Thursday, June 24, 2010

Postcard from Golitsyno

Our first few days in Golitsyno -- we were there to attend a seminar sponsored by the Moscow School of Political Studies -- were marked by longing. Longing for the sluggish trains that made the one-hour trip multiple times a day into Moscow, where we imagined much more exotic things to occupy our time.

But we were there to be students. Learners. Observers of the community-development projects that program participants were bringing to life in their own regions. It may sound nice on paper, but after several hours listening to depleted translators in hot, overcrowded rooms, we felt worn down, ready to see the capital that buzzed with activity just an hour away, like a mirage. We figured that's where the action was, and we felt stuck: no common language, no familiar food, no real sense of active purpose.

Over the course of our five days in Golitsyno, though, we developed a gradual but profound affection for our humble dorm, tucked back in the remnants of the Russian woods. We attended lectures by regional experts on the current political dynamics in Russia. We met heads of state and independent journalists. We drank dark beer at the little canteen on campus, with its rustic interior and red tablecloths.

We took walks into the "town" of Golitsyno, really more a glorified tent city, a canopied swap-meet of synthetic clothes, kitchen goods, baskets, and shoes, plus an occasional produce vendor, sitting on a milkcrate, with homegrown radishes or scallions for sale. Our guide Natasha lamented the Baskin Robbins that had just moved into the area. We didn't dare tell her we popped in one afternoon and treated ourselves to pistachio cones to beat the heat.

Our last night on campus was spent in the seminar's closing ceremony, a protracted affair scheduled to last 45 minutes, but lingering on for over two hours (I never quite got used to Russia time). Afterward, we were treated to a lavish dinner in the institute's cafeteria, where Mikhail, our favorite interpreter indulged his second love: singing in the tradition of Edith Piaf. The bolder students danced and danced while vodka shots were passed around.

As the music faded, Lena, the school's founder -- an imposing woman in gigantic, blue-tinted glasses -- told us how proud she was of the school and how worried for its financial future. There are no easy funding sources in Russia, and maverick programs like hers have to patch together outside contributions to get by. Lena pointed to Olga, a young woman we developed a friendship with (she spoke English better than most, and we shamefully had no Russian at our disposal), and said, "You see Olga? I love her. She lives in Caucuses. Near Chechnya. Every day, she doesn't know what will come. Explosions. Terrorism. What about her husband and children? Anything can happen. But here she is. She shows up, she smiles, and she's alive."

With Olga at our side, we spent the final hours of our final night watching the World Cup match between the US and England with a group of young people representing Moscow, St. Petersburg, Ukraine, Croatia, the northern Caucuses, Bulgaria, the UK, and Azerbaijan. USA fans were clearly outnumbered -- I momentarily considered defecting myself -- but we watched in good humor, cheering on our respective teams, playfully mocking our adversaries (and them us), and swooning collectively over the quick camera shots of Beckham in a suit. We raised our glasses to every goal, and we traded barbs in our borrowed languages.

Our adventure had begun.


leslie said...

Your hosts sound like good people, and that lane of trees is beautiful. Looking forward to reading more.

Christy said...

It's true, Leslie: Our hosts were amazing. You'll hear more about them as these entries go along. I'm not sure I've ever met better people, present company excluded :-).

Rosemary said...

So excited to finally be hearing about your trip, Christy! I'm looking forward to more.

BTW, it seems that college dorms of the 1960s look the same worldwide. You could switch around one of WVU's with the one in your photo and no one would be the wiser. Guess that Soviet-style architecture worked well for containing all kinds of dissidents.