Sunday, September 30, 2012

City of Kings

Flying domestically in Russia is surprisingly easy. I took a cab at 5:30 Friday morning to Shermetyevo airport, one of Moscow's several main air hubs, and luckily the one closest to our hotel. From there, it was just a short two hour hop westwards, putting me on the ground in Kaliningrad just before nine am. I was met at the airport by Bashena, a student at Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University where I will be working, and she helped me settle into my dorm room and showed me around town.

Kaliningrad has two centers, the new and the old. The medieval Prussian city was surrounded by fortified walls, a few of which still remain, but which now is visible primarily in the large circle of streets in the center of the city. Roughly bisecting this circle is the river Pregolya (Преголя), which forms two central islands, a large one and a small one. Kaliningrad (Königsberg, as it was then) was heavily bombed by both the British RAF and the Red Army in World War II, and the original center was almost completely destroyed. The cathedral (Кафедральный собор) on the small island, where the Prussian kings were buried, has since been rebuilt with German monetary contributions and now seems to serve as a concert hall. Immanuel Kant's tomb is next to the cathedral, and the entire island is now a destination for tourist groups, weddings (I counted at least four in the half an hour I was there), and women with baby strollers.

Across from the small island is much larger one with a modern waterfront along the river. It is meant to evoke a Germanic atmosphere with Gothic lettering and peaked facades, but the fact that the buildings are all new and house fancy hotels makes the attempt come off as a bit staged. Still, the curve of the embankment leading along the river to the cathedral seems made for pictures, and there's a reason why it's Kaliningrad's most famous area. On the southern bank, just across from the cathedral, is the old stock exchange, which manged to survive the war, and an imposing backdrop of grey Soviet apartments in varying states of decay. The bizarre juxtaposition of architectural eras and styles must be one of my favorite parts of Russia, and manages to capture in a single image the plurality, confusion, and constant redefinition that lies at the heart of Russian history and identity.

Just to the north of the islands lies the original location of Königsberg Castle, built by the Teutonic Knights in the mid thirteenth century and later the coronation hall of Prussian kings. It was heavily damaged by the war, and though there were arguments for its restoration in the 1960s, Brezhnev's government ordered the destruction of its ruins in 1969. In its place, they built the enormous House of Soviets (Дом Советов), intended to be the central Party headquarters, but never finished. It is impressively ugly, to the point of becoming a caricature of Soviet style and method. I'm not sure whether I hate it, or find a grotesque enjoyment in it. Putin had it painted pastel blue in 2005, but the building itself is too dangerous to be used and too full of asbestos to be destroyed. On a less cynical note, the parking lot below the looming monstrosity was bustling with a farmers' market on the sunny Saturday that I visited, and I bought a small bag of potatoes.

Farther north from the old center but still within the ring is the new downtown, centered around Плошадь Победы (Victory Square) and extending in two directions along Улица Черняховского (Chernyachovskovo St.) and Ленинский Проспект (Lenin Prospect). Originally called Hansaplatz, and then Adolf-Hitler-Platz, the square is a somewhat ironic mixture of old and new. The city hall, built in 1923, is still the center of city government, and the 1930 Nordbahnhof train station is now a shopping center. Today it somewhat dominated by the new (2006) Orthodox Храм Христа Спасителя (Cathedral of Christ the Savior, not to be confused with the one in Moscow). All the Orthodox churches here are of recent construction, since there were certainly none before 1945, and after that the Soviet regime wasn't interested in building places of religious worship.

I also took a stroll along Литовский Вал (Litovsky Val, aptly meaning a wall, embankment, or rampart), a street forming the northeast section of the ring and running along what is left of the old brick city wall line. For most of the street this takes the form of a high bank, overgrown with trees and brush, punctuated by a few brick gatehouses and fortifications. The more intact buildings are now restaurants or stores, and the embankment itself is a bit of an eerie and forgotten presence.

Tourists stop to look at the several Prussian gates (вороты) that survived the war, and indeed they are spectacular, if awkwardly out of place in their modern Russian surroundings. But I find myself drawn more to the less known remnants of a different city: the gaping bunker holes dug into the overgrown bank, or the occasional crumbling brick factory that must predate 1945. This is a place that has been medieval, Prussian, Nazi, Soviet, and Russian -- most of that in the last century alone. Each successive regime has built (literally) on the foundations of the old ones, destroying some things, keeping others, and appropriating old structures for new uses.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

7,137 Miles

Traveling across the world is many things, but I wouldn't count comfortable among them. From Portland to Moscow is a trip of some 7,137 miles and eleven time zones. I traversed them in three separate flights, transferring in Chicago and Warsaw with varying degrees of hectic terminal shuffling. There's nothing like waking up halfway over the Atlantic in the middle of the night on a plane where everyone is speaking Polish and realizing that you're on your way to live by yourself in Russia and there's no going back now. There's also nothing like, a few hours and a couple of AC/DC albums later, flying straight into a gilded sunrise at six hundred miles an hour on the grace of nothing but physics and jet fuel.

My life is contained in one forty-nine pound suitcase and a duffel bag, which surprisingly enough both survived the journey on LOT Polish Air. I wish I could say the same for my neck, but apparently my seat was the only one on the entire Boeing 767 that didn't recline. I'm already glad that I ignored my snobbish Portland instincts and brought an umbrella; I'm also already apprehensive that I didn't pack nearly enough curry powder to last for nine months. Since leaving my beloved coffeepot behind in a tearful goodbye, my days have been filled with angry break-up messages in the form of caffeine-withdrawal headaches that no amount of tea rebounding seems able to satisfy. Or maybe that's just the jet lag. Either way, I might kill for twelve ounces of Stumptown right now.

Somehow, thirty-three of us Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) made it to Moscow in one piece. Most of us just graduated from college with a degree in the humanities, have been to Russia at least once before, and have a passable but certainly not expert knowledge of Russian language. All of us share the same fears and uncertainties about what we will encounter in our host cities and the challenges of teaching a language that we speak natively. We seem to be obsessively trying to get to know each other and form a tight group dynamic in the five days of orientation in Moscow, because these will likely be our last American friends for the next several months. In just a few days, all of us will be boarding trains or planes to our thirty-three separate cities scattered across Russia, from the farthest west (Kaliningrad) to the farthest east (Khabarovsk), and from Arkhangelsk in the north to Krasnodar in the south between the Black and Caspian Seas. It's an isolating prospect, but meeting everyone else has been strangely reaffirming, since we all have the same doubts and anxious excitement. I think we are all ready to finally get to our host cities and settle into our new lives.

I don't know what I was expecting about my return to Russia after nearly three years, but it's been surreal. My first Russian conversation was with my cab driver from the airport while we were stuck in Moscow traffic behind a leaning delivery van with a crooked license plate and too much exhaust, and it ranged from IKEA and Korean cars to platypuses and "traffic jams." The last was an English word that, in my delirium, I could only think to explain by likening jam to the kind you put on toast. The cabbie found this hilarious. Then we passed seven nuclear cooling towers, a billboard advertising cheap бизнес-ланч (literally "business lunch," pronounced horridly as "beez-ness laahnch"), and several slower cars by using the right turn lane.

As much as I can't stand being in Moscow for any extended length of time, it has been fun to take the metro again. It wasn't until I pushed open the dangerous swinging doors of Vladykino Station near the hotel and smelled that distinctive metro smell (a mixture of what I imagine to be grease and years of collected mechanical grime, but which probably includes a greater percentage of body odor), I didn't realize how much I'd missed it. There is absolutely nothing like the vertigo-inducing escalator ride down below the river, shuffling through a lofty marble station encrusted with hammers and sickles, packing onto an ancient blue metro train between a lady in six-inch leopard-print spike heels and a pudgy man who hasn't showered in weeks, and then careening off into the tunnels with a rickety death rattle and deafening banshee wail. Imagine all the terror and adrenaline of a wooden roller coaster combined with the claustrophobia of spelunking at rush hour in a city of over eleven million and the aesthetic taste of Stalin's interior decorator, and you'll have something approximating the major metro systems. It's fantastic.

But mostly I'm just plagued by a constant and inescapable sense of deja vu. Whether it's getting a shock every time I look up and see a billboard in Russian instead of English, or having oranges for breakfast cut in the Russian way (thin circular slices) instead of the American (cut in half, or torn in segments), this week has been a bizarre process of half-remembering. I think the sense of strange disconnect comes, not just from the fact that it's been several years since I lived here last, but also from the realization that I am not the same person now as I was then. I am remembering my own past life, but also finding it impossible to just slip into the self that I associate with my time in St Petersburg. This will have to be a new adventure on its own terms, but my brain is a little slow on the uptake.

In Moscow, with love.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

I'm here

I have arrived safely in Moscow (with all of my luggage intact) for my week of orientation/training. Will write a proper post when I'm un-jetlagged and can think again.