist history can be brutal and these building reflect that outcome.Gulag laborers, mostly German prisoners of war, built these skyscrapers. A so-called Site-560 (Строительство-560), run by Gulag, supervised the workforce that reached 14,290. While the construction was ongoing, some inmates were housed on the 24th and 25th levels to reduce transportation costs and the number of guards required. If walls could talk there are stories galore that would fill volumes. The main tower of Moscow State, which consumed over 40,000 metric tons of steel, was inaugurated September 1, 1953. At 787.4 feet or 240 metres tall, it was the tallest building in Europe from its completion until 1990. Entering the campus there is a large fountain that was not working when we arrived. To one corner by the humanities building is a bronze statue of Walt Whitman, the American writer and philosopher. I thought it was interesting to see it here as I cannot claim to recall any university that I have ever visitied that has a Russian statue of similar claim to fame. It also brings me to the Museum of Oddities in St. Petersburg with the bust of Benjamin Franklin. I think it is admirable that Russians admire other great people around the world, and I wish we did more of that in our country. Down the entire stretch of the campus to the main building are poorly kept sports fields. For a school as prestigious at MSU, I was surprised that the state did not take better care of its grounds and facilities. Many of the buildings need work and upgrades. While owned by the state, I am surprised that leadership has not encouraged some of the country's billionaires to invest in the future of the country by educating the populace and erecting world class facilities. The quality of education and infrastructure of our spaces in the USA is to be applauded. My concern is that the cost of education is eroding the future of many and what our country may hold for its youth of tomorrow. Education is the fabric of society. Without it there is an increased separation between the haves and havenots. We cannot allow money to stop us from achieving greatness. Our innovation as a nation has set us apart on Earth, and we should do everything possible to safeguard this treasure. I have visited too many countries around the world where this is not the case. Our funding for schools has decreased considerably and will continue to do so but at what cost? The future of the United States is at stake, and we must do everything possible to move us forward. Knowledge is power.

The Boshoi Great Moscow Circus The Moscow State Circus is spectacular! Wheny my undergraduate college friend, Corrine Marks, heard that I was going to Moscow she insisted that I visit. She was working in Moscow for the last two years and sad it was fabulous. Knowing how much I enjoy a great show, it was on the top of my list of things to do and see during my time in the city. And, it was well worth every dollar. The students and I got rock star seats in the center of the house for $30. We were 12 seats up from the bottom and had a perfect view of the entire ring. The link above will give you a taste of what's in store if you have a chance to visit. The title “Moscow State Circus” is used for a variety of circuses. Most commonly, it refers to one of the two circus buildings in Moscow, the “Circus Nikulin” (the old circus, featuring animal acts) and the “Bolshoi Circus” (the new circus, featuring trapeze and acrobatics), or to traveling shows which may or may not be directly related to Russia. We attended the Bolshoi and were raptured. While in Saint Petersburg I learned that the Tsar received an elephant as a gift from Persia. It walked across the country to rest in St. Petersburg. The Tsar made special boots for the elephant, and he later made a purchase for 13 more animals. A special building was erected for them and circus life began. Even today the St. Petersburg circus performs. We tried to attend it, but it was closed for the summer holidays. And so when we arrived to Moscow and were able to taste it world famous acts, I jumped at the chance. The Great Moscow State Circus (Russian: Большой Московский государственный цирк на проспекте Вернадского) is an auditorium located at the Vernadsky Prospekt across the street from Moscow State University. It was opened April 30, 1971. It can seat up to 3,400 people and the height of the amphitheatre is 36 metres. I am told that performances are nightly but when we went to the hotel concierge we found that this was not the case. We went on Wednesday without reservations and had no difficulty getting great seats. (If you go, the ticket office is downstairs from the carnival and not sold inside the circular building.) The show will have you captivated the moment the live orchestra begins performing to the last curtain bow. From time to time the circus will perform around  the globe. If you have a chance to see it (there or on tour), go. The entire production ran about 2.5 hours. Our special highlight was the second act. It was focused on Zoro, the masked hero. The program ran for half an hour and focused on horses, acrobatics, dancing, and theatrical arts. I loved it and promise you will too. Go! You will be glad you did.

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