I was honored to sit in (note the empty chair at the head table) on the oral comprehensive exams of the Candidate of Science students, similar to our PhD. In America, we concentrate on particular regions or time periods at this point in our academic careers, but in Russia, anything is fair game on your comprehensive exams. There are fifty sheets of paper with two questions on each, and students select one at random. There are questions on ancient history, local history, regional history, world history, etc. You get your questions and have an hour to prepare. Then you sit in front of a committee, like this guy, and answer the questions. I was sitting in when a question on the Cold War came up. Ask me about it next time you see me.
The last few days have been up around 40 degrees, and we have gotten a ton of melting. This is nice, especially when I have to walk to work. For over a month, I’ve been walking on ice–snow packed by thousands of people walking over the top of it–and now much of it has disappeared. A lot of it, like the road to the left, has generally been cleared by hand, but the warm weather has done the rest. When you are no longer walking on ice and the majority of the sidewalks are clear, you notice.
Yesterday was dark and rainy outside, so the lights came on. This is the first time I had ever seen this, so I snapped a few pictures. The marble columns and ornate ceilings are really something to see, and again, this picture doesn’t do the beauty of the room justice.
Kind of off to one side in the university is a monument with the dates 1941-1945. Obviously, it is a tribute to fallen soldiers, but I didn’t know the whole story, until today. I was told that this monument was dedicated to the faculty members from Bashkir State University who died during the war. 15 faculty members gave their lives defending the Soviet Union and fighting the Nazis, which is not surprising, considering that 18,000 residents of the city died over the course of 4 years.
So, I was at lunch (at 3 pm, things run a little later here) speaking English with some Russian friends when a gentleman walked up and said in American English, “This sounds like a ground of people I should get to know.” Turns out the man to the left, Mike, is an American from California who has been living in Ufa for 12 years. He makes a living as an independent English tutor, and has about a million stories to tell. He is a very interesting guy and a super-nice person. Apparently, his classes are jammed full every day, and he holds class in various cafes around the city. I get the impression that he is one of those people that everyone in Ufa knows, or has heard of.
Believe it or not, this sign reads “Historical Department,” or if you want to pronounce it like a local:
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!
Actually, I really enjoy working here. You can see that the hallway is dark, which I enjoy, and you can see some of the old architecture like the very narrow but very tall wooden doors. The building was put up in 1909, and I think a whole lot of the building is original. Even some of the desks. I think that is really cool.
Every once in a while you come across a sight in Russia that induces a senior moment. You know, the kind that makes you take a step back and wonder if you missed a really, really important fact. Like you got on an airplane and forgot about it kind of fact. So, we were walking down the street one day, and that’s exactly what happened when we ran into this establishment right in the middle of Ufa. It was a warm day today, I had to get my 10,000 steps in, so I went to find the place and take a picture of it. Enjoy!
I finally got around to taking some pictures inside the university today. Sorry for the blinding sunlight streaming in through the window, but I wanted to show you the grand staircase. This photo does not do the room justice. I had to be rather careful taking the pictures, as attacks by bad folks is a real concern everywhere, and when some stranger is busy taking lots of pictures, it raises questions.
You can see the ornate light fixture hanging from the ceiling, and these same fixtures are located throughout the building. And yes, they are off almost all the time, and the hallways are actually pretty dark. If you have ever stopped by my office, you know that this is how I like it. My office is always dark except for a little desk lamp I keep by my computer. I think the description of “creepy” is not fair at all. I digress. I’ll try and get some more pictures and post again.
With our friends Kamil and Rustem, we went to a restaurant serving Serbian, Croatian, and other SE European food. It was absolutely awesome. And the portion sizes were pretty huge. Here is my son Jake, with his platter of grilled veggies, French fries, and chicken breast. Rustem had a dish of Mushrooms, with eggs, a piece of bread, and then baked with cheese. I’ve never had anything like that, but it was delicious. We are not suffering for lack of tasty dishes to try.
I pass this statue each day on my way to the university, which depicts Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Soviet secret police after the revolution, I believe. The ice on the sidewalk was melting, and rivers of melted snow were making their way down to the valley. I am hoping that this is a sign of an early spring.
Ann and Jake are flying back to the states the day after tomorrow. I am not excited about that. They will probably be there a couple of months, as you can only enter Russia once with our visas, and getting another one is not a quick process.
So this is where I go to work each day. The university was built in 1909, and the inside is very cool, with a huge marble staircase and wooden floors with ornate trim. I asked, once, if I would get into trouble if I took some pictures, and the answer was yes. But now that I think about it, maybe they thought I was asking if I could take a picture inside and the answer was yes. Perhaps I will play the clueless American card, and snap some pics hoping nobody will say anything. If they do, this is where the clueless part comes in. (I’ve been playing this part for years). Anyway, I am really enjoying my duties, which is to teach one class, but I also have a manuscript to revise (so it will grow up to become a book) two articles to write for journals, three presentations to prepare for conferences, and a book chapter to write for a Russian anthology, so I am busy. But not matter what happens, I really appreciate when the Russian faculty members stop by just to shake hands and say good morning. I am working on my language skills, so hopefully we will be able to say more than, “I am fine, how about you?”
Today is just one of those days that makes you happy to be alive! It is only about 30 degrees outside, but the sun is shining so intently that it feels like 50 degrees. That was a good news/bad news kind of thing. With the melting, lots of snow and ice was falling off of the buildings. A small chunk landed near us today, big enough that we and everyone around us got off of the sidewalk and onto the street. Tomorrow is supposed to be nice also, and then cloudy weather. Ann and Jake are heading back to the states on Monday, and government red tape with Visas means they will probably not be back for a couple of months. For those of you who don’t know, Jake has Crohn’s disease and he has to have infusions every 8 weeks. The Russian people are great, but the Fulbright program is not designed for people who need to come and go from Russia every so often.
I am in the small museum at Bashkir State University, trying to play the traditional Bashkir instrument called a Kurai (cure-aye). Its played with the mouth open, so it is impossible (for me) to get any air going through it. These guys are smiling, but they are still playing, which defies all logic! Радмир (Rad-me-are) and ирондик (E-ron-dik) could play a number of traditional songs, which were quite beautiful. Even though everyone in this picture is laughing, two out of three of us were still playing music. I couldn’t even get a squeak out of the thing. Everyone in this photo is laughing at me, including me.
I taught my first class in Russia today, in flawless English, which is to say, everyone else had to accommodate me. You can see several Russian professors attended my class, all of whom have been to the United States several times. There are 30 students registered for class, but they are all sitting in the back of the classroom, like their American counterparts. The students were great, laughing in all of the right places, and asking question about the significance of the lecture topic (Christopher Columbus) as it is seen today. Several professors have stopped by, asking me to attend their lectures, which indicates a fair level of comfort with the material and their teaching methods. I will certainly go, working on my listening skills.
After our “little excursion” with Rustem yesterday, we stopped at a great restaurant. It was a nice little place, and it was Valentine’s Day, so hey, two birds–one stone, as they say in the states. Ann’s dinner was roast beef covered in a savory sauce with mashed potatoes. V’koos-nee, as they say here in Russia.
It looks to be another sunny day, and we are meeting our friend Kamil in a few hours at a café to continue our language lessons. Classes begin at the university today, and I am scheduled to teach a class each Wednesday at 2:00 pm. I am looking forward to it!
Another “little excursion” with Kamil and Rustem today. The sun was shining and it was the kind of day that makes you happy to be alive, even if it was a little chilly (about 10 degrees). We visited “Victory Park,” which was dedicated to the Soviet dead of World War Two. At left, you can see the eternal flame, and the dramatic death of a Soviet soldier. It is pretty obvious that the Russian Revolution and World War Two are a big deal in Russian society, even today. There are monuments all over dedicated to the two events. World War Two is kind of a big deal, as the Soviets lost over 8 million men and women (women were fighter pilots, tankers, machine gunners, snipers, etc.) in combat, and over 20 million military and civilian deaths.
Here is the Wall of Honor in Ufa, as it depicts the soldiers from this city awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. This is the highest award the nation gave during the war for service to the country. I guess it is equal to our Medal of Honor. Over 18,000 soldiers from Ufa were killed or MIA during the war.
About a million years ago, I was in the army, and my buddy Glenn Blondin and I went to Berlin. The Berlin Wall “fell” in November, and we were there in December, after numerous souvenir hunters had pounded large holes in the wall. As luck would have it, an East German guard was on the other side of the wall that day, and someone snapped a picture of us shaking hands. I have had the opportunity to talk a little about the Cold War with my Russian hosts, and it is interesting. I get the impression that it wasn’t really a big deal here in Ufa. Hard to say. The Russians are very polite, maybe they don’t want me to feel bad about it. Every Russian I have met has been very polite and helpful.
Beautiful day today! We spent most of the day inside working, but I had to go outside and catch a few rays. The sun hasn’t shown very often since we have been here, and when its out, you notice. The temperature was just below freezing, but the intensity of the sun started melting some of the accumulated ice on the sidewalks. That made it dang slippery, and I was dancing the Charleston (Google it if you are younger than 80) down the sidewalk, but it was still nice to get outside.
While out and about last Thursday with Rustem and another professor named Radmir, we happened to run into Radmir’s aunt. I was introduced to her, and I thought she was pleasant and a genuinely nice woman. This morning we were at the university, and Radmir handed us a jar of Bashkir wild honey, a present from his aunt. We were very humbled to receive such a gift, and even more grateful when we tasted it. I have never been a big fan of the commercial honey that is widely available in the states, but this was just excellent! I’ve been sneaking a finger full out of the jar about every 15 minutes, all day. You can see Jacob trying it as well. We all agreed that it was wonderful, and very different from the regular honey available at home.
Ann and I were surprised when one of the officials from the Fulbright office went on and on about how difficult it was to walk in Russia during winter. Hey, we are from Minnesota, how hard can it be? When we arrived at the conference in Moscow last month, we were again surprised at the warnings to be careful walking on the sidewalks. By far the most common health issue, we were told, was slips and falls. Also, watch for falling ice off of buildings. People get killed each year because of it. Then we started using the sidewalks each day, and now we get it. You can see the ice on the sidewalk, and perhaps the barrier to keep people away from the side of the building. There could be ice falling from it.