Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Kizhi Island

                Dark skies loom overhead as we, the noticeably American tourists, walked through the center of Petrozavodsk towards the shore of Lake Onega. The weather dominates conversation as we weave our way along the sidewalks, each one of us worried that the next 90 minutes could be the most miserable of the trip. Approaching the lake, the dark clouds have yet to unleash their stormy potential and we notice – Onega’s surface is unusually placid, not just given the present conditions, but also in comparison to the previous 3 weeks. Maybe this trip to Kizhi Island, home to a historic community and religious site, won’t be as sickening as the stories from the last American trip had led us to believe.
                We board our boat, or hydrofoil rather, and try to get comfortable for the pilgrimage ahead. The thought of moving atop choppy waves in the middle of the second largest lake in Europe for over an hour isn’t exactly inviting though. As the hydrofoil pushes off from the dock and begins our journey, things remain smooth. Surprisingly smooth. Suddenly my seat becomes much cozier, and I begin to relax. After methodically placing my earbuds in my ears and pressing the play button on my iPod, I turn my attention to the window and  watch  as   the     islands         go         .......
               !...I will not   fall     …    asleep.......
               !! An hour has already passed! Any anxiety for this excursion has been soothed away by the metronomic sway of the hydrofoil as it crossed the extraordinarily smooth water.
                I turn my attention towards my window. I see Kizhi. At first I don’t believe my blurry eyes and groggy mind, but as my consciousness slowly returns to normal, I realize that I am not being deceived – we have arrived. I know this is Kizhi thanks to the many postcards idolizing the island that are scattered throughout souvenir shops, museums, and administrative buildings alike.
                I am disappointed. I thought the cathedral would be bigger, more majestic. Instead, it appeared like a quaint shadow of what I could only assume was a more prominent and foreboding former-self. I’d be lying if I said my excitement for the excursion hasn’t fallen slightly, but I came all this way to see everything Kizhi had to offer, so I will carry on. Or maybe I’m just here because Karen told me I had to be.
                Exiting the boat, we are greeted by the stereotypical scene – a main path crowded by shops and cafes, each desperately trying to attract your eye to their overpriced trinkets. This just gets better and better. Maybe the tour will be redeeming. Maybe.
                Working our way down the narrow, birch-lined boardwalk, we came to the ticket office and our tour guide for the day, a short smiling brunette named Victoria. The excitement in her eyes actually expels some of my doubts about Kizhi – until she mentions the poisonous vipers that are found on the island. Somehow, the tour managed to get worse before it has even started.
                After our introductions, we continued down the path towards the southern end of the island; this is where the cathedrals stand. As we approach the fortified wooden cathedrals, I realize that my initial impressions from within the hydrofoil were incorrect. Though scaffolding and ladders line the walls of the main cathedral as it undergoes restoration, it still emanates an aura that can only be described as equal parts beauty and rugged. This is no gold-lined cathedral from Moscow or St. Petersburg, yet it manages to capture my interest in much the same way. The detail put into the construction of every building, not just the main cathedral, is shocking given that the buildings are composed almost entirely of wood.
                Stopping next to the main cathedral, Victoria begins to share with us the history of the island, as well as fun facts about Kizhi and its inhabitants – the usual tour things. But instead of slowly lulling me into a zombie, Victoria made Kizhi Island come to life. Every fact is more interesting than the next, and each ties in with another in a complicated web that only underscores the meticulous detail and religious fervor that went into constructing Kizhi so long ago.
                Kizhi, or “place of rituals” as it is translated, was settled long before the arrival of Orthodoxy to Karelia. It remained a pagan ritual site until the early 18th century, when Slavic peoples arrived to the region. The oldest wood dates back to 1714, when the main church, the Summer Church, part of the Kizhi Ensemble, was first constructed. The second church, known as the Church of the Intercession, or Winter Church, was completed four decades later, in 1754. These were neither the first nor the only churches to stand in the Kizhi archipelago. A number of smaller chapels dot the islands, making religious practice easier for those who were unable to travel to Kizhi Island for worship. One of these small chapels, the Church of the Resurrection of Lazarus, built in the 14th century by the Byzantine monk Lazarus (no relation to St. Lazarus for whom the church is named), is the oldest Orthodox church on the island. It still stands, though it is overshadowed by the Summer and Winter cathedrals across the island.
                Entering the pogost’, Victoria begins explaining the intricate details of the construction of the two cathedrals. First and foremost, Victoria explains that pogost’ has 3 different meanings in Russian, each applicable to the fortress of cathedrals in a different way. First, it can mean administrative center. During Kizhi’s golden age, numerous villages dotted the island and the surrounding archipelago. The cathedrals acted as a town center, which allowed a common meeting ground for the leaders of the island (not coincidently, many were members of the clergy) to discuss matters of governance and mutual prosperity.
Secondly, pogost’ means “location of church,” which only makes sense, as it houses both the Summer and Winter cathedrals within its walls. Why two cathedrals? Victoria explains that, as their names imply, the churches were designed for different times of the year. The Summer Cathedral, which acts as the posterchild of the island, was constructed in the typical orthodox fashion: high walls and ceilings with grandiose architecture. It has 22 domes covered by 30,000 shingles, which sit atop its impressive countenance and not only add beauty, but also protect the church from the rain and other destructive elements which are common in Karelia during the summer season. Unfortunately, because of its size, the Summer Cathedral is very inefficient to heat, which made it impractical to use during the colder months, and thus the Winter Cathedral was built. Much smaller than its neighbor, the Winter Cathedral is built solely with the idea of warmth – its ceilings are low, its walls are thick, the rooms are small, and the foundation is elevated so as to keep heat from escaping into the earth.
Due to restoration, we cannot enter the Summer Cathedral, but the Winter Cathedral is open for us. Upon entering, we see a vast number of icons lining every wall – 104 of them to be exact. Many of them were created by local artisans rather than professional icon makers, which added a unique blend of perfectly flawed design with colors and themes which could only be described as Karelian. At the very back wall stands the iconostasis – a large group of icons common in many orthodox churches which is used to describe the basic story of the Orthodox religion through pictures. This allowed those who could not read the opportunity to feel connected to the church in their own personal way.
A short hymn is sung for us by the church choir, and we proceed to exit the Church of the Intercession. Upon exiting, Victoria shares with us the final meaning of pogost’: cemetery. She motions towards the field of scattered crosses and shares that the pogost’was the location where the most prominent people of Kizhi and the surrounding islands were buried. Naturally, those who were members of the clergy were buried closest to the church. Victoria then makes note of the design of the crosses. According to her, they are designed in the same fashion as the cross which Jesus Christ was crucified on, with one small exception. This exception is the plank at the bottom of the cross which leans down and to the right. This symbolizes the choice each person makes in their life: to be righteous and seek salvation in Heaven, or to be sinful and carve out their place in Hell. Seeing the crosses scattered across the hilled landscape, I finally and fully grasp the religious and historical importance of Kizhi, and suddenly, the island came to life.
Upon leaving the fortress of cathedrals, we were herded down a path towards a number of other buildings, each portraying their own aspect of life for the original inhabitants of Kizhi. At every location, the island felt more honest and authentic. I’ve realized that my first impressions deceived me, and they potentially could have ruined a thoroughly informative and enjoyable experience on Kizhi. As a person who is hard to impress, I cannot recommend a trip to Kizhi Island enough. It has certainly been one of my most memorable excursions while in Russia. Someday I hope to return to Kizhi. I will bring with me only new experiences and perspectives, and though the tour and cathedrals may not change much, the lessons I learn from them will.
That’s the true beauty of Kizhi: it is not meant for Russians, tourists, the religious, or historians – it is meant for anyone willing to listen, learn, and allow their perspective to be revolutionized by a quaint wooden façade lost in the middle of one of the largest lakes in the world.
By Anthony Wetzel

Friday, July 1, 2016

Russian and American Homes

I was expecting many differences between Russian and American homes, but was pleasantly surprised to find only a few differences. Each nation wants the same in family dynamics—comfort and safety. Parents urge their children to study so they can get into good universities to get a good paying job to live a stable life. Families are close too. Many couples and groups are walking the streets of Petrozavodsk, spending time together running errands and living in the moment. I see this as different in America, as most Americans do not just walk around a city with their family. Most Americans are in a hurry or have a schedule rather than taking the time for a stroll just to be. I have seen Americans spend time together, but not via leisurely stroll. So this was a nice sight in Russia.
Spending time at a family dacha also showed a different aspect to family life in Russia compared to America. While most families in America only have one home, Russians have a second get-away cabin outside the bustling, noisy city. The dacha I had the opportunity to visit was inhabited by the student’s grandparents for the majority of each summer. And most families spend long weekends at their dachas during summertime, while in America, getting away from the city takes a lot of planning and coordination of schedules to get a family together. In Russia, the dacha is available to the family on an as-needed basis. This was enjoyable to see a family come together and we only sat and talked, enjoying conversation over tea rather than the distractions of studies, work, or technology. In America, family camping trips get frustrating to coordinate. And when a family does get away, children are distracted by gaming systems and adults tinker with cooling vents rather than being in the moment to enjoy their natural surroundings.
Also regarding social interactions Russians beat Americans again. I have seen and heard many Russians talking on the phone to relatives, not just in the polite “Oh, I should call grandma this month” phone call, but a genuine courtesy call. Even if the phone call only lasts a few minutes, the students I have seen do this have a happy grin and twinkle in their eye because they have such a deep relationship with their relatives. In America, people (and yes, me included) get so wrapped up in themselves that we dread the monthly, or yearly, phone call to what should be a close relative.
These close relationships are also seen within the friendship of the students. The students are constantly jostling each other in play, assisting each other in translations and explanations, as well as actively listening to each other. I have enjoyed seeing the students handshake or hug in greeting or departing the others’ company. This shows true friendship. I was really touched when I saw one Russian girl jump from her seat in glee and run to a friend for a tackling hug.
My expectations of the Russians was for them to be reserved and even a little cold in conversation. Yet these two friends embracing each other, and our Russian hosts, have displayed a variety of emotions. Albeit with their friends and relatives, but these emotions are just that much more genuine when in close company versus the façade that Americans tend to have.
This does not extend just to friendships, but is also seen in the Russian home. My host family is very close and their relationship is almost palpable in the atmosphere when I am around them, from small touches to get attention or emphasize a point, to leaning on another while watching a movie to parting hugs and kisses. Although I am going to tangent on this topic—Russians touch a lot more than Americans. Russians have a very small personal space concept versus Americans. During my dacha stay I was randomly touched by people during the day, which would not have happened in America. Even walking the hallways of the university people tend to pass right next to you versus arm’s length-ish as per American standards. I could handle the closeness in a crowded bus and metro, but the dacha and university halls was quite unnerving since my American personal space expectation was completely ignored. Back to family touching—it’s adorable to see my host’s mom and her so close. In America, I do see close families—as indicated by constant teasing and comfortable relationship—but Russians take it to the next level with less words and more actions. I have woken up twice to the breakfast already set and coffee ready to brew, their effort to make a complete stranger to them feel appreciated and thought about. And my host is constantly cuddling with her mom and sister, physically showing her appreciation of their relationship.
Russian kitchen table, still the center of great conversations
It’s also nice to see Russians actually talking to each other. In America, when people get together for a dinner, phones and/or earphones get more attention than the people. Our Russian hosts, when together, are in the moment and actually talking with each other. While phones may be looked at, they are not in front of a Russians’ face as seen in America. This again reiterates the genuine relationship a Russian has to his/her friends or family. The fact that a Russian is actually talking to you versus an American mumbling to you while thumbing through Facebook. It’s the little things that make a difference. 

I believe that close relationships also come from the physical layout of a Russian flat. They are small, usually with one or two bedrooms, a kitchen, toilet and bathroom, but a family is able to communicate that much better because of the limited space. While in America, houses are spacious and each member has his/her own room. 

This causes physical separation and a lack of communication, causing a relationship to not really form. In Russia, and in my host flat, the sisters share a room. More than likely this was a factor that led in to their close relationship. Also, due to the limited space, Russians do not get so caught up in material possessions as Americans do. Russians would rather have a small table and mismatched dinnerware for family and friends versus Americans with a grandiose table and expensive matching dinnerware when entertaining guests. Though the flats I have seen have an amazing amount of storage space, I have not seen as many mundane knickknacks as I have seen in America. Russians seem to be more about the people and emotions versus showing off. It’s quite endearing. All in all I have seen a different level of emotions in Russia versus America. At a Russian home, families talk and gather and actively listen to one another, creating a fantastic bond. Russian friends go out often, either to a restaurant or another’s house, on a constant basis to spend time with their friends. America has these interactions too, but with Americans having a fast-paced mindset, relationships do not seem as vivid as compared to Russia (in this author’s opinion). Every person, Russian and American, wants good by their family and friends. But Russians show genuine emotions allowing their relationships to be more concrete and wholesome. 
by Kendra Sanford

Friday, June 24, 2016

Rock Concert

While in Petrozavodsk, our group had many opportunities to experience both traditional and modern aspects of Russian culture. One of these opportunities involved attending a Russian rock concert. For me personally, just getting into the venue where the concert was to be held was a challenge. This was due to the fact that I was navigating our journey in a wheelchair. Needless to say, the entire trip was a bit of an adventure. Never have I been so grateful that I can, in fact, walk the majority of the time. However, that evening the real challenge was the sheer number of stairs we had to climb just to get into the building. Thanks to my wonderful fellow travelers, who carried my chair up the vast number of stairs, we finally entered into the club. When you first enter, it takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the drastic change in lighting. It definitely gave me that "underground club" vibe. Between the muted purple and green lights and the underground bunker feel, lay a small local music scene.
As we arrived and began to settle in, the first band slated for the evening were finishing up their sound check. Towards the back side of the room there was a small bar and some tables and booths.
 Over the course of the evening we listened to music by three different groups with very different music styles. The first group performed a mix of heavy metal and some bordering on screamo. The second group was fronted by a man named Vova, a guitarist/vocalist who was a friend of some our group leaders. His music seemed heavily influenced by Nirvana. The third and final group were, in my opinion, the most musical talented out of them all. They played a variety of rock pieces, including a piece by the group Arctic Monkeys.While I sensed less enthusiasm from the majority of the group, the music enthusiast within me was perfectly content to simply sit and absorb the good vibrations heading my way.
by Kaytlin Hintz-Knopf

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

University Life

Russian and American school systems have many similarities, but they also have stark contrasts. An example of their similarities would be that both are greatly affected by politics and political agendas. In Russia, the Federal Law on Education of 2013 completely revamped the Russian educational system and educational standards of the Russian Federation. In this law, everyone played a part in education, including the role of parents in education outside the classroom.
This law also began to treat education as a service to be bought and sold, further capitalizing the Russian Federation. That being said, America has been treating education as a service and commodity for a very long time. Just look at the price of college tuition! However, unlike in America, Russia assists their students in paying for this education by giving out scholarships based on merit rather than finances. In America, government funds for education can be found in the form of loans and, on glorious rare occasions, grants. These are based on income rather than the work a student does. In Russia however, the system of scholarship is based on the marks a student gets. The highest marks (5) get scholarship to pay for their tuition, 4s get a smaller scholarship, and 3's or lower don't get scholarships. This method will incentivize learning and good grades rather than partying and paying off the debt later.
Our classroom at Petrozavodsk State University
In addition to this difference, credits are allotted in different ways. Credits in Russia are counted by both in class and out of class work. Only half of one's credits can be in class (~18 hours per credit) the other half account for the time a student puts in outside of the classroom. In America, one credit counts for ~15 hours of work in class and that's it. Russia also has a difficult time counting study abroad programs into their system because they must take a certain number of hours in class and the Russian credit has more hours per credit than many other countries. This makes it difficult for Russia to recognize some degrees or coursework.
The coursework is also allotted differently between the two countries. In America, a student is given the freedom to choose their classes, number of credits, and the times of your classes. An American university student rarely has the same classmates in every class and most of the time, their classes aren't in the same building. In Russia however, a student's schedule is fixed according to their major. Odd semesters have class from 8am until 3pm with a 15 minute break at 9:30 and a half hour break at 1. Even semesters have classes from 11:30am until 6:30pm.
There are several other differences such as vocational studies beginning at the 10th grade level, the affect of mandatory military service for men, and others; but for the most part the systems are structurally similar. Roughly 82% of Russians go to university, similar to America's roughly 84% that gets at least some college education (though only about 34% of Americans get a bachelor's degree). There are also Unified State Exams in Russia that are very similar to the ACT in America (although the ACT isn't required by law). These exams determine what you will be able to do in terms of university studies and vocational work.
Through everything, the end goal and end result is still the same: gaining knowledge through government institutions with the hopes of enjoying a brighter future.
By Kristalena Herman

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Урозеро/Urozero

When I first saw the Urozero sign I thought I had been mispronouncing the Russian word for lake my entire life. Apparently, Urozero is just the name of the ozero, or lake, that we visited on our first Sunday in Petrozavodsk. I really enjoyed this one-day experience growing closer to my fellow Americans and Russians and in my understanding of Russian culture.
The day was full of fun and games. Morning began with a classic Russian sport—Футбол! Futbol! As one of the team captains, I selected my teammates and lined up to play. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, played on anything from small gravel fields to the large pristine grass of the ongoing European Championships. However, the game is the same wherever it is played. Soccer draws people of different nationalities and unites them as one people. Our game united Americans and Russians, young and old, and ended in an animating 5-5 draw.
After cooling down from футбол I joined a group playing billiards and ping-pong. I quickly learned that “Russians like hard challenges” in the words of Vadim. The billiards table had smaller pockets and bigger balls than I am used to, making scoring considerable more difficult. This only enhanced our camaraderie, though, as we all laughed when the easiest of shots were missed time and time again and all rejoiced when a ball was finally pocketed.
After a satisfying lunch and some quick games of Дурак (Durak, a Russian card game in which the player left with cards at the end is designated the fool), it was time for the баня! (banya, the Russian sauna) Even though Russian blood runs through my veins, I had yet to experience a real banya until this day. My fellow Americans and I were excited to join the Russians in this long-held Russian tradition,Men and women go to the banya separately. Upon entering the banya, Igor told the group, “when in Russia, do as the Russians do”. After seeing exactly what he meant by this, we too stripped off all our clothes and joined him in the steam room. The intense heat hit us as soon as we entered the steam room. At first it was painful to sit on the benches and keep my eyes open. Then I was introduced to the strikes of the веник (venik) branches, all the while sweating profusely. However, I was humbled by the feeling of camaraderie in the room. This was a type of intimate connection with adults and newly-made friends that we do not have so easily accessible in the United States. I will certainly remember and cherish that connection. A few minutes later we quickly threw on our swim trunks (плавки) and ran down to the lake. I was the second guy to jump in and feel the cold refreshment. The Russians say that the mix of the hot and cold is healthy for the body. After a couple more rounds, I couldn’t agree more. 
by Alex Mikhailov

Arrival in Petrozavodsk

When I first arrived at Petrozavodsk I didn’t know what to expect. My colleagues and I had been on a train for the past eight hours. I was tried, hot and sweaty, and most of all nervous. I was nervous because I had no idea what my host family was going to be like. I had just gotten in contact with them five days before. As the train rolled in I looked out the window and took my first look at the place I would be staying for the next three weeks. I could only see the train station, but more importantly I could see a crowd of people waving at us through the window. I wondered which family was mine. A million different thoughts were running through my head. What if my host family doesn’t like me? What if they think I’m strange? How will I get around to classes? Will I be able to talk with my family back home? I got off the train and took a look around. Petrozavodsk was much prettier than I had imagined. I had pictured a city with tall buildings surrounded by concrete like St. Petersburgh. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The morning air smelled clean and fresh there were lots of trees around almost like the city and the forest and merged together. It reminded me of a city that I would find in northern Minnesota. Just as I had finished looking around, a young brown-haired woman about my age walked up to me and asked “You are Alex?” I answered “Yes” and she told me that she was my host sister and quietly stood next to me. I remember being worried and thinking to myself “Ok Alex this is going to be really hard I don’t think she speaks much English and my Russian isn’t that great either.” We soon walked up to her father who shook my hand, then we walked to the car to go to my new home. I was trying to keep as much distance as I could because I was afraid that I smelled bad after our long overnight train ride and that they would have a bad first impression of me. When we arrived at my new home I was greeted with smiling faces of my new younger brother and host mother. I greeted them, and we had a small but good conversation. I was pleased to find out that my new sister could speak English very well, and that my Russian was not as bad as I first thought. After I took a shower my new sister took me on a walk around the city.
Duluth Sister City Sculpture, Petrozavodsk Embankment
Petrozavodsk was not what I had expected at all. I had been taught by films and by stories from other people that what I should expect to see would be a city that was not as developed as some of the western world, and that most of the people would be adults who did not like Americans. I was again proven completely wrong.
The city was beautiful, it stood on a huge lake, there were malls, lots of buses and cars. There were teens laughing with their friends, mothers with children, owners with pets none of whom were hostile to me at all. I came to realize that everything that I had expected or feared about Russia before I came to Petrozavodsk was completely wrong. To my surprise and relief I felt more at home in Petrozavodsk than I had since I had arrived in Russia almost a week earlier.
by Alex Tryon-Tasson

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Saint Petersburg

St. Isaac's Cathedral, Saint Petersburg
Saint Petersburg served to be the perfect starting point for our Russia trip. The city is large, elegant, rugged, and beautiful. It isn’t like when I went to Rome. Rome, being the capital of one of the greatest empires in history, breathed an aura of grandiosity. Its cathedrals were decadent. A testament to their might. Saint Petersburg’s cathedrals gave off an aura that can only be experienced. No amount of pictures or words can reproduce the atmosphere of the cathedrals. It is far more than architecture. It is, more than anything, a sense of culture. The cathedrals, like the ones in Rome, are immaculate. But nonetheless, they don’t present an aura of grandiosity. Upon entering the Kazan Cathedral in the center of Saint Petersburg, I saw a crowd of church goers.
Kazan Cathedral, Saint Petersburg
Regardless of this, it was almost completely silent. The only sound that echoed through the structure was the sound of chanting monks. They chanted for the entire time that I was there, though I never saw them with my own eyes.
Anyone that spoke only did so at a whisper, and without even being told, I, as well as my group mates, followed suit. Even as an outsider, even as an atheist, you feel the power that exists between the stone walls of the cathedral. You feel the history, the tradition, of an entire nation. You see it with your own eyes. You hear it with your own ears. You feel it in the vibrations of the air. All else in the city could be forgotten, and this experience alone would still make the trip extraordinary.

By David Obst