THE BLOG @ TIR
September 21, 2011
Our editor-in-chief, Russell Valentino, has just returned from a trip across Eurasia via ferry, plane, and Trans-Siberian Railway. Here a brief final reflection on crossing.
Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg. Sitting on a bench inside the six-story Shopping Centre Nevsky, I am again speechless, not so much this time from the contrast in time as from the one in place. Here it’s sleek, hyper modern. Leave town in just about any direction and who knows. Petersburg’s had another makeover, in some spots, as in this, by taking down entire buildings, moving all the people out, and putting up new ones just with the old facades in place, to make way for the large shiny spaces of contemporary commerce. “Business centers” sprout in high-rise mushroom patches just across the Neva. Sushi restaurants, pasta sushi restaurants, souvenir shops, and book stores line the streets. Banks are everywhere in the city center. I’ve never seen so many in one place (though in a few days, I’ll see more – in Moscow). Last night I was taken to dinner by friends to a newish restaurant overlooking Kazan Cathedral, with enormous windows, Asian fusion cuisine, a balcony for receptions. I can’t help recalling Fedya’s comment in the train when the two of us were looking out at a nothing of a village in the middle of a nowhere just west of Irkutsk: “Man is the kind of swine that can get used to living just about anywhere.” Russia is a mess, just not here.
One late afternoon a week before, I was sitting in the hall to write because I didn’t want to bother my compartment mates. I had a notebook on my lap and was looking out the window when one of the passengers from the end of our wagon came up, tapped me on the shoulder, and said something I didn’t catch. Then he pointed out the windows on the other side of the train, and there was Lake Baikal. He had never spoken to me before that, but he knew I was there and that I’d be interested to know what was on the other side of the train. Indeed I was. The night before, a woman from the next compartment with whom I had also not spoken had approached to let me know that she had reassured the other passengers about me. Reassured? Yes, she said, they were concerned about my taking so many pictures and writing in my notebook. “I told them you’re just interested,” she said, encouraging me to reassure her, too.
Those who were not too shy often asked what I was doing out here, what was interesting to me about being in this place that they apparently found at the very least uninteresting, at worst perhaps shameful. A driver in Vladivostok had asked me, as if looking for an outsider’s corroboration, “Is this a bad road?” There was a pea-soup fog of dust outside the windows, gravel flying from the trucks ahead, people congregating in threes in fours on the non-shoulder next to bus stops that I wouldn’t have ever guessed existed amid the piles of debris there, half-completed pedestrian overpasses with iron rebar sticking out like makeshift TV antennas, and cars darting left and right to avoid the holes. This went on for twenty-five kilometers. “Yes,” I said, “it is.”
I suppose one of the answers I could have given them was “because of you, to learn about you.” You encounter people differently when you’re on the road. At home you rarely have time to look, take an interest, let them talk to you. Of course, that would have made them even more self-conscious, so I didn’t say it. When my son Peter was a baby, we were returning from a road trip to Chicago one evening where we had been at the zoo, and he’d asked where we were going now. “Home,” my wife had said, thinking he would be happy, but he wasn’t. “Chigao tokoro ni ikitai,” he’d told her (in his mother tongue) – I want to go somewhere else. That, too, or something like it, could have been my response. This home of theirs was a “chigao tokoro” – somewhere else – to me.
When I told my friend Ksenia Golubovich, a former International Writing Program participant whom I later met between a bank and a pasta-sushi restaurant in Moscow, about my trip and about the question that didn’t seem to have a good answer, she immediately cut to the chase, and reminded me that “travel for its own sake is always a search for God.” Don’t you just love Russians?
In his Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazer writes that sometimes you travel when you can. He’s of course saying more than what the phrase seems to mean at first. For twenty years ago it wasn’t possible to travel to certain parts of Siberia, for political reasons, and twenty years from now it may be impossible to travel there again, for climatological ones.
From Petersburg I took the super-efficient Sapsan (stress on the "an"), which got me to Moscow at a high-speed sprint in three and a half hours. A mere five years ago all that was available was the eight-hour train, usually overnight, but now Sapsans run five or six times a day, making it possible for city-to-city commuters, who work in one and live in the other. It was filled with new Russian business people on their phones constantly. I didn’t talk with anyone.
But then during three days talking translation with colleagues at a conference at the Russian State Humanities University, I had the chance to think through a thought I’d had on the train: that translation is also a kind of crossing, only with something in your arms or better, strapped to your back, ombu-style, all wrapped up snug, babbling nonsense in your ear as you place each foot down on the path in front, careful not to jiggle too much. One day soon you’ll put it down on its own two feet to see if it can walk.
The Russians weren’t the only ones who asked me what I was doing out there. One of the voices in my head has asked this question, too. To him I’ve been slowly formulating an answer about how I’m researching a book about crossing, from one shore to another, one country to another, especially about the mixing of cultures, languages, religions, customs that takes place as a result of such physical moves, the crossings of blood, race, art. I’m thinking of mixture rather than mosaic, bastardization rather than purity. Living together as calm, healthy muts. And I think of Frazer’s phrase about traveling when you can and decide that that is only a small part of this, and that sometimes you have to travel, if you can, in order to purge yourself of past wrongs done to others, reevaluate your choices and weigh your options for the future, like after you’ve just finished a big project and are thinking about what to do next, or when a beloved person in your life has died, or when you’re turning forty, fifty, sixty, or some other significant base-ten number. And so I’ve been crossing, and looking at crossing, and all in all I think it’s a pretty good metaphor, the same as metaphor, and much more than metaphor, too.
A big thank you to Professor Natalya Reinhold for inviting me to talk at the Department of Translation and Translation Studies at the Russian State Humanities University, where the paths of dozens of translators, carriers and creators of culture worldwide, crossed last week. And also to my friend Viktoria Tikhonova, who helped me again to see, as she does every time I see her, why I’ve spent so many years of my life learning to cross in Russia.
September 11, 2011
Our editor-in-chief, Russell Valentino, is writing a series of posts from a trip across Eurasia via ferry, plane, and Trans-Siberian Railway.
I’m buying my ticket, having waited in line for the last twenty minutes. I lean down to talk through the space between the glass and the counter, aware that everyone behind me and to the left and right is listening. Just as I’m getting ready to pay, a guy from the South—I’m guessing the Caucasus but possibly Central Asia, Russian speaking, but with an accent—comes up, apologizes to me, says he’s in a big hurry and needs to pay for a piece of luggage for his train that’s leaving in three minutes. The woman in the window snaps at him, can’t he see that she’s in the middle of something, he yells back that his train is leaving, she yells back that that’s not her fault, he yells back that he just needs to pay for that one thing, she shouts she’s busy and he has to go to another window, he curses and says you’re all busy at all the windows, she curses louder back that that’s not her fault either, he slams a fist on the wood next to me with a final curse, and disappears. She looks at me (by this time she has seen my passport) and says, “We have that kind here sometimes, too.”
At which I have no idea what to say so just take out my credit card to pay, at which she says, oh no, you’re paying with a credit card, and I ask, is it a problem? Well, she’s already prepared the ticket for cash (a different process). The money machine in the adjoining room might work, and I might be able to take out enough cash—I say I’ll try, and she says she’ll hold onto the ticket (and my passport) in case it works. I’ve got the cash now and, thinking I’ve already stood once, I should be able to skip that part, but I also know that Russians are constantly on the lookout for line cutters, so I stand sort of on the side in the front and ask the next guy waiting, if you’re not in too much of a hurry, I just have to pay, she already prepared the ticket, it’ll only take a second. He says, my auntie is waiting for me outside. Of course, I know what that feels like so fine. The second guy doesn’t even let me get past the if you’re not in too much of a hurry part: but I am in a hurry, he says, I’m even starting to get nervous about making my train because that witch up ahead of us just now was talking so much. Well I’m not in a hurry, my train isn’t leaving until 2:30 in the morning, so in the local parlance, I “stand again.” Problem solved. But no.
Two Russian guys are sitting on the window sill. I ask if they’re in line. Yes, we’re behind her, one slurs, none too distinctly. Okay, I say, putting my stuff down. There is a ritual here. I remember reading about it first in Hedrick Smith’s book (I lied before, I read it) and then experiencing it first-hand during previous stays: when you’re behind someone in line but you’re not actually standing there physically all the time—maybe you’ve got other stuff to do; maybe you’re too plastered to stay on your feet—that person needs to acknowledge it. I am behind you, says one. The other needs to respond, confirm, yes, you are behind me. It means in effect that she or he accepts responsibility for upholding your case before others in line, especially those farther back. She or he becomes a potential advocate. But it’s an agreement, and the person ahead has to agree. What I noticed when the two zombies on the window sill said we’re behind her was that she didn’t even look back. I was just going to keep my place and see if they even noticed. I didn’t think they would, but if they suddenly opened their eyes a crack and said, hey, that’s our place, I would have just said okay, sorry about that, and let them in. And when another guy came up and asked who was last and I said me and he said I’m behind you, I had no problem saying yes, you are behind me (and feeling a slight wave of preparatory righteous indignation at anyone who might want to challenge me on this point), and he went away to do something else. But then the ticket clerk saw me, said what are you doing back there, come up here, you’ve already stood once (which, of course, I knew, but what was I going to do, say these people right here wouldn’t let me in? so I just smiled and said I wasn’t in a hurry, at which she shook her head and chuckled), and had me come up to pay, well, then we had a problem. The woman behind whom the two drunks had claimed to be standing was still in line, but now the guy whose case I would have defended with all the rhetorical skills at my disposal was technically behind the guys on the sill, and when he came back and I told him this, he looked at the two inebriated souls, uttered a quiet curse, and looked down at the floor. Then he looked at me, nodded, and moved to another line.
(When I told my oldest Russian friend this story, she smiled sadly and said that for twenty some years of her life something like that could have been a weekly, even at times a daily occurrence, and that’s why to this day her stomach roils at the thought of “standing,” and she will pay much more in order to avoid it.)
I’ve taken the greyhound train, the cheaper variation, mainly because the schedule was right. It’s just as fast as the Rossiya (they both can get from Vladivostok to Moscow in six and a half days) but this one’s older, not as sleek on the outside or nice on the inside, and doesn’t have the same level of service. This means fewer foreigners, too, in fact none that I am aware of—I don’t see a single one for the entire crossing—, and also a different class of native passengers, with suitcases that tend to be taped up. At first I’m alone in my four-berth compartment, but somewhere around 4 a.m. I am awakened by the arrival of two others, who settle themselves in beneath me in the dark. In the morning, we exchange a quiet hello. They’re a little shy of me at first, but slowly we get acquainted. We’ve got time.
Anna (Anya) and Fyodor (Fedya) have three grown children and two grand-children, one who’s just two years old and calls them on their cell phone every once in a while, his voice ringing throughout the compartment (Grandma, when are you coming home? I have to do potty. Well, tell your mama or papa. I did, but come home soon because I have to go.) They’re on their way from Vladivostok to Ukraine to visit relatives, by train the whole way because she doesn’t fly—17 days of travel in all.
They’ve known each other since they were in school together and have been married for thirty years. They talk with each other constantly, often sitting at the table attached to the window and looking out, one on each side. I wake up sometimes to the patter of the tracks under us or, more often, when we’ve stopped and it’s dark and quiet, I hear them whispering, laughing softly. They fill the compartment, partly because they’re not small people, but mostly with their personalities, their hominess. They seem, in fact, to have brought a good chunk of their home with them: tomatoes, cucumbers, and fresh dill from their garden, which Anya chops up and mixes with a dressing she put together before leaving, boiled potatoes (also from her garden), apples, two kinds of bread, dried and salted fish, Russian and Chinese candies (they live not far from the border), brandy, two kinds of tea, sugar, sliced up lemon. At any station with more than a ten-minute stop, they step off and stroll up and down the platform, arm-in-arm, talking with the vendors, haggling, buying smoked fish, chicken, pirogi, fruit, or bread. (Anya uses a wonderfully colorful verb to describe what they’re doing, “shastat’,” which means something like “mooching about.”)
Sometimes vendors get on the train and travel between two stops, making their way from compartment to compartment with items like hand-knitted wool scarves, cosmetics, or stuffed animals, and Anya has them come in and lay out their things on the lower bunks. She asks them questions, dickers, and makes occasional purchases. On one occasion she places an order for some baby clothes and a shawl to be knitted, and arranges to have the things delivered on the train as they pass through the same area on their way home in a few weeks’ time.
Fedya likes to eat. Actually, they both do, and the sound of munching spills out into the hallway. He doesn’t drink beer or wine, which are always on sale among the platform vendors, but he often manages to find someone selling contraband vodka (there’s a law against selling hard stuff at the stations), which he drinks with his meals, including me after our first couple of days together. Actually, by the end of the trip, we’re sharing all our meals, and I’m doing my best to coordinate my own purchases to supplement the household. The one time I almost miss the train is when I venture out too far into Novosibirsk in search of cognac for Fedya (his favorite drink) and have to run to get back, with only three minutes to spare. I apologize to Sasha, our car attendant, who was worried about me, and nine-year-old Polina from two compartments over scolds me: “You're the last one! We were waiting for you!” Fedya’s eyes sparkle when he sees what I’ve brought.
He makes Anya laugh a lot. He often pretends to complain about how she isn’t feeding him enough and he’s going hungry, and she says things like, “Oh, I can tell by looking at you,” at which he puts both hands on his round belly and says, “What, this? It’s just water!” He reads the signs of towns we pass, and she corrects his pronunciation, moving the stress to the end of a word or the middle, and he repeats the name the way she has just said it and adds, “Akh, who the hell knows anyway?” at which she responds, “I do,” and he says “besides you.” Sometimes he and I stand in the hall and look out the windows at the country passing. As we go by a tiny village of run-down shacks somewhere east of Baikal with unpainted wood and corrugated steel sheets as roofs and a single, deeply-rutted muddy path leading in and out, Fedya says, “Man is the kind of swine that can get used to living just about anywhere.” Later we stop at the formerly off-limits (to foreigners) town of Skorovodino, but they cut the stop short and won’t let us out because we’re behind schedule. Fedya recalls a saying from when he was in the service there many years before: God created the Crimea and Sochi, but the devil made Skorovodino and Mogocha (another town in the area).
They are from Spassk-Dal’nii, a town of 40,000 in the Primorskii krai to the south of Vladivostok. It’s one of the places that Vladimir Arseniev, author of Dersu the Trapper (the basis of the film Dersu Uzala), passed through in his Far Eastern travels. There’s a small river named after him not far from their home. They have their own large garden, some livestock, and don’t buy much food at the store, mostly dried goods and bread. And they managed to set up all three of their children in apartments or houses nearby, and all without taking out a single loan. A head taller than her husband, solid and thick all around, Anya is good with numbers, quick at calculating, and somewhat proud of the fact that she managed to steer them through the most difficult years of the immediate post-Soviet period, “when people lost everything,” she says. She made a conscious choice. The system was too unstable. Banks fail, people get robbed. Better not to enter that world, she says.
They read newspapers and do the crosswords. Anya picked up a romance on the train, but usually they don't read books. I don't like what they're writing now, she says. She remembers poetry from school and can still recite it by heart. Esenin especially, Nekrasov. But they've changed so much of the curriculum now, and most of it isn't worth much. They talk about our heroes from the past only to criticize them. And why does everything have to get reduced to people's sexual orientation anyway? She never understood Mayakovsky or Akhmatova, she says. She's never heard of Aksyonov or Sinyavsky. Solzhenitsyn is too heavy. No, these days she'd rather play a video game when she gets home from work.
Just west of Chita, they turn on the train’s heater after a chilly night. Anya and Fedya are pleased. They froze last night, they say. Didn't I? Fedya asks if he can ask me a personal question. They wear their wedding rings on their right hand, but mine is on my left. Is that a Catholic thing? Anya says maybe I can visit with my family one day and laughs, "They'll never want to come back after they see how we live!" Fedya asks how I'll get to St. Petersburg after we arrive in Moscow, and in one of the long pauses, I say, it's a beautiful city, to which Anya replies with a sigh that she's heard as much, but they've never been to Leningrad.
Later that day, the sky is dappled with enormous cumulous clouds, and it suddenly feels like fall. I get some potatoes with butter on them at one of the stops near Ulan Ude, and Anya insists on putting her nose in the plastic bag to smell them. They seem okay to me, but she's positive--oh, no, sour, can’t eat those. Here, she says, have some of ours.
September 1, 2011
Our editor-in-chief, Russell Valentino, is writing a series of posts from a trip across Eurasia via ferry, plane, and Trans-Siberian Railway.
One of the first times I went back to Russia after the USSR was no more—it must have been about 1993 or 4—I stopped in at one of our old student haunts, the European Hotel, across from the Philharmonic Hall, and had to sit down to compose myself. The place had been transformed from an old Soviet dive, a place where we used to bluff our way past the doorman stammering to get us to show our hotel ID cards—supposedly the place was for guests only—and on to the shvetskii stol (the buffet, such as it was) on the second floor, where for seven rubles we could get a half-decent meal amid the dimly lit, dingy hall. The harp music and waterfall were a pretty good signal that this was no longer the same place. In fact, since the remodel (and new, international conglomerate ownership) it’s now one of the most chic, not to mention pricey, spots in St. Petersburg.
Having read about various Soviet-era hotels in the customer comments online, I was half-expecting to find something of the old fare at the Hotel Mira, where I stopped for a day in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, but it was just your typical Italian-owned modern high-rise hotel. Hm... It was fine, actually quite nice, though on the menu in the downstairs restaurant they had halibut, tilapia, and sea scallops, I ordered the trout filet, and got a salmon steak. Fine. But as I’d been looking for things that might be familiar all day (first recognition: the roads!), I was comforted to note that the potatoes were Soviet, no mistaking them. Irregular shapes, vegetable-oil fried, slightly under salted, on the whole not bad, but distinctive, formulaic—definitely Soviet. Hell, old things die hard, they could have been pre-revolutionary potatoes for all I know, recognizable after all these years even amidst the Italian opera music and the imported Indian tourists obviously trying to fool me.
The day had begun a week before, when I got to the Wakkanai ferry office, on the domestic-port side of the street, at 5:30 a.m. to ask—because I couldn’t find this info anywhere online or in print—whether I could buy a ticket on the same day I wanted to travel and, if so, where I was to do this. The answer was yes, across the street, at 8 a.m. I showed up at five minutes till, the taxi driver wished me “do svidanya” (well, why not), and the gentleman in charge of opening the office in the international terminal, opened up, just for me. There wasn’t anyone else around. I asked my question again. Yes, he thought so, at 8:30, right here (he walked me there and put his feet together). I put my bags in the outline of where his feet had been, took out my camera, and took a few pictures, wondering if it was okay to do so, this being a border area and all. There was a barbed wire fence out the window, beyond which was what looked like just another part of the harbor. Sea borders have always struck me as rather arbitrary. This part of the water here is on our side. That part there is on your side. And here inside our port, let’s say this pier, this is ours up until, well, right there. Look, a fence with a gate. Out in the water the border is where the fence would be if we had a place to put a fence, but since we don’t let’s imagine it. If a guy in a dingey were rowing by, he’d go right through our fence. And you can’t have a border without some barbed wire, so some of that, too. After a few minutes, the gentleman came over—I’m thinking, uh-oh—to say that the view was better from the second floor.
At about 8:15 the Russians started to show up. I left my stuff in the front of the line and milled around as about nine or ten families, as far as I could make out, many with babies and young children, all with a lot of stuff, came in and lined up. I imagined what they’d have to pay to fly with so much and decided that this was by far the better deal. There were a couple of Japanese businessmen, or so they appeared. Solitary guys in white, short-sleeved shirts each with a small suitcase and a briefcase. I didn’t hear other languages but Japanese and Russian, but I also didn’t notice anyone who appeared to be bilingual either. Sometimes they resorted to some English, more on the Japanese side. Otherwise, everyone used a pidgin, speaking loudly, with lots of pointing and finger counting.
The room had no built-in machines of any kind, or TV monitors or loud speakers. It was pretty much just a room with some vending machines and a counter. On the days the Sakhalin ferry leaves port, the ferry company people walk across the street from the larger, domestic ferry building that services the islands of Rebun and Rishiri, bringing a portable credit card machine with them. They install themselves behind the counter, start selling tickets for passengers and baggage at 8:30, pack up by 9:20 or so, and then walk back across the street. The rest of the time it’s closed. I asked if I could buy a ticket for the Sakhalin ferry some other time from the much better serviced domestic side. No, for Russia you have one option. 8:30 to 9:20 on the days the ferry’s in service. Nor was there any schedule visible in the building, though there were a few bi- and tri-lingual signs (combinations of Japanese, English, and Russian). You can find a schedule online, with ticket prices, but there’s no info there about when, where, or how to buy a ticket. This did not seem like Japan to me.
They opened, I told the ticket clerk I wanted one ticket, and he asked for my passport, then wanted to know if I had a visa. I pointed it out to him and he stood up to go back and talk with someone else but then stopped short, wincing slightly, to point out that the beginning date for the visa was next week, at which I winced back. You can’t start a Russian visa early, and while there are special visas for Sakhalin only, you can’t get those in Wakkanai, only in Sapporo, and so… Did I mention that they have a wonderful public library in Wakkanai?
Precisely one week later, the day continued much more smoothly, despite the moderate chop, once we were under way. This time there were only three Russians, maybe four; the other seventeen I counted appeared to be Japanese tourists, one big group and then a few pairs. I got into conversation with a Russian college student on the boat (privet, Sveta!), who had just spent the last nine days traveling on her own in Japan, making friends with Americans and Japanese as she went (apparently a lot of them). We compared notes about where we’d been, especially Sapporo (which she loved) and Wakkanai (which she didn’t), and then she gave me an enthusiastic rundown on the sites in Yuzhno.
I asked her about the Japanese on Sakhalin.
“You mean, before the war? Oh there aren’t any anymore. But I have a friend who lives on one of the Kuril Islands, who says the Japanese are paying for people there to come to Japan and study.”
“Yes, Russians. Full room and board. We joked that I should move there so I could learn Japanese. But on Sakhalin there are a lot of Koreans, and of course, Chinese. Actually, my boyfriend is half-Korean.”
She showed me some pictures on her phone.
“He was born in Russia?”
“Yes, most of the Koreans on Sakhalin are Russians. With the Chinese it’s harder to know. Some come to work. But a lot of Russians go to China to study, medicine for instance. I was hoping to do that, but my grandfather passed away and it was hard. One of my friends is in her second year of college in China. She has a Chinese boyfriend and is planning on staying. She’ll have a job when she finishes.”
What about her, I asked? What kind of prospects did she have with a degree in economics?
“Not so good. Not on Sakhalin, at least. A lot of kids end up in local sales or they sometimes don’t get a job. Our young people are not always so ambitious. But there are some big foreign companies just outside of Yuzhno, mostly in the oil industry, where there are good jobs. Maybe there. Or I might end up working for my uncle’s sovkhoz…”
“Sovkhoz? He’s a farmer?” (I was surprised by the use of the word, an abbreviation of “Soviet farm.”)
“Yes. Vegetables and flowers, some from greenhouses. They have a big store in Yuzhno….”
We arrived in Korsakov more or less on time after the five-hour ferry ride from Wakkanai. The passport control and customs office was in an old, run-down building with that Russian smell in and all around it, and everyone sort of bunched up in the entry with their stuff, slowly making their way up to the two windows, where a border patrol officer stood on each side. They both looked about sixteen and a little too small for their uniforms, one man, one woman. They didn’t smile, but they also weren’t stone faced, just observant. I hadn’t filled out the entry form (the Japanese assumed I was Russian on the boat so hadn’t given me one), so I had to step back out of line and do that, after which the border guy on my side stopped traffic to let me back up, explaining to one woman, “he already came up once.” There was no interview at the passport control, which disappointed me because I’d been looking forward to it, but the customs guys were good: one asked the usual questions about what I had with me, while the other seemed to be there for color commentary; he basically asked me all the questions I had anticipated at passport control—where was I going, how long, what for—all with a friendly smile. He seemed genuinely curious. He repeated something that Sveta had said: you needed at least a couple of weeks on Sakhalin. Come back, he said.
Sveta’s parents, Irina and Sergei, were kind enough to give me a ride (spacibo Irina! spacibo Sergei!) across Korsakov, which was all torn up in various places, “for years” according to Sergei, who fumed at the state of the roads and deftly made his way around the many obstacles--pits, pipes, tree limbs, garbage--to an ATM at a Sberbank office so I could get some money. Then they took me to the corrugated steel shack called the Bus Station, where number 115 looked like it was about to die (though I’m sure it purred liked a kitten, or maybe a large, rather foul-tempered cat). Luckily a minivan Sveta called a “marshrutka” was also waiting. It technically made no stops, but as it got closer to Yuzhno, one by one the twelve sweaty people packed into the back with their stuff started calling out requests to stop in various places to the driver, who obliged them all, as he did me, on Lenin Square.
The receptionist in the hotel was Korean (born on Sakhalin), as was the woman working in the fitness room, and my taxi driver the next morning. Some of the old people, he said, are going back to Korea now. They came here under the Japanese, “in that slavery,” he said, when the Japanese brought them as prisoners to work on construction. Now the Japanese are providing for them to go back to Korea if they want. He wasn’t planning on it. Russian was his only language. What would he do in Korea? Actually, he had visited Japan a couple of times and that was a place he wouldn’t mind living. But probably he would stay where he was. It’s peaceful here, he said. He suggested we go to the "Japanese museum," which I thought might have something about the Japanese on the island, but though the building was apparently constructed by the Japanese (or more likely the Koreans working for the Japanese), there is no sign anywhere of when or by whom it was constructed, and what's on display inside skips from the prehistoric peoples of the island to a display on Soviet and Russian space exploration, leaving only about a 1,500-year gap in between. There is a Japanese tank in the park outside.
I had actually arrived to see a big holiday on September 2, with banners and music on the public address system all over town (think "Katyusha" as sung by the Red Army Chorus), and tanks on the Ploshchad’ pobedy (Victory Square). This was Victory Day, but not the one I was familiar with, on May 9, no. Here they also celebrate the official end of WWII in the Russian Far East, which the Soviets entered after the second bomb fell on Japan and it had already surrendered. Russians tend to think that the Americans didn’t really fight much in WWII, that the USSR did most of the work and the Americans only came in at the end. Soviet losses in the war, and the resources and energy the Germans expended on their eastern front, tend to support this view. But the opposite happened on the other side of the world: the Americans fought, the Soviets held the line but mostly waited, and then in the end they entered the fray. In Vladivostok I didn’t see any sign of the holiday, and a couple of people tried to tell me that it was only really important on Sakhalin because it was liberated on that day. But then several days later I saw remnants of the holiday in Khabarovsk, a day’s travel by train to the north of Vladivostok.
I should note that in the city park on the other side of the straight, back in Wakkanai, high above the ocean, there is a monument to the Japanese lost on "Karafuto" (the Japanese name for Sakhalin), including a rather strategically placed dual obelisk, through which, if you look on a clear day, you can see Sakhalin (Karafuto). The English explanation differs from the Russian: the former notes that the monument represents a pledge to rebuild, the latter leaves that part out. Another small monument at the same location commemorates the "nine maidens," telephone operators who, in August of 1945, were working at the switchboards when the Soviets invaded, helped to organize the evacuation, then committed suicide. There was a film made about this in 1974, but it was pulled from distribution after two weeks when the Soviets protested.
One thing people did agree about, which surprised me and shook my confidence in the accuracy of the maps I’ve studied since the age of about 22: I had not arrived in Siberia, not yet. That was at least several days journey by train to the west. I thought at first they were merely referring to an administrative demarcation, like a state line in the American South (you’re still in the South on either side of the North and South Carolina state lines), but no, it was more than that, they insisted. This isn’t Siberia.
Ian Frazier has a wonderfully evocative moment in his Travels in Siberia, when he is landing in the city of Omsk and the Russian passenger seated next to him turns and says, with a sparkle in his eye, “Sibir’!” He describes the magical onomatopoeia of the Russian word, which is true enough. It’s just that Russians from these places don't seem to want to say the same of Vladivostok or Okhotsk, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk or Khabarovsk. These cities, which fall into the category of Siberia to outsiders, don’t appear to have the connotations of “Sibir’” to locals. They associate “Sibir’” with another area, with its own distinctive history and demographics and politics and economy. I began to wonder whether the monolithic entity that is “Siberia” on our maps and minds isn’t a rather abstract and intentional place, whether it exists anywhere but there.
When my cab driver in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk said it was “peaceful” there, he also meant something more than merely quiet. He was referring as well to the mixture of cultures, inter-marriages, acceptance, tolerance. He was talking about racism. I asked him if he had traveled in other parts of Russia, farther west, beyond Baikal, in Sibir’, for instance. He said, no, and he wasn’t very interested in going there. “It’s peaceful here with us,” he said.
August 31, 2011
Our editor-in-chief, Russell Valentino, is writing a series of posts from a trip across Eurasia via ferry, plane, and Trans-Siberian Railway.
The first time I went to Russia, it was 1987, Gorbachev was barely into his third year as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, perestroika and glasnost were sexy new words, and my exchange-student compatriots and I had to be prepared in a three-day orientation held in Helsinki, Finland before crossing the border. There were lots of rules. Do not sit on tables, do not skip class, do not spend nights outside the accommodations provided, do not make phone calls from the lobbies of hotels or dormitories, do not sell or trade your belongings with Soviets, do not smoke hash or marijuana, do not see a doctor on your own, do not take part in political demonstrations of any kind, do not leave the group during excursions, do not venture beyond a forty-kilometer limit outside the city, do not change money on the black market, at least not with strangers on the street, and, if you do and worst comes to worst, do not forget the following phrase: “Ya imeiu pravo pozvonit’ v amerikanskoe posol’stvo”—I have the right to call the American embassy. I think they told us to write it down, memorize it, and then swallow the paper.
Our orienteers related horror stories of student arrests, nights spent in the drunk tank, inconvenient, often painful hospital stays, interrogations, and life-altering, albeit infrequent, deportations. They were of course attempting to curtail the behavior of their rambunctious charges by reflecting, perhaps in part unconsciously, the society in which those charges would soon be immersed. They wanted neither complete disappearances nor public spectacles, but rather well-behaved, courteous cultural ambassadors, polite Americans, if you will. Better known, in some circles at least, as Canadians.
What this meant in practice was that, in contrast to the many variations on studying abroad in, say, England, France, Italy, or elsewhere in Western Europe, American experiences of the USSR tended to be as alike as two Socialist Realist placards. Pretty much everyone studied the same subjects with the same textbooks and the same teachers in the same classrooms term after term, year after year. We all saw the same sights with the same guides and their same, theoretically incognito, KGB escorts. We all stayed in the same two tightly controlled dormitories with the same floor monitors, the same clingy Soviet roommates, the same indifferent cafeteria attendants, the same kasha, and the same student informants, whom everyone learned to recognize in the first week and avoid thereafter. It was a remarkably stable system. Even friends were passed on from group to group, both among the two dozen or so North American colleges and universities that routinely sent their students abroad and among the tight-knit culture of the intelligentsia, what was left of it, in Moscow and Leningrad.
That was then, before perestroika had become a mere metaphor in the speeches of American university administrators advocating for their own kinds of reform. How soon we forget. I pointed out to one such administrator that, actually, perestroika was a failure that not only hadn’t worked very well, it had destroyed the very institution it was intended to reform, a whole country. “Right,” he had answered after a brief look of fear crossed his face and was quickly replaced by his usual practiced confidence, “and the world is a better place for it.” I wish we could all be so casual about applying the lessons of history. I think he’s a university president somewhere now.
This time, before crossing the Russian border, I’m reading Ian Frazer’s Travels in Siberia and Bryn Thomas’ Trans-Siberian Handbook in hotel rooms in Sapporo and Wakkanai, making train, ferry, plane, and hotel reservations by email and online, calling travel agencies (!) in Vladivostok and Ulan Ude (priezhaite! they all tell me—come!), and trying to imagine in which situations I might really need flip flops, a battery charger for a camera whose battery lasts for weeks, a map of the Urals, or extra cotton swabs. Some things don’t seem to have changed much. The need for a visa, for instance, and an “invitation” from someone in the country in order to get it (here is a picture of my visa—this is to show what it looks like and also in case my passport is lost or stolen, please store a copy on your hard drive); the requirement of a personal interview upon entry, along with surrendering one’s passport for an ill-defined length of time; or the horror stories, of which everyone who writes about traveling there seems to have at least one. Most recent in my mind is a charming little bit Frazer recounts about some U.S. Coast Guard guys “not even drunk,” on the way back to their ship in port in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in the early morning, getting beaten up and robbed by a group of Russian sailors. That’s bad, but it’s not high intrigue. It’s just crime, though maybe an especially Russian form of it.
When Frazer answers someone’s question about what kind of literature he writes by saying the true kind, it reminds me that I didn’t read nonfiction to find out things before traveling to Russia that first time, as I am now. I suppose that says something about me then, my head in the clouds and all, and the practicality that becomes difficult to avoid when you get older. But I think it also says something about the place we all thought we were visiting, the imaginary space, the construct in our minds. Predrag Matvejevic several times notes in his Eastern Epistolary the literary filter through which he and his generation saw all things Russian. I don’t know to what extent that filter exists anymore, or is colored in quite the same shades. Then it was rather a Tolstoevsky base with shades of Akhmatova and Turgenev, Gogol and Mandelshtam, Pushkin in his more gothic moments, a tinge of Zhivago (as much from David Lean as from Pasternak) and big splotches of undigested Solzhenitsyn (sorry, this is getting a little gross). You could put Chagall and Kandinsky, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, or Shostakovich over that and the whole would be no less harmonious. But Hedrick Smith? Russia was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Reading to find things out was never going to explain it to you. You needed to commune, soul ready, head securely in the clouds. Put on some Tchaikovsky. Be ready to weep.
I’m sure I must be mis-representing us though, making it seem as though we were all a bunch of Philip Careys (not the actor, the character) heading off to learn that shadows have colors in them, too, only instead of Paris, we were simply trekking farther east, generally as naïve and ill-prepared as Maugham's doubtful hero. That’s not the case. Nor, now that I think more about it, is it true that we weren’t reading nonfiction in preparation for our trip. It just wasn’t travel literature. It was Marx and Lenin, and Herzen and Berdiaev, along with Richard Pipes (at one end of a spectrum) and Albert Szymanski (at another), the historian Nicolas Riazanovsky, the economist Marie Lavigne, and many others. And then there was the Russian, years and years of it in preparation, with phonetics and syntax, reading, composition, and “intonational constructions” (1, 2, 3, and 4—“kakie rozy!”—what roses!—was a 4, if I remember correctly).
Some of us had attended multiple schools; some, I believe, had additional training that they didn’t talk about. I had my suspicions about one particularly affable fellow, Peter, I think his name was, somewhat tall and athletic but always somehow underdressed and wearing a goofy grin that, as far as I was concerned, was the perfect disguise for a spook, of the Graham Greene variety, I mean. I got a postcard one day from him some years after our return home, a picture of the earth from outer space with what appeared to be a Russian message written on it. But I couldn’t understand the words, not a single one. I stood in the middle of the post office, sounding each set of characters out carefully until I realized with a start that it was English, only written in Cyrillic. It said (transliterated Library of Congress style): uish iyu uer khir! Had a spook’s sense of humor, too.
As I’ve been writing this, on the train headed north, I’ve begun to spot more Russians, well, one or two, but signs with Cyrillic characters, quite a few. English in the middle, which strikes me as symbolic, historical, but it’s perhaps just practical. Anyway, I know I’m getting close. Tomorrow I cross the border, which I’ll write about in my next post. A hearty thank you to Professor Tonai Yuzuru and his lovely staff at the Slavic Center Library of Hokkaido University, for providing me with a place to work during my short stay. (Had to catch up on my Tolstoevsky.) And to the public library of Wakkanai, the northern-most city in Japan, but certainly one of the warmest hearted. I could see Russia from there.
August 30, 2011
Editor’s Note: We asked one of our sumer 2011 interns, Jacob Lancaster, to share his perspective on working in the Iowa Review office—and got more than we bargained for.
In an honest confession of my naïveté, I thought literary journals were Beethoven and dry toast. Straight tea parties. I imagined some quill pen society of white guys or poorly lit rooms with people in Kerouac costumes, with those pensive, deep-stare poet faces, each sipping Earl Grey, each with their own spiraling gyres.
However, the Review’s office is devoid of Victorian furniture and ashtrays and wine decanters, and it’s actually quite tiny. Not in the Smart Car, I’m-accepting-this-little-thing-to-better-the-earth tiny, but more like How-do-you-seriously-fit-twenty-four-readers-in-here-at-one-time? tiny.
And the people who fill the office are quite non-canon themselves. Managing Editor Lynne Nugent once told me that she tried Twitter but didn’t really get it. “The only person I followed was, um, Snookie,” she said, “and all she did was tweet things like 'Im rly luvin my Vitamin Water XXX today!!!'—so I stopped.” And Lynne was also one to drop editorial questions like, “This story has a character say, ‘can I have some more pot?’—but…that’s not how to ask someone for more pot.”
And after many conversations with Jenna (Asst. Managing Editor) about Roman ideology and Iowa City cocaine fronts, I found out that she opted out of her PhD program to do an MFA and open a pick-your-own blueberry farm with her husband. “In grad school they expect you to write these long essays from theoretical perspectives, but really, it’s all subjective. So what do you do? Get your doctorate, get tenure, and eventually become part of the group telling PhD students to suppress their true opinions. It’s all B.S.”
However, as Lynne and Jenna could tell you, I was most caught up this summer in the mystery that is Editor Russell Scott Valentino. I only saw him in person twice, and the only news I heard of him was that he was going to spend a length of time in Siberia this upcoming fall, and that he would soon be heading to southern Italy during the summer to teach a class where I imagined him in linen suits sending e-mails from a sunset beach approving the banal work that I was doing.
And after all the volumes of TIR I read and put into the database, after all the poems and essays I read and wanted to rip out, staple, and keep for myself; after all the jokes in the office and afternoons not getting any copyediting done while laughing at the antics of Lynne’s baby (sorry, Russell), I realized the root of my naïveté was that The Iowa Review is like all great things: generally unpopular. But I believe that’s a good thing. And it is a good thing because it’s why I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell won’t be replacing Slaughterhouse-Five, why Lil Wayne won’t be replacing 2Pac, why pudgy babies aren’t the mascots of more offices, why there are fewer blueberry farmers than PhD students, and why Siberia is undervisited. The select few know what’s quality and what's “all B.S.”
Jacob Lancaster is currently studying in the undergraduate creative writing track at The University of Iowa, tending bar in Iowa City, and never sleeping. Jacob is from the small town of Sycamore, Illinois, runs a music blog at no-crap-music.blogspot.com, and enjoyed writing this blurb about himself in the third person.