Pretty moves: football in St. Petersburg

Today was a Sunday. While a few St. Petersburgians are rising up early to go to church, I’m waking up for a different reason: Zenit plays today. Some Russians go to services at the The Church of Christ on the Spilled Blood and pay their respects to Saint Paul or whomever, approximately 20,000 fans came out to their personal church, Petrogradsky Sport Centre and pay their respects to St Arshavin and St Tymoschuk, (patron saints of the penalty kick and the far left cross, respectively). I was one of those 20,000 who went to see their Russian version of the beautiful game, and left with a feeling that is only paralleled when I see Timbers matches back home.

Zenit is St. Petersburg’s one and only real football team. Created back in 1928 or so, and called “Stalinets”, they played so poorly their first decade that they decided to change their name as not to disgrace the name of Dear Leader with such mediocre football. The only factory that would sponsor them in the entire city was one called Zenit, and thus they have been called such ever since and still sport the same blue-light blue-white color scheme since their inception.

Back in the USSR, Zenit was decent, becoming champions once in 1984, but otherwise playing a second fiddle to the five Moscow teams. Yet in the past few years thanks to investment from Gazprom and unwavering fan support, Zenit has found themselves at the top of the table. And that’s where they were this Sunday afternoon, tied with their hated rivals Spartak Moscow, at 39 points and first place in the Rosstrakh Russian Premier League. However, Zenit wasn’t playing anyone very formidable today, only the 13th place team from Khimki (a suburb of Moscow). Still, it was a nice afternoon and if Spartak lost their match to CSKA Moscow (the third place team), Zenit would securely be at the top of the table.

Taking the metro there is the first sense that you are entering a European football atmosphere: getting off at Sportivnaya, you look over across the platform and see just an empty track. The reason? In order to control unruly crowds, the outbound train and inbound train platforms are on different levels. Thus when the 3,000 Moscow fans come by metro from the train station, they don’t run into drunken Zenit fans from Staraya Derevnya or Chkalovskaya.

The atmosphere only increases once you reach street level, and see the sheer amount of military presence. While you see police and soldiers on the street all the time in the center of the city, today I caught sight of the elusive military elite of Russia: OMON. OMON cops were the Soviet Union’s answer to America’s SWAT teams, they are picked from the military, and only 1 in 5 are able to make it through the intense training. These are some scary folks, usually 6’ 4” and 280 pounds of muscle and a billy club. I counted about 20 trucks full of 40 OMON guys each, and added to the usual presence of DPS and MVD cops and riot police, I would estimate there to be about 2500 police around the stadium alone.

After buying some tickets off scalpers using my awesome Russian skills for 300 rubles each (about $12), me and my friends proceeded to enter the stadium, and got frisked by aforementioned OMON folks when we entered the grounds, again when we went through the turnstiles, and once more when we went into our section. These friskings are to ensure that we do not carry any contraband or weapons, as unfortunately, hooliganism is a rather large problem here. The only exception to this rule is the Zenit supporters section called “Nevsky Front”. They are a non-profit organization who actually bought out four entire sections (Sectors 12-16), and they alone control that part of the stadium. There it is mass chaos and bedlam as they raise giant flags and banners, and let marine flares and smoke bombs off whenever Zenit scores.

Before the beginning of every game the entire stadium stands and sings a song about the glories of Zenit (our city, our team, our pride, from all of us in Leningrad we stand tall and sing this song for you, our Zenit…etc), and then proceeds to stand for the next 90 minutes. Chants are flying everywhere, I learn a couple of new words I should probably never say, and then spot a single section of Khimki supporters surrounded by riot police with helmets and truncheons; 22,000 Zenit fans against 200 Khimki fans would not be a fair fight.

The game finally begins. For the first ten minutes we watch the action while participating in a call and response with the other end of the stadium, yelling out “Vperyod, za Piter!” (Forward, for Petersburg!) and in the 14th minute a Khimki player goes down hard in the box; penalty kick. Even though Khimki is in 13th place, they still can manage to put away a penalty kick, and the mighty Zenit is down 1:0. I’m starting to have my doubts. This was a week of upsets in the soccer world, with Russia beating England a mere few days before. Will the upsets continue? My fears are assuaged when in the 28th minute Zenit neatly puts away another goal. The stadium goes crazy, I breathe a sigh of relief, and we are tied.

Twenty minutes later, when the whistle blew for the half I didn’t need to fear anything. Zenit was up 2:1 and looked firmly in control. The second half was just as intense, with Zenit putting away two more goals and then winding down the clock. Final score, Zenit 4 Khimki 1. Next match is the 25th against Nuremburg for UEFA cup rounds, and it will be absolutely mental to watch.

In less than a week I’ll be headed out to Moscow and then starting my independent travel week, visiting Kiev and Krakow. It’ll be nice to get out to the west again.


Времени на время! (It's time for time!)

I actually wrote this last night, and debated about putting it up today or on Monday. I decided might as well give you all something to read over the weekend.

It’s a well conditioned reflex, almost Pavlovian. Every weekday from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, Russian families come back home from work, eat quickly, and once the clock reads 8:59, they reach for their TV dials and turn on Channel 1 for the official state news entitled “Vremya” (literally: Time). The program starts out the same way it always has for over 40 years, a 1960’s style clock ticking down the seconds to 9:00, wherein stylized CNN-esque dramatic music plays and then Ekaterina Andreevna, a rather severe but pretty looking anchorwoman, sits down and launches into a hour long Putin lovefest. Approximately half of the program is dedicated to what Vlad the Great did today. Tonight was no different, except there was a big “Ask the President” (it took up all of Vremya) presentation, wherein any one could call a toll free number and ask the president a question, and he would answer them on air. From what I could translate, Putin promised better pensions, more economic growth, and a need for a positive demographic change, all things that the Motherland desperately needs.

Russia is currently entering a demographic crisis. Its population is rapidly shrinking, last numbered at 122 million and having a negative birthrate for the eighth year in a row. To encourage a better birthrate the government gives a mother $10,000 for having two or more children. That’s for each child, and can only be redeemed to buy an apartment, provide higher education for the child once he/she grows up, or can be put toward the pension that she’ll go on once she turns 60. They at first gave straight cash, but discovered that those wily Russians would just spend it on alcohol and narcotics, and when the rubles ran dry, well, it was time to crank out another little Ilya or Zhenya. Rinse and repeat. Then of course is the highly lauded National Conception Day, which happened on September 12 this year. The Russian government set a date (June 12), and the mother of every baby that is born on that day can receive fabulous prizes such as new refrigerators, other appliances, or cash rewards.

Pensions are a big deal here. The average Russian woman’s age here is 37, with an absolute legion of babushka widows who are za pensii (on the pension). Putin has increased the pension by quite a bit, and thus he enjoys the support of pretty much all the babushkas.

Furthermore, as a former KGB man, Putin also enjoys the overwhelming support of the Russian military. With more and more military buildup and the Chechen conflict rarely reported on, military strength is starting to creep back toward Soviet levels. By no way are they able to take anyone on yet, but thanks to the high price of oil nowadays, Russia is raking in profits and some of those billions of rubles are going toward new toys for the military and better pay for the officers.

Almost all Russians like Putin, not for his actions, but for one reason: nationalism. Putin believes in putting Russia first, and many people saw him as a breath of fresh air after Yeltsin put almost all of Russia on the market to the highest bidder. For the first time in all of Russia’s history, it has an emerging middle class. The only people that don’t really like him are the modern-day intelligentsia, who see him as a threat to the emerging Russian democracy, one of the party opposition leaders referred to Putin as “having more power than the tsar and General Secretary of the Soviet Union”. However, the opposition parties cannot band together to form a strong enough front to go up against Edinaya Rossiya (United Russia, Putin’s political party), so Putin and ER are looking very strong going into the December parliamentary elections, and the February presidential elections. I have not seen any sort of political advertising for the upcoming elections, save for ER’s legions handing out pamphlets entitled “Putin’s Plan”, in which is outlines a multiple point plan “to make Russia and its citizens great once again”. I’ll have to bring one home to share; it’s a pretty slick piece of rhetoric.

Well, there’s the necessary boring dissertation on Russian politics. I promise not to bring the topic up again in depth. One can only take so much of it, and we are still 2 months away from the election date. As Ekaterina Andreevna always says at the end of her broadcasts: “That’s all the news we have, I wish you and yours a very successful day”!


Long Time No Blog

Sorry for a lack of updating. Been pretty busy here, with classes and touring (I spent an entire day touring the Russian musuem) and just meeting new people.

I took a well needed break from Russia last weekend to go visit the absolutely beautiful city of Tallinn, in the small Baltic country of Estonia. For those who don't know, I have some Estonian heritage and thus going back there was a big event.

Estonia is an amazing place. A country of only about 1.5 million people (about 40% of which live in Tallinn), they are a fiercely independent young population that are taking the rest of the world by storm, bringing consumers around the world new innovation in technology (these folks brought you Skype and Kazaa). Definitely one of the most forward thinking former Soviet republics. It was a nice change from the grey dirty feeling of Russia. People were young, happy, nice, and everything was rather clean, and well, rather western. Wonderful times.

Other than that, I am probably going to start working through the university as a English teacher for advanced Russian students. Basically all I do is sit at the front of the class and talk for three hours, and get paid the princely sum of 1600 rubles ($65 roughly) per session. It sounds nice. And on top of that, it rather easy for Westerners to get such jobs. They actually actively seek out American students because for some reason American English is preferable to the Queen's English. No idea why. But some people actually make a living off of this. One fellow I met while here will be living here for a year, teaching English for corporate businesses and students, and is able to live in a brand new apartment near the center and still pocket around $200 a week, for teaching English maybe 25 hours a week. Its a nice job for when you are young, I suppose.

New Western things that have arrived in Russia: Carl's Jr. has decided to open up four restaurants all throughout St. Petersburg, looking like if it just got transplanted from Santa Barbara (I go there to get change for my 1000 ruble notes because they dont yell at me like everywhere else). Also they have an equivalent to Costco here, called Lenta. Its open 24 hours, and sells everything imaginable. You buy a card for 1000 rubles (or just "borrow" one from whoever is behind you in the checkout line) and get the freshest products for the lowest price. Apparantly food products here first go to Lenta and other big stores, then once they pass a certain shelf date, they get sold to the second level supermarkets, and then after their shelf date expires, what is left is sold to the ubiquitous food kiosks all around the city. So most people try to avoid the kiosks for food, what you get is twice as expensive and probably at best two/three months old.

Football fever is here in Russia as well. The Euro 2008 qualifiers was held in Moscow, with Russia against England playing last night, and by some divine intervention, Russia won 2-1. Russia went absolutely nuts, and I'm willing to bet that a lot of people called in sick today to nurse their hangovers (not me! I went to school!) Also Zenit, the local side, is in prime position to win the Russian League cup, and are now playing in the second round of the UEFA cup against strong teams like Nuremburg and Everton. I'm hoping to make the match against Nuremburg, and probably the last regular season game. Pictures will be forthcoming. Its very hard to upload pictures here due to spotty internet connection, so I'll do what I can at an actual internet cafe.

Its strangely staying warm here, with temperatures hovering around 10 degrees celsius, and I am not bothered by the weather here too much at all.

This is a rather scattered post, but I'll make sure to make the next one a little more coherent and write it out beforehand. I have quite a few rants to post.

Until later this week or Monday...



Раньше было лушее...

Sorry for not updating this in awhile. I've been incredibly busy with classwork and whatnot, and internet here is spotty at best.

Yesterday marked the one month anniversary of my arrival here. I've gotten it down to an artform. Wake up at 7:15, breakfast at 7:30 (kasha, a sort of porridge with homemade pound cake called kiks), get to the metro by 8, push into the crowd and through the turnstiles and down the esclator, and finally by 8:20 i'll usually catch a train to Mayakovksya, where I transfer to the red line (a nightmare), and then take a bus from Chernyshevskii station to my university. Such a hectic pace really wakes you up in the morning.

Classes are continuing to be good. Grammar is frustrating at best, impossible at worst. We recently learned that there are around 28 different verbs expressing the verb "to go", depending on if you go by vehicle or foot, if you do it repeatedly or just a single time, if you are going inside something or out of something. Add in verbal prefixes, and it comes out to be about 168 words to express the verb "to go". I'm getting most of them down though, and some are obscure ones nobody really uses in everyday conversation (to flee out of a building on foot, for example).

I also take a culture class that focuses on the film industry of the Soviet period. Despite strict censuring by the Soviet authorities, the movies still manage to provide biting social commentary and a satircal twist to everyday life in the Soviet Union.

However, our professors are incredibly anti-Soviet, and take every chance to decry actions taken by the Soviet Union. For example, in our civilization class today; we were discussing the differences between Russian/American social strata, and at the end our professor wrote on the board: "The Soviet Union depended on three things to keep its people in line, and these three tools are still used today. Terror. Fear. Lies." This is also the same professor who compared Putin's political party to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

This is in stark contrast to my life at home with my babushka. She is a pensioner, who depends on the state for all of her needs. The state provides her with subsidized rent/utilities, and free public transportation. However, with the high prices of consumer goods in Russia, her pension cannot cover many of her other needs, such as food and clothing. In Soviet times, all was provided for pensioners, including comprehensive health care and all necessary prescriptions. When the USSR collapsed, many of those benefits also went away. Thus many older people in the city resign themselves to just getting by, gathering foodstuffs from their summer cottages (I came home the other day to see my babushka busily chopping at what was almost 10kg of cabbage. I have had a lot of cabbage soup these past few days.). They would like to get more benefits, but they know that the state could not afford to provide such things. Thus they say what seems like the mantra of Russia: "что делать?" This phrase, translated as "what can be done about it?" illustrates the uselessness of trying to cope with a constantly Westernizing Russia clashing with deeply rooted Soviet traditions and rules. And of course, theres nothing to be done, "ran'she bilo lushee" (earlier (or during Soviet times) was easier). These phrases are oft repeated by my babushka as she stares out of the kitchen window at the endless apartment blocks, as she longs for better days long past.

Until Monday or so,



About doors of continuous socialist progression and an anthropological look at the Metro

"Every morning in Africa, a Gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a Lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest Gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn't matter whether you are a Lion or a Gazelle... when the sun comes up, you'd better be running."

This quote also applies to life Russia. I've been here for only two weeks, and I am absolutely exhausted. Simply living day to day will completely sap you of any energy you might have.

Despite this, I am absolutely loving it. My classes are very hard (and 90 minutes long!), but I'm learning a lot.

However, the best (and worst) part about living in Piter is the metro system. It is a complete microcosm of everyday life within the city. About 4.2 million people live in Petersburg, and a large majority depend on the metro to get them around. However, the system is very overcrowded, and still stuck with Soviet bureaucracy. For example:

Yesterday I got tired of buying tokens every time I wanted to ride, so I attempted to buy myself a monthly student card (a good deal at 350 rubles or about $14). I approached the surly babushka at the kassa and asked in my best Russian for a studenticheskii bilet na meyestev. Looking bored and like if I was a massive inconvenience, she asked me for my student ID card, then demanded my spravka (a piece of paper that has your information and gives you permission to be in the country. Everyone must carry it, and without it you are not a person). She looked at it for awhile, made some calls, looked at it some more, then slid it back to me saying "No. Come back tomorrow."

Well then. So much for that. So I buy a token (14 rubles, or maybe 45 cents), go through the turnstiles, and head down the escalator. The St. Peterburg Metro was built largely right after the war, thus the metro stations were constructed to double as bomb/fallout shelters. The escalators are usually about 300 meters long, and some take almost five minutes to descend.

Since it takes people so long to descend/ascend the escalator, many people either sit on the steps or stare down the people coming the other way. Some people (like me and some other students in my group) enjoy picking out the most beautiful girls coming the other way and trying to hold their gaze. We've succeeded a few times, but mostly the girls look away; embarassed.

The metro cars are a mix of newly built smooth carriages and old Soviet era relics. At the end of each carriage theres a plaque that says "The Order of Lenin of the Red Star is awarded to the builders of the Leningrad Metropolitan for construction of this line and this carriage" Many of the cars on the green line are from the 1970s; the oldest one I've found was from 1962 on the red line.

However, the bad thing about the metro is the amount of people (rush hour lasts from 6am-11am, and then resumes around 2pm and goes until 9pm). People are crushed into the carriages, and it is seriously the scariest experience one can have. You shall not show any sympathy towards anyone else on the metro, or else you will be picked out as the weak one and instantly preyed upon.

Today I shoved a babushka out of the way to get into a train. I have no qualms about that. As long as they dont fall, all is well. My friend witnessed a mother and young daughter get split up; the daughter entered the train, and the doors instantly closed after her. And when the doors close, they close. Hard. You cannot force them open, and a second set of heavy steel doors close after them to close out access to the tunnel. Too many a time I have arrived to the train to have its doors close in my face. I know not to trifle with doors of socialist industry.

On Saturday, we went out to Pavlovsk, where theres a beautiful park and a palace. I might go out there often; it reminds me a lot like Forest Park. It only cost $2 to get out there and back. Transport here is really cheap.

Anyway, I'll update more on Wednesday (when I only have one class).

- Alex


Arrival and so forth

So unfortunately this was the first time I have gotten a solid internet connection since I have gotten here. But despite all that, Russia is amazing.

First things first. The host family and the apartment. St. Petersburg is a big place, about 4.5 million people. Thus everyone is crammed into pre-planned Soviet era apartment blocks. I'm in one of those. My host mother is actually a very nice Russian widow (called бабушка, which is literally grandmother). Her name is Galina, shes about 70 years old, and was born several years before the siege. She feeds me a lot, tells me what a good boy I am, and reminds me to always wear my coat and carry my documents with me at all times. Doesnt speak a word of English. This serves to be an issue because my Russian isnt all that great. Luckily there has been only a few times we have misunderstood each other. She also has a grandson named Leonit, who is 20 years old and studies at SPBGU as well. He's a big fan of FC Zenit, the local football side, and I'll probably go to a match with him sometime this fall.

The apartment is small and cozy. To get up to my apartment, I first need to get into my pozyezd (entry way) and to do that, I use a magnetic key called a domofon. It is tuned to a specific frequency and lets me into the lobby, where i take the lift up (I live on the 6th floor). I then have to go through a doorway to the hallway (key #2), then go through a heavy security door to the apartment entranceway (key #3), and then finally through a door to go into my apartment (key #4). The entire process takes about 10 minutes, and is really hard to do when there are no lights on (kids steal the light bulbs and sell them for alcohol). I'll post pictures of it later.

Other than that, today was my first day of classes. From now on, we are only allowed to talk in Russian, and all of our classes are conducted in Russian as well. It will be hard, but I think it will be for the best. I'm taking 19th century literature, Russian civilization, a conversation class, a pronunciation class, and a grammar class. SO I usually wake up around 7, leave for the university around 7:45, ride into town, get to the university around 8:30-8:45ish. Then non-stop classes until 3ish. Good times. I'm happy I am taking this pass fail.

In the next entry:
enjoying the Metro at rush hour, the popularity of mullets in Russia, and alcohol etiquitte.

Until then,



So it begins...

With less than seven hours before I embark on a new journey, I sit in my room. Bags packed, language brushed up on, carry-on stocked with books and other amusements for the 18 hours of travel ahead of me.

In the next four months I'll be a студента (student) at St. Petersburg State University, or simply known as СПБГУ (short for Санкт-Петербург государственной университете) in Russian. I'll wade through three language classes, a 19th century literature class, and a politics and current events class five days a week, ninety minutes a day.

All in Russian.

I'll live in an apartment dreamt up by the most inane Soviet planners, dodge cars and lorries down Nevsky Prospekt, visit Moscow, Novgorod, Tallinn, and who-knows-where else, observe all 165 million Russians wait with bated breath to see what Putin will do come time for elections (both parliamentary and presidential), enjoy temperatures ranging from a balmy 70 degrees to a bitterly cold -20 (with wind-chill), drink copious amounts of vodka/beer/homebrew forced into my hands, and of course, meet 40-odd people just like me who for some reason, believe that a trip to one of the most enigmatic and vexing countries in the world would be an absolutely perfect idea.

Am I ready? Perhaps. Physically I am. Mentally, perhaps. Either way, I'm going to be on a plane in 7 hours.

Before a trip, I always think that I have forgotten to bring something with me. Something that is just passed over during the frenzied packing, like a toothbrush or an extra pair of socks. I hate that feeling. I also hate it even more when I realize that the thing I have forgotten to bring along with me doesn't really fit into a suitcase or backpack.

It's the idea of what could have been.

Until Russia,