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Russian Chronicles: Ten Years Later

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Lisa Dickey
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 17, 2005; 12:00 PM

Writer Lisa Dickey , who traveled across Russia a decade ago for the original Russian Chronicles, was online Thursday, Nov. 17, at noon ET to discuss her current journey and her blog about the people and places she is revisiting. Dickey, who is wrapping up an 11 week journey, will look at how Russia has changed over the last ten years, looking at changes in the culture in areas such as technology, religion, food, music, and social class, the rise of American adoptions and gambling.

Read the current and original Russian Chronicles.

The transcript follows.

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Lisa Dickey: Hi, everybody - thanks for coming to my Big Fat Live Discussion! After 12 cities and 2 1/2 months on the road, the Russian Chronicles is coming to an end this Tuesday. It's our last hurrah, and I'm ready for any queries, book offers and insincere flattery you may have to offer!

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Springfield, Va.: Why Russia? One obvious reason is "because I was here ten years ago", but the broader question is: Are the scale of changes in Russia greater than elsewhere? Hasn't the situation for cappuccino and Internet changed in Washington as well?

Lisa Dickey: Hi, Springfield - As so often happens, the obvious answer is the correct one. The crux of this trip was the "ten years later" element, both in finding the actual people I met ten years ago, and in noting general changes. There have of course been huge changes in many other places -- not least, in Washington DC. In fact, if you think of how drastically DC has changed since 1995, it offers a great contrast/complement to how things have changed elsewhere.

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London, England: Fantastic blog, Lisa! Great photos, David! I lived in Moscow in 1996 through 1998, and went back. The city had a face-lift! Everything seemed different, better! I remember everyone said that Moscow isn't Russia, but have other cities changed so much?

Lisa Dickey: Hi, London - Certain cities had really changed, others not so much. Birobidzhan, for example, was still like a Soviet city in many ways. Ulan Ude, too, hadn't changed a heck of a lot. But other cities had been transformed -- or at least, their downtown areas had.

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Wheaton, Md.: Has the rise of Islamic terrorism within Russia had a widespread impact on foreign policy opinions?

Lisa Dickey: I can't speak to foreign policy opinions, but it's certainly had an effect on how people perceive so-called "southerners" here. For the most part, men from the Caucasus region are regarded with suspicion, if not hostility, by many "European" Russians.

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Lexington, Ky.: Have you noticed any change in the people's reaction to you now as compared to your visit 10 years ago?

Lisa Dickey: I expected this time around to be less exotic as an American in Russia. But I was surprised to find that wasn't the case in most cities. In Vladivostok, for example, David and I felt almost like freaks -- every time we'd speak to each other in English, someone would stop and stare at us. There actually seemed to be fewer Americans around in the Far Eastern cities -- Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Birobidzhan -- than there were before, which surprised me.

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Springfield, Va.: See any Americans out there (besides the Ambassador), or spend all your time with Russians? Wednesday's Moscow Times says Russian universities are unsafe for students. How's that compare with 1995?

Lisa Dickey: We didn't see a whole lot of Americans, except for Andrea in Birobidzhan , a guy named Chad in Novosibirsk, and a few other assorted Americans in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

As for the Moscow Times story, it's specifically about "dark-skinned" students, who are facing the kind of hostility I referred to in the answer above, about terrorism and its effects on Russian society.

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Arlington, Va.: It didn't look from the photos like you were in much snow. Where was the coldest place?

Lisa Dickey: You know, we saw a LOT less snow this time around than we did in 1995. You can't make any generalizations based on two random years, but I will say that Russians all over the place told us the winters have been steadily getting warmer. In Murmansk, Maxim told us the warmer weather was affecting his hauls of fish. Your average Russian definitely seems to believe global warming is happening.

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Prague, Czech Republic: I'm teaching English in Prague and several friends who have taught in Russia, in both Georgia and Moscow have come back and reported it's not safe there. One had been robbed at gun point, another by men with knives in her apartment. Both of these incidents were within the last few years. At the end of our TEFL course, they recommended against teaching in Russia. What do you know about crime in Russia, has it increased or decreased over the last 10 years? What types of crime are most common?

Lisa Dickey: Speaking anecdotally, I think crime has increased. I don't have any figures to back that up, but just since we've been here, I've not only been the victim of crime myself (nearly all my stuff was stolen from my apartment three days before the trip launched!) but had friends and acquaintances robbed. While we were in Novosibirsk, having dinner with the friends of Grisha , the gay man who was murdered after the first Russian Chronicles, one had his apartment broken into. So it definitely seems crime has been on the rise.

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Milwaukee, Wis.: First of all, I want to let you know that you have done a magnificent job in showcasing Russia. The places you visited and the people you interviewed provided a vivid cross-section of a country that truly cannot be described in one adjective or through one perspective. I applaud your efforts and have enjoyed every moment of your journey.

I was in Russia two years ago during a parliamentary election cycle and had the opportunity to accompany a Russian friend to the polling station. Not surprisingly, I found that the younger generation was generally apathetic to voting and the older generation was doubtful that their votes were any different than the ballots they cast in the Soviet years. I know you've shied away from discussing politics in your chronicles, but I'd like to know what you think the Russians you have met feel or think about the idea of democracy in their country (not to be confused with democracy's silent partner capitalism). Is it something they care about? Do they idealize "democracy," or they merely content with the material benefits of a free market economy?

Lisa Dickey: This is a complicated question, and worthy of more attention than I can give it here -- but I'll give it a try.

You're right, most Russians young or old are very skeptical about the political process. People often told me they thought the whole electoral process was a scam, as only wealthy people can afford to run. And almost no one I spoke with idolized democracy -- most were somewhat dismissive of the idea that Russia really enjoys any such thing. So much has happened so fast here, with the fall of the Soviet regime, the economic ups and downs and the ever-changing political landscape, that it's hard for the average person to sustain a real, active interest in such things. That's my impression, anyway.

And thanks for your kind words about the project! It's been a lot of work, but very rewarding, especially dropping in on people ten years later!

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Baltimore, Md.: My wife and I will be in St. Petersburg over New Year's, attending the Winter Arts festival of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. We will see the Hermitage and other famous places, but were wondering if you had suggestions of some off the beaten track things to see in St. Pete, that might reveal some aspects of the city that we might otherwise miss. Thank you very much.

Lisa Dickey: This is a great question! Depending on what your idea of fun is, I'd recommend any of the following:

- the Yusupov palace, where Rasputin was poisoned and shot, and a freaky wax-figure tableau recreates the scene,

- the monument to Gogol's famous story "The Nose" -- a plaque on Vosnesensky Prospect with a giant pink nose on it,

- the bar (can't remember the name, but give me a minute) where New Year's Eve is celebrated every night, with videos of Brezhnev and waitresses dressed in Young Pioneer uniforms,

- the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky near Smolny convent -- and weekend concerts at Smolny, which has the greatest acoustics of any hall I've been in for a cappella music.

else have suggestions?

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Boston, Mass.: I was deeply moved by your despatch from Birobidzhan. How much political autonomy does the Jewish Autonomous Region retain today? Are there non-Jewish peoples within its boundaries? How do they relate to the JAR? It's a fascinating region, and I know so little about it. Thank you for chronicling it!

Lisa Dickey: I'm glad you enjoyed the Birobidzhan stories -- that is one fascinating place, isn't it? Jews actually make up a minority of the region, though the increase in monuments and the new synagogue make their presence more felt than ever. The region does not have a huge amount of autonomy as far as I could tell, though it doesn't seem anyone's seriously seeking more. The Jewish community there appears to get decent support from the government.

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Washington, D.C.: Lisa, I've enjoyed reading your blog! I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1988 when I was younger and my family was stationed overseas. It was an amazing experience and I hope to return to see how dramatically the cities have changed.

My question: Upon your return, are you more excited about catching up on "Lost" or "Survivor?"

Lisa Dickey: Ooh, tough question! It's so hard for me to imagine spending an evening in front of the TV, rather than writing blog entries, organizing travel details or conking out from exhaustion! Can't wait for some good old fashioned couch potato-ing.

I think I've gotta go with Survivor.

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Arlington, Va.: Hello. As a strange coincidence, I happen to know someone who lives in the same building as Masha Pecorina (in Vladivostok). You mentioned that one man knew you were not Russian because Russians have a "tired, beaten-down" look. Do you think that the younger generation has a more hopeful view of their future in the post-Soviet era?

Lisa Dickey: Wow, that is amazing! Do you know Masha?

Yes,

Alexei the mystery man

made the comment about "tired, beaten-down" looking Russians. But one of the things that really struck me about the younger generation was that they seemed to have a more optimistic outlook, and less of a fatalistic, burdened sense of the world. Again, these are gross generalizations, and for that I apologize. But there does seem to be a different feel in the air for younger people.

Of course, as you'll see in tomorrow's posting, it ain't all roses for them either -- we asked a group of 16-year-olds their thoughts on the future, and they were more worried than I'd expected...

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Washington, D.C.: What questions do the Russian people ask you the most? Have you been surprised by any of their reactions to your project?

Hope the last few days of your trip go well and you have a safe return home!

Lisa Dickey: "What the hell did you come all the way to [insert city here] for?"

Actually, people have had a wide array of reactions to the project. Some can't believe my reporting is just about "life in Russia" -- they're convinced I've got a political angle, or am planning to slam Russia as a terrible place. In fact, in Chelyabinsk, when I did the story on the new

House of Veterans apartment building

, one of the directors I'd interviewed posted a single comment: "Open-minded article, despite all of my expectations. Thanks."

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Pensacola, Fla.: In response to Baltimore, Md. - If you have the interest and time, try the Museum of Ethnography.

Lisa Dickey: There's one more suggestion. Also, for something truly wacky, there's the Museum of Hygiene. I'll say no more!

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Munich, Germany: Has your Russian improved at all since the beginning of your trip?

My actual question is if you've noticed any changes in Russia due to the recent increases in oil revenue? Is there, for instance, more money flowing into environmental programs for the Baikal region or for the protection of Siberian Tigers?

I'm looking forward to reading more about your adventures in book form.

Lisa Dickey: My Russian has improved -- thank goodness! It was definitely rusty when I started out.

And I haven't noticed any changes such as the ones you cite, but I admittedly didn't do any research into that. I can say that the scientists we

sailed with on Lake Baikal

told us they'd been receiving more money from the Russian government in the years since 1995, but whether that's connected with oil revenues, I couldn't say.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Are people more aware of world happenings...i.e. constant terrorist attacks, the Iraq War, weather catastrophes? Particularity, what is the general opinion on the Iraq War and the Bush Presidency?

Lisa Dickey: People are very aware of world happenings, based mostly on what they see on the evening news. When we launched the project in early Sept., Hurricane Katrina news was everywhere here, and many, many people asked us about it.

Re: President Bush and Iraq, almost everyone I've talked to here has expressed disdain for the war. I think there's only been one person who expressed the belief that it was a good idea. I don't get the impression that Bush is terribly popular. Recently one person said to me, "Well, we had our Elating, and now you have your Bush" -- meaning, it's our turn to be embarrassed.

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Ithaca, N.Y.: First I would like to applaud the courage and entrepreneurship you had to take this journey 10 years ago, and the professionalism you show in your exciting accounts here! Thank you for a wonderful glimpse into a country which America largely seems to ignore.

What kind of recommendations would you have for U.S. students that are proficient in Russian? Where do we go with our education and desire to form connections with these wonderful people? How do we gain international experience working in Russia?

Lisa Dickey: Thanks for the praise -- I'm glad you found the blog interesting. In terms of advice for students, I'd just say that there are many ways to get over here now, either by studying or working or simply traveling for a while. Getting a visa is not difficult; there are many companies that can help for a nominal fee. Check online resources such as the Moscow Times or Johnson's List for good info on what's available here in terms of jobs and opportunities...

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Springfield, Va.: Where would you draw the cultural-generational divide from the changes after the Soviet Union? My personal feeling is that those 30 and under are way different from those 40ish and over, and those in between 30 and 40 vary. I've been married to a Russian (who is 37) for seven years, speak Russian near fluently and socialize with a lot of Russians online and off, and notice very few differences from a cultural perspective between myself and those my age (30) and younger, but those 40 and over seem very different to me. More so than the generational gap here.

Lisa Dickey: That's probably a fair representation, and understandably so if you think about what era each age group grew up in. Growing up in Brezhnev's 70s stagnation era is certainly a hugely different prospect from growing up in the uncertainty of perestroika, or the mad lurch to democracy and market economy of the 90s...

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St. Petersburg, Russia: Quirky things to do in St. Pete's? How about visiting "The Idiot", an ultra-hip vegetarian cafe that creates the bohemian atmosphere the city of Pushkin deserves (Moyka embankment, south of St. Isaak's square, across from the flood obelisk, bldg 82 or 84, in the basement)? Or "Baskov pereulok", two blocks north and parallel to Nevsky, connecting Liteyniy Prospekt and ulitsa Vosstaniya--go and back on the street where Putin grew up! And I always liked the view of the Finnish Gulf from the folklorically awful cafe on the top floor of the Pribaltiyskaya Hotel (so big everyone knows where it is!)

Good tip on the nose, Lisa!

Lisa Dickey: Yes, I second the tip on "the Idiot" -- great vegetarian food, which is not easy to find here. And no, I'm not a vegetarian. But it's great.

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Arlington, Va.: I've enjoyed your blog over the last few weeks. I don't really have a question, but more of a comment. I travel to Russia frequently for work, and lived there several years ago. Now I return every two-three months, and even within that amount of time there always seems to be something new. Gradually Moscow (and other cities to a lesser extent) have become more Western. On your trip you've seen this on a much larger scale, while I see it on a monthly basis. For example - about six months ago Moscow coffee shops started using "to go" cups. It seems like such a dumb and simple thing, but for us it was very exciting. This place has slowly become more Western and user friendly, as you have noticed. But somehow Russia retains its unique charm - and that's what makes it so interesting and keeps us coming back for more!

Lisa Dickey: It's amazing that, even as much as things have changed, so much hasn't. If you were to ask me three times in three days, "Has Russia really changed that much?" I'd probably have three different answers.

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Milwaukee, Wis.: In response to Baltimore, if you want to see something a little different and are fairly adenturous, I would recommend a visit to the D2 Submarine Museum on Vasilievsky Ostrov (Vasilievsky Island). It's a Soviet submarine that has been converted into a "museum" and your guide will probably be a former submariner. The tour is conducted in Russian, but the experience is totally worth it (also the tickets still say USSR Ministry of Cultural Affairs on it - another great souvenier).

Lisa Dickey: I can't vouch for this personally, but it sounds cool...

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Ottawa, Ontario: Would you say it's more or less dangerous for people of Asian origin to visit/work/live in Russia now than ten years ago? Many thanks for the wonderful journey. I learned followed you through and learned a lot. I hope this question is not too late for the discussion forum. Many thanks.

Lisa Dickey: It sounds terrible to say it, but the answer really depends on what you mean by "Asian". If you're talking about Chinese or Japanese people, there's not much to worry about.

Also, I want to clarify one thing: I don't mean to imply that all Russians are racists, or that all people of middle-Eastern descent will be vilified and ostracized here. But there really is an issue with prejudice here, even in institutional settings -- the police, hiring practices, etc.

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Hemet, Calif.: I spent a year in Kiev (then part of the USSR) in 1987 as a student and also spent time in Moscow and Leningrad. What struck me most about my time then was how safe it felt, even in the biggest cities and in the most unfamiliar neighborhoods. I also remember the Soviet students and their achingly sweet love affair with anything Western. I could begin to tell you how many times I've been approached by young people asking if I wanted to sell my "magnitafon." Just before leaving, I held a garage sale of sorts and pandemonium broke loose as folks jostled over my "treasures" such as old towels and ratty sneakers.

Lisa Dickey: Ha! This is great. Yeah, it definitely felt REALLY safe in the Soviet days. In fact, I heard a story where someone was pulled into a car and then thrown back out when the kidnapper realized she was American.

Anyway, it still feels safer to me in Russian cities than in most American cities. But not as much as it used to.

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Moscow, Russia: Will there be a Russian Chronicles 2015?

Lisa Dickey: Sure, why not! I would love to come back here in 10 years and see what's changed. But this time around, I'm going to keep track of where everyone is, so I don't have to do the detective work all over again... It ought to be MUCH easier now that everyone has email!

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Lisa Dickey: Thanks, everybody! I'm about to get thrown off my computer at this Internet cafe on Nevsky prospect! Sorry about the questions I didn't get to... Please feel free to post comments to the site. We've got three more postings to go -- and then hopefully will be able to turn the Chronicles into a book. Also, feel free to email me at russianchronicles@gmail.com. Thanks!

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