Monday, December 14, 2009

The Siberian Climate

I was born and grew up in Siberia. More precisely, in the Altai region, in the South of Western Siberia. Why be so precise? Because there are many different climates, landscapes, cities and ethnic groups united under the common name “Siberia”. The large territory between the Ural mountains (known as a border between Europe and Asia) and Russia’s Far East varies much from the cold North to the sunny and fertile soiled South, and from the woody East to the industrial West.

Winter park There are some popular stereotypes about Siberia, and the first one is that Siberia is a Territory of Frost. Well, winters are really cold in Siberia, even in its Southern regions. In my hometown, in January, temperatures below -30C (-20F) may stay for 2-3 weeks, and on some days it may be as cold as -45 C (-53F). The first snow normally occurs in mid October, but melts away. Usually, the snow extends from November to April. However, summers in Altai are hot and dry. Thus, +30C (90F) is a normal temperature for July. Altai has enough sunny days in Summer to plant watermelons and grapes (the watermelon in the picture was planted by my dad).

Siberian water melon Summer follows Winter so fast that there is almost no Spring. The short period of time when all the snow (of about 1.5-2 meters deep) melts away lasts about two weeks and ends with a wild and rapid boom of blooming. Autumns are also short, just a few weeks between the Summer heat and snow.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

What Siberian Cities look like

Like almost all inhabitants of my hometown, Barnaul, I was pretty sure that I lived in a small town. It had a population of 650 000. When my English improved so that I could communicate with people from other countries, my international friends didn’t understand why I considered the Barnaul city a small town. The reason was that near Barnaul, there was Novosibirsk city with a population of over 1 million. To the West, there was another city — Omsk with a population of over 1 million. To the East, there was Krasnoyarsk city, that has a population of about 1 million. Indeed, Barnaul was like a suburban village compared to other Siberian cities. To my surprise, in Europe and North America the scale of what is a large city and what is not, differs much from mine. Now I realize that Barnaul, though not being the largest city in Siberia, is quite a big industrial center with well-developed infrastructure.



Wooden houses are not common in Siberian cities. Normally, private houses are built from bricks, we call them cottages.Often, cottage communities are separated from the rest of the city and located in the suburban areas. The vast majority of people in Siberia live in condos. During the 1960s, the Soviet government deployed a country-wide construction program in order to solve the shortage of residential real estate in cities. Since then typical, rather ugly condos were built all across the country. Siberia was not an exception. According to the Soviet government, it was a temporary solution, but, like Russians used to say, there’s nothing more permanent than temporary solutions. These condos still serve people, and more new condos were built during last 20 years.




During World War II, many industrial enterprises and factories were moved from the European part of Russia to Siberia by the rail way. While Western Russia was at high risk of being occupied, Siberia seemed to be a pretty safe place. Most factories in Barnaul and Novosibirsk are ones that were moved there during WWII. Since then Western Siberia has been an important industrial region with a predominantly urban population.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Verbal Agreement vs Contract

Russian market analyst Eldar Murtazin wrote in his blog a history of a conflict between Sony Ericsson and Euroset, the largest handset retail chain in Russia. According to Murtazin, one year ago, Sony Ericsson pushed their handsets to Euroset really hard, being very happy to supply to Euroset with as many phones as possible at any conditions. Euroset set a very important condition: to pay to SE no sooner than when the handsets are sold. It was a verbal arrangement, that was always a preferred way of doing business for Euroset. The SE guys believed that verbal arrangements meant nothing, only printed contracts were important. SE sent some handsets to Euroset, but sales were pretty weak. After a few months, SE started asking for money for their handsets from Euroset, but Euroset reminded SE about the agreement and refused to pay. That is how the conflict began. During next few months, SE and Euroset were blaming each other for unfair practices, that was not good for anyone — the vendor, retailer and consumers. Recently, SE announced that the company has no claims against Euroset and agreed to renew supplies to the retailer in 2010 (I should say, SE market share decreased dramatically and takes only 3% in Russia).

Putting aside all the boring business issues, I see clearly cross-cultural nature of this conflict. Sony Ericsson, being a western company, pays attention to papers, contracts and fine print, while Russian business tends to trust verbal agreements considering papers nothing but a mere formality. In Russia’s business (and criminal) culture, a person is absolutely responsible for his words, it is a virtue to be responsible for your words. Papers are treated with less (or no) respect. Both sides of the conflict developed their expectations regarding the deal on the base of their own business culture and experience. No surprise that neither Euroset’s nor SE’s expectations were met.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Russian Patronymics

“State your first name, second name, last name, surname, given name, family name…” When I fulfill visa applications for German, Polish, US embassies, each time I need a second or two to understand what exactly I’m asked for. Each country uses its own “names” for names. I found, that Russian personal names are not easy for non-native speakers too and sometimes, Russian long names spoil the joy of reading classic Russian literature. Russian first names sound strange to the foreign ear, Russian family names may vary depending on if the person is male or female, but many surnames do not have gender variants. Russians rarely have second names, and all, with no exceptions, have patronymics. Patronymics are based on the father’s name and follow after the first name. For example, my father’s name is Anatoliy. I am Evgeniya Anatoliyevna, where Eugenia (let me spell it this way) is the first name and Anatoliyevna is the patronymic. Actually, nobody calls me like that because patronymics are used only in very formal conversations and official documents.

Patronymics formation

For men, Russian patronymics have the endings:

  • -ovich when father’s name ends with a non-palatal consonant (Russian consonants may be palatal and non-palatal): Oleg → Olegovich
  • -evich when father’s name ends with a palatal consonant: Dmitriy → Dmitriyevich
  • -ich when father’s name ends with a vowel: Foma → Fomich

For women, patronymics have the endings:

  • -ovna when father’s name ends with a non-palatal consonant: Gleb → Glebovna
  • -evna when father’s name ends with a palatal consonant: Aleksey → Alekseyevna
  • -ichna when father’s name ends with a vowel: Nikita → Nikitichna.

Patronymic Usage

As I said above, patronymics normally are used in official communication. Kids are never called by the combination first name + patronymic, but their teachers have to be addressed by their first names with patronymics always, doesn’t matter how old they are. You demonstrate respect, social distance and subordination by adding a patronymic to person’s name in Russia.

My scientific advisor at the university used to call all his students by name and patronymic. He was quite old and a very respected person, with many long titles, while we were just 18 year old students. But he addressed us as if we were equal. We were pleased and shocked at the same time. Now my good friend works at the university as a tutor and lecturer, and I jokingly call her Eugenia Alekseevna. I myself hate to be called by patronymic because it make me feel old and too official.

Sometimes good friends or colleagues may call each other by patronymics only. Often, a diminutive (shortened) form is used for this cases. Say, there is someone called Ivan Mikhailovich. “Do you know where Mikhalych is?” means “Do you know where Ivan Mikhailovich is?” Stylistically, this is not neutral. First, only very close people may call each other this way in unofficial circumstances. Second, this may be considered as “low style”, very simple speech of poorly educated person.

At schools, students often use diminutive forms of patronymics just to make life a bit easier. Imagine, you should call your teacher by this long combination every time. That’s why Maria Ivanovna (a classic name for a teacher, often used in anecdotes) turns to Mar’Ivanna, Pavel Aleksandorvich turns to Pavel Sanych and so on. Usually, teachers do not mind this. Same happens in companies where official communications are preferable. When everyone has to call a boss “Aleksandr Aleksandrovich”, very soon people start calling him “San Sanych”, both in person and not.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Moscow 2042 by Vladimir Voinovich

Russian science doesn’t see any distinctions between dystopia and anti-utopia. A utopia is a perfect place where an ideal society lives, while an anti-utopia is just the opposite. Wikipedia surprised me a lot with the term “dystopia”, which seems to be more commonly used for all kinds of not-so-perfect imaginary societies. Wikipedia says, “…dystopia does not pretend to be utopian, whereas an anti-utopia appears to strive intentionally to be utopian—to be intended by its creators to be utopian—but a fatal flaw or another unanticipated factor has destroyed or twisted the intended utopian world or conception, resulting in its antithesis.” I doubt that we can always determine if imaginary world was intended to be utopian or if this world pretends to be the ideal. I found another criterion to distinguish an anti-utopia from a dystopia. Utopias as well as anti-utopias belong to the realm of the ideal and can never come true. Dystopias can come true with ease. A dystopia is a scenario of how things might be at their worst. A brilliant example of a dystopia that comes true is Moscow 2042 by Vladimir Voinovich.

Here is a brief plot summary (sorry, there are some spoilers, but not too many): The Russian author Kartsev, living in Western Germany (just like Voinovich himself), travels through time to the Moscow of 2042. He sees no Soviet Union, but the Moscow Republic (Moscvorepa) instead. Someone called Genialissimus has decided to start building “Communism in one city”, namely in Moscow. The rest of the Soviet Union, where people are barely surviving, has been separated by walls (the three rings of animosity) from the paradise of Moscow, where communism has been realized. Communistic ideology has mixed with Russian Orthodoxy, with a patriarch among the communists’ leaders. Society is divided into the poor majority which has “ordinary needs” and a few chosen who may have “extraordinary needs”. For the first-mentioned group, life is dismal even within the privileged “Moscow Republic”. The situation finally gets so desperate that people throw themselves in the arms of the “liberator”, a fellow dissident writer and (kind of) friend of Kartsev, Sim Karnavalov (apparently inspired by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), who enters Moscow on a white horse and proclaims himself Tsar Serafim the First. Thus, communism is a regression back into feudal autocracy.

A very smart person and talented writer, Voinovich predicted too accurately in which direction post-soviet Russian society tended to drift. His Genialissimus is a former KGB officer and, being in the very top, in fact, he has lost control over the country because of the ubiquitous flattery and lies.(no comments from my side, sapienti sat). Russian Orthodox Church today has political power and is involved into the economic and politic life too much. Russia suffered from the recent recession significantly, but not those few who sell oil and gas to foreign countries. Slavophilia, an intellectual movement that wanted the Russian Empire, is getting stronger and stronger while life is getting harder and harder for miserable majority. A journalist, who almost openly types bitter critical texts about Genialissimus, works at a computer connected to a fake network, his words go to nowhere – this is a great metaphor for the freedom of speech we have today. Voinovich himself said that he is surprised that his satirical dystopia became a book of predictions.

Is this scary? It would be scary, if it were a book by George Orwell. Vladimir Voinovich found a way to conquer fear with laughter. Humor is the best cure ever. Wikipedia said, Moscow 2042 is considered to be a masterpiece of anti-utopian satire, and I agree with this completely.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Utilitarianism and Russian Literature

Harvard University and WGBH Boston have posted online a popular course “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” Moral aspects of murder, price tag for human life, can we sacrifice one life in order to rescue thirty people? These and other moral questions are discussed during this course.

The first two episodes are devoted to utilitarianism. Wikipedia defines utilitarianism as “the idea that moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility: that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all people. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome.” The idea is rooted in the philosophy of Epicurus, and in many ways resulted in thousand of years of European cult of rationality.

In Russia, it is literature that does the job of philosophy. Ethical dilemmas and moral choices are widely discussed in Russia’s novels of the 19th century, less so in philosophical works. Case in point, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, with all the power of his artistic gifts, demonstrated in his novels that a single person and a society cannot build happiness upon the suffering of another.Raskolnikov, the protagonist of “Crime and Punishment” killed a disgusting, wicked old woman. She was an evil. Dostoyevsky intentionally portrayed the old woman as a person with a black soul, so to speak. Presumably, the world would not miss this terrifying old lady; however, this presumption does not excuse the crime of murder. The moral bans for murder and violence against other human beings are more important than overall utility. Moreover, happiness can never be achieved by making another suffer. The most noble and bright idea isn’t worth a single tear of a child. This is what Dostoyevsky illustrated in his novels.

Now let’s turn from literature into the real life. Does primacy of human life declared in Russian novels work in reality? To be continued…

Friday, February 6, 2009

Spacing and Culture

I’m reading The Hidden Dimension by Edward T. Hall. The book is about how spacing correlates with culture. Nowadays we all know about intimate, personal and social distances, but Hall, I believe, was the first who started talking about such things.

In one chapter Hall describes fixed-feature space and how people organize layout of cities, villages and even internal layout of their houses. He says:

“The layouts of villages, towns, cities and the intervening countryside is not haphazard but follows a plan which changes with time and culture. Even the inside of the Western house is organized spatially. Not only are there special rooms for special functions – food preparation, eating, entertaining and socializing, rest, recuperation? And procreation – but for sanitation as well… Actually the present internal layout of the house, which Americans and Europeans take for granted, is quite recent. … rooms had no fixed functions in European houses until the eighteenth century. Members of the family had no privacy as we know it today. There were no spaces sacred or specialized.”

I was born in the Soviet Union and spent my childhood in a soviet commi-block. My parents had two room apartment at the seventh floor of 9-storied house. We had no bedrooms – rooms that are dedicated for sleeping only. The room where my parents lived was also a living room, where TV and a piano stayed and where parties took place. I shared another room with my elder sister. It was a very typical apartment, most of my friends had ones with the similar internal layouts. When my sister got married, she and her husband moved to the smaller room and I moved to the parent’s room. Again, it was not something extraordinary, many families shared flats. One room per family was taken for granted. And, you know, we lived a happy life. None of us suffered from the lack of privacy. I was a teenager when we moved to a bigger apartment and I got my own room.

I really don’t think that our living conditions were awful. They were just different. Today, my husband and me live in a three room flat, that is just Ok. Less would be very uncomfortable, as we both work at home and need a space at least to put all our equipment. Why my parents and me felt good living in a tiny, overcrowded apartment?

I think, the main reason is that we didn’t have a concept of privacy those days. The culture was different, and the spacing was different too.

In my school, back in 1990-th, a teacher of German language was a native German from Bavaria. When we started learning “house and home” lexicon, he brought photos of Bavarian houses – nice private mostly two-story houses sinking in flowers. For us, they looked unreal, like fairytale, as all we lived in ugly old soviet condos. The teacher asked us if we wanted to have homes like those in the photos, expecting positive answers from us. To his surprise, my classmates said “No, no way.” They explained, “Living in a house isolated, separated from everyone would be too boring and even frustrating”. I think, this illustrates the concept of spacing and privacy very well. I should admit, it changed very fast when the soviet time passed by.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip

“I’m gonna read Odnoetazhnaya America (One-storied America) by Ilf and Petrov,” my husband said a few days ago. “I think, you’ll be disappointed,” was my response. “What could the two satirical novelists write about America in 1935? How badly black people were treated there? What a poor and miserable life working people lived in the capitalistic world?” I thought. I should admit, I was wrong. The book happened to be an unbiased, very interesting depiction of America’s thirties.

The history of the trip

Ilya Ilf and Evgeniy Petrov traveled through the depression-era United States, from New York to California and back, by automobile. They were taking photos and writing their travelogue during the two-months journey. “How could this trip become possible?” one more or less familiar with the living in the Soviet Union might ask. In 1935, well into the era of communism, political terror and repressions, the two Russian satirical writers came to the U.S as special correspondents for the Soviet newspaper Pravda. As I learned from the editor’s note, in 1935 the United States and the Soviet Union felt mutual interest to each other. The Soviet Union needed American technologies, while America was suffering from the Depression and seeking for any way out. The short period of time when the two countries didn’t treat each other like the worst enemies was the best for Ilf and Petrov to take the trip and discover America.

The history of the book

When Ilf and Petrov returned home, they published their work in Ogonyok, the Soviet equivalent of Time magazine. A bit later the book Odnoetazhnaia Amerika (Single-Storied America) was published and immediately translated into English under the title Little Golden America. For unknown reasons, the first edition of the book did not include the photographs. Ilf died shortly after the trip to America; Petrov died in a plane crash in 1942 while he was covering the Second World War as a journalist. Then the Cold War came, and Soviet press started drawing America in the darkest colors only. Ilf and Petrov’ mild humor and playfulness were not appropriate in the USSR any more. The photos would be lost forever, but in 2003 Erika Wolf, a historian of Soviet art, gave a call to the Cabinet Magazine and asked if they wanted to publish a chapter from the forgotten photo-essay (Ogonyok version). This is how the book Ilf and Petrov’s American road-trip began.

Why this is still interesting

Though Ilf and Petrov took their trip to America long ago, their book and photos are still very interesting. You’ll find a very detailed depiction of America’s everyday living in thirties there. While traveling, the writers met many famous people and visited remarkable places like Mark Twain museum, Ford factory, Mexican and Indians settlements, Hollywood and the roof of the Empire State Building. America is quite recognizable in their book despite seven decades passed by!

What I liked most is how Ilf and Petrov described their first impressions of America and Americans – what a brilliant example of cross-cultural communications! When I visited the USA for the first time, I felt exactly the same what Ilf and Petrov felt (however, they wrote about their feelings much better than I could).

Read more about Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip: