Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Not Down and Out in Moscow - New York Times

Not Down and Out in Moscow - New York Times: "Mr. Firer warily eyed a bright orange Porsche at the booth next to his. “That’s a nice car, but it is nickels and dimes compared to us,” he said. “After the United States, Russia is the second-biggest market for private aircraft.” Fueled by an oil boom, the Russian capital seems as awash in cash as Dallas was in its heyday."

Monday, November 26, 2007

We're famous! Russian Studies in today's newspaper...

The Daytona Beach News Journal ran a very nice piece today (front page, even!) about Stetson's Russian Studies Program. You can read the piece online (click the image below), or here for a PDF of the print edition. (Oh, and, for the record, my eyes are a dirty green, and they hardly ever pierce anyone...)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Rage Against the Машина

There've been a few posts here already about Russian music, but I wanted to bring up something I was wondering about for a while (and learned a lot about from one of Dr. Denner's tangents): the underground Soviet rock scene.

Rock bands started appearing in Russia about as soon as Russians were able to listen to smuggled rock from the West and emulate it. By the mid-1960s, people across the USSR were listening to smuggled or pirated Beatles and Rolling Stones records and yearning to imitate the sound and spirit of the new genre; surprisingly, Beatlemania hit the Soviets about as hard, if not harder, than Westerners. Just about every Soviet rock group I looked up, no matter what it sounded like, considered the Beatles to be its primary influence.

The first underground genre to gain prominence in the 1960s was the so-called "авторская песня" (author's song): acoustic sets performed by lone singer-soungwriters, usually referred to as "bards." One of the most famous of these bards was Vladimir Vysotsky, who was basically a Russian Bob Dylan, singing pseudo-poetry that was sometimes down-to-earth, sometimes absurd and occasionally politically poignant.

From the late 60s and throughout the 70s, the underground Soviet rock scene really blossomed, with famous bands such as Машина времени (time machine) and Аквариум (Aquarium) performing and privately recording a great deal of music. Most of these bands were apparently quite Zepplin-esque, but a wide range of styles were experimented with, including psychodelic and prog rock.

When I refer to this scene as "underground," it carries a lot more meaning than it does in the US, since rock music was banned in the USSR during this entire period. The country only had one record label, Μелодия, and music that wasn't culturally or ideologically sound wasn't considered acceptable for Soviet audiences and thus went unrecorded by the official music industry. However, the scene survived through the efforts of the artists themselves; performances were often held in peoples' apartments and in warehouses and basements, and since every other Soviet citizen was trained as an engineer, many had the technical know-how to record their own bootleg records. For example, Аквариум recorded their albums on an underground, self-built recording studio, and some bands would bribe Μелодия staffers for the secret use of their equipment. Since material for making records was scare, the music was usually pressed onto old x-ray plates; today, records in Russia are sometimes still referred to as рентгениздаты (X-rays).

Russian rockers were finally able to reap the benefits of their talent in the Gorbachev era, when censorship was loosened and some bands were able to officially record and appear on television. Today, the most prominent of the underground rock groups are recognized as iconic figures of Russian music; they'll never forget the people who risked their careers and lives just to keep on rockin' in the not-so-free world.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ivan Il'ich is DEAD

This April, I'm giving the keynote speech at this year's "The Big Read" in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where the book they, as a community, are going to read is The Death of Ivan Il'ich, by Tolstoy.

I have very mixed feelings about this: On the one hand, I'm honored and delighted to have been asked to give a speech at such an important, public event. "Ivan Il'ich" (as anyone who's taken my lit classes knows) is my favorite work of literature (well, along with Walden).

On the other hand, I'm going to have to figure what the heck I am going to say to a lay audience about a book, the theme of which is (roughly speaking): "You are going to die. A painful, humiliating, terrifying death. Probably a really painful one, too. And, at the moment of death, you will realize that everything you believed was good and pleasant and important were, in fact, the least good, least pleasant, and least important things in the world. Oh, and, there's no redemption. Sorry about that." I mean, this is the book the Heidegger read and said: "If you want to know about the hopelessness of life and the true meaning of death, read this book!"

Not exactly an Oprah Winfrey selection.

Anyway, one way to help me focus on the book, and to communicate with the participants in the Big Read in Illinois, is (you guessed it!) -- a blog! Check it out...

Because of Gorbachev...

...Russians are free to go to the edge of their pizza!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Putin honors Soviet spy from Manhattan Project

On November 2, the Kremlin announced that President Putin had given the highest Russian honor to George Koval, a former spy for the Soviet Union on the Manhattan Project. George Koval died last year in his 90's; however, the announcement of this award has shocked the West. American Intelligence Agencies have known about Koval's real identity since the 1950's, but have tried to keep the information on the down low to avoid American embarrassment. Koval was trained by Stalin's rigorous GRU military intelligence program, although he studied in the United States. Those who worked with Koval said he was extremely believable and had no Russian accent. American Intelligence Agencies have identified around six other Soviet spies; however, Koval is the only spy to have penetrated atomic plants in Los Alamos.

Koval was born in Iowa, but immigrated to Birobidzhan during the Great Depression. He studied at the Mendeleev Institute of Technology, and was later recruited by the G.R.U., and later sent to the United States to spy from 1940-1948. Koval rose through the ranks in the United States, and was assigned to some of the most top-secret projects. The Kremlin's announcement on November 2 stated that Koval's work ''helped speed up considerably the time it took for the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb of its own.'' Historians have suggested that Putin made the announcement of Koval's award to reinvigorate Russian pride.

Sex in the City: Women's Roles in Russian Culture Today.

It's wedding season in Moscow, and young couples parade on Red Square to be photographed and showered with rose petals. Our FRONTLINE/World reporter, Russian-born American filmmaker Victoria Gamburg, congratulates them as she walks by but concedes, "It's not all romance and rose petals for women in Russia today."

Gamburg has been invited to Moscow to visit the set of a hot new television series, Balzac Age, modeled on America's Sex and the City. The show follows the lives of four women in their 30s. The first scene we see features the 35-year-old character, Sonya, who is frustrated at having no children, no husband and no job. Her friends cheer her up by hiring Chippendale-like marginally dressed hunks to clean and cook. It's a comedy show, but Gamburg explains that its success comes from poking fun at the real conflicts faced by Russian women today.

The shows stylist explains the paradox of women's expectations. "On the one hand, the husband wants dinner to be ready when he comes home. But on the other hand, he is not at all against having his wife work and not ask him for money."

The behind-the-scenes stories of the actresses illustrate that conflict between being a successful modern career woman on the one hand and a wife and mother in the traditional sense on the other. Before shooting a bedroom scene, the actress sits in the bed talking to her real-life son. The production is put on hold while she tells her nanny not to feed her 6-year-old son kielbasa before bedtime.

Next we follow the actress who plays Julia, a character who lives with her mom and drives a gypsy cab, but offscreen is a single mother of two. "The show was the beginning of the end of my marriage," she tells Gamburg. We learn that her marriage fell apart because her success made the partnership unequal.

Gamburg introduces us to a real-life Muscovite who also faces the dilemma that "success" often brings for modern women. Zhenya Timonova is a senior advertising copywriter in an international ad agency. Her boyfriend, Victor, stays at home and drinks. He takes Gamburg on a stroll through a Soviet-era park, where he stops and admires his favorite monument, a gold statue depicting women as mothers and workers.

Later, back in their apartment, Timonova explains that after World War II there was a decline in the male population. According to Zhenya, men had the luxury of saying, "Just be grateful that I exist," and women became a shoulder to lean on. Zhenya accuses men of being infantile as a result. Victor thinks that it has resulted in Timonova and other businesswomen valuing career over family.

This disconnect between men and women is a theme played out in the show, for example, in a scene in which the character Alla, now a high-powered attorney, runs into her old high school sweetheart, who is now a handyman.

Gamburg learns that characters like Alla are role models to Russian women like Vera, a 49-year-old retired teacher whom she meets in Gorky Park. Vera has just moved to Moscow and sells kabobs six days a week. Her glamorous makeup and well-coiffed blond hair make her look more like a star of the show than a vendor. However, her life is a far cry from the glamorous world of the Balzac women, as we see when Gamburg visits the two-room apartment that Vera shares with her daughter, sister and brother-in-law. But Vera's second occupation, selling products that enhance women's orgasms, could be scripted from the show. Vera's frank discussion with clients about how to make sex more satisfying would never have happened in the Soviet era, according to Gamburg.

Gamburg speculates that the show may, in fact, reflect a women's movement in Russia. One of the actresses sums up the new feminism with a story about grandmothers today. Before, grandmothers always helped our mothers care for the children. Today, they prefer to work as paid nannies for others. "Isn't that the beginning of feminism?" she asks Gamburg. "No, it's capitalism," Gamburg says with a laugh.

Whatever it is, women have more choices than ever before. Zhenya, the PR executive, decides to leave her alcoholic boyfriend for a new job in Kiev. Unlike the characters in Balzac's Age, she believes she will be happier on her own.

But many women, like the kabob maker, Vera, take their cues from the show. "I know many Russian women have an enormous potential inside themselves," she tells Gamburg. "Even in the show, there's a scene about how to become a successful woman." According to Vera, before the show, women were never taught these things. "It will be women who will change Russia," she tells Gamburg proudly. "Everything depends on women."

To watch the documentary visit:

I think that this new women's movement in Russia is great. Women are finally realizing they don't need to have a husband and they can have their own goals and aspirations to live up to. I find it entertaining that this movement correlates with a popular t.v show in America, that was at one time extremely controversial. I found it astonishing that several of the husband simply could not deal with the success that their wives were having and rather than celebrating the success they up and left. However I do realize that this will happen because women having a significant role in Russia is new and the acceptance of this will come with time.

Move over Dahmer, Russia's got it's own sociopaths

Obviously this topic is a little more macabre than the usual ones, but I just had to know - Does Russia have it's own dirty history of serial killers, or does America have that market monopolized. Turns out, they do. My search led me to four names: Sasha Spesivtsev, Andrei Chikatilo, Alexander Pitchushkin, and Darya Saltykova. I won't go into details (you can find those out yourself) but I just thought it'd be interesting to see how Russia's sickos compare to ours. Let's just say they hold their own.

Sasha Spesivtsev was raised in an abusive home where his father tortured the entire family. Sasha was institutionalized after he murdered his girlfriend. Later, he shared an apartment with his mother. One day a plumber, responding to a neighbors call, forced his way into Sasha's home after a pipe breakage and found the apartment covered in blood and with, lets say, surprises throughout. Authorities found Sasha's diary detailing the killing of 19 girls, for which he was sentenced to death.

Andrei Chikatilo, known as the Red Ripper, also lived in a traumatic household. He would often wet the bed, for which his mother would beat and humiliate him. He would approach runaways and vagrants and bring them into the forest, where he would commit his crimes. He was arrested at a train station, but released when he produced a false negative from blood tests. He would go on to kill a total of 52 women and children before being arrested and confessing. He too, was executed.

Alexander Pichushkin, known as the Chessboard Killer, was thought to be in competition with Andrei, which some speculate was the motivation for his actions. He said that he wanted to kill 64 people, equal to the number of squares on a chessboard. When captured though, he claimed that he wouldn't have stopped at 64, he would have continued killing until he was stopped. He was arrested in 2006 and charged with 48 counts of murder, but he told a Russian court to add another 11 counts to that. It took the judge an entire hour to read his sentence, life in prison with the first 15 years to be spent in solitary confinement.

Finally, there's the one female in the group, though she is no less sick than the rest. Darya's crimes occurred long before the others, in the 1700s. Darya inherited her late husband's estate at age 26, which allowed her to do as she pleased to the serfs working there. Darya was well connected in the royal court, so any complaints of the deaths and torture of serfs taking place at her estate were often ignored or even punished. Eventually, relatives fo those killed started a petition and the empress arrested Darya. Darya was held for 6 years while an investigation took place, after which she was found guilty of having tortured and killed 138 female serfs. The death penalty was outlawed at that time, so she had to settle for life locked in the basement of a convent.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Russian Roulette

I decided to embark on a quest to find out the history behind Russian Roulette, and if it was indeed a Russian invention. Thankfully, google is awesome, and I found some answers.

The origin of Russian roulette is depicted in several legends, most concerning Russian soldiers or prisoners of war. However, there is no real evidence, and some say that it may have been a literary creation.

The first account of Russian roulette is in "Russian Roulette," a short story from 1937 by Georges Surdez. The following is a passage from that story:

"'Feldheim . . . did you ever hear of Russian Roulette?' When I said I had not, he told me all about it. When he was with the Russian army in Rumania, around 1917, and things were cracking up, so that their officers felt that they were not only losing prestige, money, family, and country, but were being also dishonored before their colleagues of the Allied armies, some officer would suddenly pull out his revolver, anywhere, at the table, in a cafe, at a gathering of friends, remove a cartridge from the cylinder, spin the cylinder, snap it back in place, put it to his head, and pull the trigger. There were five chances to one that the hammer would set off a live cartridge and blow his brains all over the place. Sometimes it happened, sometimes not."

The interesting part about this story is that Russian roulette is depicted as less of a game, and instead as merely suicide with an element of chance thrown in.

According to one article, "The closest thing to Russian roulette, that we know did happen on occasion, was a game called ‘’cuckoo’’. One Russian officer would stand on a table or chair in a dark room. Other officers would hide around the room and call out, ‘’cuckoo’’. The officer with the gun would fire randomly at the sound." Another carefree game to play with your friends, but no Russian roulette.

Sergei and Ivan (a.k.a. Caity and Michelle) Dance the Barynya!

For this blog Caity (Sergei) and Michelle (Ivan) will dance for you the traditional Russian dance, the Barynya!

In old times in Russia the word barynya (Landlady) was used by simple folk as a form of addressing to a woman of higher class. Barynya - original fast Russian folk dance with fancy foot stomping and traditional Russian squatwork ("prisyadka", "vprisyadku"), sudden knee-bending and jumps. The Barynya dance is an alternation of chastushkas and frenetic dancing......lots of frenetic dancing....

The Barynya chastuskas used to have the refrain, kind of "Barynya, barynya, sudarynya-barynya", or "Barynya ty moya, sudarynya ty moya". The content is always humoristic. The country dancing was without special choreography. There are a number of scenic, more refined versions of the dance, but our version is the best of all!

Here is the inspiration for our dance!

Now, for your viewing pleasure, Sergei and Ivan dance for you, on the inter-web-net, the Barynya!!!! Отлично!

Hemp Mannn...

After reading the blog below about drug use in Russia, I recalled some pretty interesting information I once read about Russia’s history with hemp. Interestingly, Russia once ran on the production and exportation of Cannabis products. Hemp was Russia’s number one trading product in the 1700s-ahead of its fur, timber and iron. In fact, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, most of the world depended on products made from hemp! Recently, hemp has been associated with marijuana and people have forgotten what a valuable resource it can be and how important it once was for many countries, including America. Hemp is the most resilient, long-lasting natural fiber, and Russia used to supply most of the world with well-made hemp products.

One of Russia’s best customers was Britain. Britain purchased 90% of its marine hemp from Russia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and relied heavily on Russian hemp products to promote strong naval forces. Now, think back to what you learned in grade school about the War of 1812. You probably don’t remember hearing much about hemp but some insist it was a key factor! Napoleon, eager to infringe on Britain’s naval forces, sought to cut off trade from Russia to Britain and its allies. So, with the help of Czar Alexander of Russia, the Treaty of Tilset was signed in 1807. This hurt Britain; they needed hemp from Russia to continue to dominate the sea. Eventually, Britain found a loophole and started receiving Russian hemp through American traders who had access to Russian hemp. Napoleon caught on. He demanded Czar Alexander stop trade with America or let French troops patrol the trade stations. The Czar said no, and Napoleon invades Russia! To learn about this take on history, in depth, check out Chapter 11 of the book The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer.

Руки Вверх

I had downloaded some russian music last summer and one of my favorite songs is Крошка Mоя by Руки Вверх. They were a really well-known pop group in Russia in the late 90s but I still really like a bunch of their songs. Another good one is Здравстсвуй, это я. Their official website is It has pictures, articles and all their songs. If you like catchy songs to a techno like beat you should download them and listen. The cool part is now I understand what they are saying :)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Russian fashion!

The Russian fashion industry: beyond dress shoes with track pants!

Unit 4

This is Irina Tchachina she is a rhythmic gymnast. one might ask what is that. It is more or less using ribbon, hoops, balls, ect in dance that includes, but is not limited to, ballet gymnastics and lyrical. I personally don't know about you but o my goodness....brilliant amazing innovated...and i am COMPLETELY jealous

Cults = Scary!

I found this article about a Russian cult on Yahoo. It reminded me of the Heaven's Gate cult, who all killed themselves in hopes of catching a ride on the spaceship behind Haley's Comet. Except, people in this cult aren't looking to make friends with extra terrestrials, they've locked themselves into a cave with food and other supplies.. why? Because they believe the world is coming to an end. The cult consists of 29 adults and 4 children, all Christians who believe that the church is doing a horrible job. So, they've taken it upon themselves to survive when the world does come to an end- apparently in May of 2008. The picture that goes with the article shows 2 Russian policemen standing outside the snow-covered cave; however, the cult members have threatened to blow themselves up by detonating a gask tank if the police intervene with their survival tactic. Interestingly enough, the cult leader is not with them. Police told one newspaper that Pyotr Kuznetsov "was a 43-year-old who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and that in the last few months he had been sleeping in a coffin." Atleast this guy has a reason for his lack of sanity..

Here's the link:

Tiffany in Moscow

Tiffany Chestnut, one of our students studying in Moscow (at МГУ) this fall, is a total Florida girl. She seems to have adapted well enough to fifty-five degrees... latitude!

SPOOKie Russia...

More Russophobia... I found this in my mailbox yesterday. Sinister, no?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Popular music about Russia

Or, at least, about what Westerners think of Russia. The first is a funny little Euro-disco song by an obscure, long-forgotten German singing group - Dschinghis Khan (whose name means 'Genghis Khan'; they were into the whole far east thing) entered into the 1979 Eurovision song contest (unfortunately they entered with a different song; there's no doubt that if they entered "Moskau" into the competition they would've easily come out on top.) The peculiar lyrics speak of Russia in much the same way a lot of folks perceived the nation during the waning days of the USSR - and, indeed, in the same way that a lot of American policymakers viewed the Soviets - but with a relatively interesting perspective (Germany being a lot closer to the action, what with East Germany and all.) Reading between the lines (if you can read German, that is ) reveals a relatively interesting message about Russia (Red as Blood? Heh.) Here's a video of a more modern performance, and my rough translation from German below -

Moscow, strange and mysterious
Towers of reddish-gold
Cold as the ice
But Moscow, those who truly know you
Know that within, a fire burns
Burning so hot inside

Cossacks, hey hey hey, raise your glasses!
Natasha ha, ha, ha you are beauitiful!
Comrades, hey hey hey, (drink) to life!
To your health, brother hey, brother ho!

Moscow, Moscow,
Throw the glasses at the wall!
Russia is a beautiful land,
Ha ha ha ha ha, hey!
Moscow Moscow,
Your soul is so great ("soul; spirit"; in a sense meaning energy or passion; in the same sense as the English phrase 'you've got a lot of soul')
In the evening everything goes wild,
Ha ha ha ha ha, hey!

Moscow, Moscow,
Your love is a delicacy,
and your girls are for kissing, (!)
Ha ha ha ha ha, hey!
Moscow, Moscow,
Come, let's dance on the table,
Until the table breaks apart, (! See? Crazy Russians!)
Ha ha ha ha ha!

Moscow, gate to the past
A mirror into the time of the emperors,
Red as blood
Moscow, whoever knows your soul
Knows that your love is burning
Hot, like coal

(Repeat the chorus, and then the guys come up for the best part of the song, heh)
Moscow, Moscow
Where one drinks their Vodka straight
That way, you'll live until you're a hundred
Ho ho ho ho ho, hey!
Moscow, Moscow,
Old friend, your glass is empty
But there's always more in the cellar
Ho ho ho ho ho!

(Then repeat chorus)

Then there's this other interesting Eurodisco song by one of the most popular groups of the 70s (outside America at least, where no one has any idea who they are) - Boney M - singing about everybody's favorite crazy historic icon, Rasputin. However, like "Moskau", Frank Farian (the songwriter and guy who brought us artists like Milli Vanilli) decided to treat the subject a bit unconventially - as you'll see in the lyrics, he turned Rasputin into a crazy rock-star sex-symbol and decidedly exaggerates the relationship between Rasputin and the Czarist government. Still, it's funny to watch and an interesting pseudo-history lesson. (I especially like the crazy guy in the beard).

There lived a certain man in Russia long ago
He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow
Most people looked at him with terror and with fear
But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear
He could preach the bible like a preacher
Full of ecstacy and fire
But he also was the kind of teacher
Women would desire

Lover of the Russian queen
There was a cat that really was gone
Russia's greatest love machine
It was a shame how he carried on

He ruled the Russian land and never mind the czar
But the kasachok he danced really wunderbar
In all affairs of state he was the man to please
But he was real great when he had a girl to squeeze
For the queen he was no wheeler dealer
Though she'd heard the things he'd done
She believed he was a holy healer
Who would heal her son

Lover of the Russian queen
There was a cat that really was gone
Russia's greatest love machine
It was a shame how he carried on

Spoken :
But when his drinking and lusting and his hunger
for power became known to more and more people,
the demands to do something about this outrageous
man became louder and louder.

"This man's just got to go!" declared his enemies
But the ladies begged "Don't you try to do it, please"
No doubt this Rasputin had lots of hidden charms
Though he was a brute they just fell into his arms
Then one night some men of higher standing
Set a trap, they're not to blame
"Come to visit us" they kept demanding
And he really came

Lover of the Russian queen
They put some poison into his wine
Russia's greatest love machine
He drank it all and he said "I feel fine"

Lover of the Russian queen
They didn't quit, they wanted his head
Russia's greatest love machine
And so they shot him till he was dead

Spoken : Oh, those Russians..

U.S.-Russian Relations

I received this article from a family friend who works and lives in Moscow. (He's a diplomat.) This is what he had to say about it: "This is the best current article I have read that addresses the reality of the issues between our two countries. I do not agree with everything in the article, but for the most part, I believe the author is on target."
It's on the longesh side, but definitely worth the read if you are interested in U.S.-Russian relations.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

друг = хороший...drugs (наркотики) = плохо

I always find that when I watch a clip in English, with subtitles in a foreign language, that it really helps me develop a more intuitive sense of the language I want to learn.

I was searching youtube for clips of movies/tv shows that I am familiar with, that had the extra bonus of Russian subtitles or dubbing. I find it very helpful. I searched clips like the simpsons or Harry Potter, and I thought it was hilarious that this clip came up over and over again...

I don't know........someone obviously thought it was vital that this was translated into Russian..... *shrug*
So it inspired me to research the history of drug use in the USSR/Russia.

Apparently the first information on people suffering from drug addiction in the USSR appeared in the in beggining of the 1950s. At that time about 300 people were registered.

Since the mid 50s an internal drug market began to form in the USSR. Poppy plantations were the most obvious, appearing in Куйбышев (Samara), Нижний Новгород regions, in Татарстан and Беларусь.
In the 60s, large hemp plantations were planted in the far western Краснодар and Ставропольский край regions. In the Ukraine hemp was planted for sale within the country, as well as for export. The Ukraine still exports thousands of tons annually.

Until the mid 70s, in some regions of the USSR, narcotism was usual but not a publicly recognized occurence. The real drug revolution did not occur until the end of the 80s. It is thought that such a delay in comparison to the West is due to the following:

1) Post-war time difficulties -social and cultural problems, national economy recovering.

2) Total alcoholism. Who needs drugs when you live in such a vodka-saturated culture? The place of a drug as an antianxiety remedy in a Russian man's culture was already occuipied by alcohol.

3) Social, cultural, economic isolation from trade and most other ties with the world, and laws against going abroad.

All this, and especially the last factor, meant that there were no universally widespread drugs throughout Russia. Thanks to this, the home-made industry flourished. In country territories cherniashka was popular -poppy straw broth, along with home-made amphetamines such as 'jeff', 'mulka', 'vint' and marijuana.

Now that the Iron Curtain has dropped and Russians are free to travel, other addictive substances have made it into the country. Thanks mainly to injection drug use, the HIV epidemic is now rising faster in Russia than anywhere else in the world. Injection drug use has become quite widespread among young people, especially young men. An estimated one percent of the population are injecting drug users. In St Petersburg it is believed that the number of people infected with the HIV virus is close to 100,000.

Drugs are bad, mmkay?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

So this is where Santa gets his reindeer..

After visiting Moscow, one would experience quite a culture shock if seeing the Krasnoyarsk Region, an area covering almost 2,000 miles of Russia. Indigenous people make up this area, and live the life that their ancestors did centuries ago. In fact, many of them herd thousands of reindeer, using the skin as protection from the cold in the harsh weather conditions they experience. These families will travel around all winter, picking up and moving once the reindeer have consumed the moss and lichen-filled pastures. On the other hand, some of these natives have rejected this harsh way of life, like Vladimir and Zinaida Sigunel. Despite giving up living in the Krasnoyarsk Region, they still keep their roots close to home. "Vladimir is a dance teacher, and through his dances he tells stories about his motherland. Zinaida is a housewife and occupies herself sewing national clothes."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

There's a lot more life in Siberia than you ever imagined...

Lake Baikal, (озеро Байкал) at 1,637 meters (5,371ft) deep, is the deepest and largest lake in the world, and is the largest freshwater lake by volume (23,000km3). It contains one fifth of the world’s surface freshwater. Although its surface area is not all that impressive, (at least when compared to Lake Victoria of Africa) Lake Baikal has as much water within it as all of North America’s Great Lakes combined.

Located in Southern Siberia, between Irkutsk Oblast and Buryatia, the name comes from the word Байгал which in the Mongolian language means "nature".

Known as the “Galapagos of Russia”, Lake Baikal is home to 1,085 species of plants and 1,550 species and varieties of animals and 80% of the species that live there cannot be found anywhere else in the world. It is one of the oldest lakes in geological history, estimated at 25-30million years old…thanks to its age and isolation it is of exceptional value to evolutionary science.

It’s a pretty cool, almost sci-fi sort of place. It’s filled with some really strange looking creatures, but for this blog I’m going to focus on just one, the Nerpa, one of the only species of entirely freshwater seals in the world.

Nerpa are unique among seals in many ways, (and not only because they look like some kind of big grey balloon).

They are, along with two subspecies of the Ringed Seal, the only seals to spend their entire lives in fresh water. They can grow to be over 50 years old, making them the longest lived seals, and they nurse their young on milk for twice as long as any other seal species.

Scientists are still not sure as to how the seals originally came to Lake Baikal, seeing as it is hundreds of kilometres away from any ocean. But it is thought that they probably came at a time when there was a sea-passage which linked the lake with the Arctic Ocean.

Nerpa generally tend to prefer the more northern parts of the lake, as the longer winter keeps the ice frozen for longer, which is good for looking after their pups. The females raise the pups on their own, and dig them a large den under the ice. The pups remain here until spring; when the ice melts and the dens collapse, then the pups are left to fend for themselves. Nerpa usually only give birth to one pup, however they are the only seal that has the ability to have twins.

Nerpa (this is kind of cool) have two litres more blood than any other seal of their size and as a result can stay underwater for up to 70minutes if they are frightened or in danger.

So what do these guys eat? Well, a variety of different shrimp and fish make up their main diet, but their main food source is this spiny little guy here.

The Golomyanka, a type of sculpin that lives solely in Lake Baikal. Isn’t he ugly?
Amazingly, sculpin can live for several hours out of water if kept moist. They use their large pectoral fins to stabilize themselves on the floor of flowing creeks and rivers.
This fish lives in silty areas, and as a result it usually has a lot of grit and silt in its stomach. This silty grit scours out the Nerpa’s innards and removes parasites.

(Dr Denner, I've changed my mind. I do want to study ecology/biology when I go on exchange to Russia...)

And now, in closing, here's a clip of some Nerpa swimming....