Thursday, March 31, 2011

April Fool's Day

In the Soviet Union, all schools were alike. There was the so-called “educational standard”, an identical curriculum for every student. All schools shared the same textbooks, which evolved slowly, and circumvented any scientific achievements. All students wore uniforms, and the only choice was for color, between blue, brown or black. I know that many people feel nostalgic for those days and despise today's diversity, what they consider as lack of taste in students' clothing, but I recall well that I hated school uniforms and rebelled when I was twelve. There was a sort of insurmountable barrier between students and teachers in Soviet schools,giving impression of teachers as superior beings, and students as subhuman.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, educational system started changing. It was in the early 1990s when many experimental gymnasiums started appearing in post-Soviet Russia. I entered the first experimental gymnasium in my hometown, because the new school differed greatly from other schools. There was set curriculum, instead students were offered to choose what they wanted to study — mathematics, humanities or natural science. It didn't mean that linguists did not need to learn mathematics. This just meant that mathematicians had more math classes than humanitarians, and linguists had more literature and language classes. However, both math and linguist majors had fewer classes in chemistry than those who planned to enter medical school after graduation. The gymnasium abolished uniforms. We were free to wear whatever we desired. Many teachers in our gymnasium developed their own unique courses, so we didn't have to rely on outdated Soviet textbooks. The revolutionary idea of the gymnasium was that students were equal to teachers. We were taught to respect equality among all human beings, and the best part was April Fools' Day.

There was a great tradition of celebrating April Fool's Day in our gymnasium. April First was very special, a day when everyone went bananas. The teachers covered all the walls with paper, so that everyone could draw or write something there. In the evening, the were awards given for the best drawings and jokes. There were balloons and funny decorations everywhere. Both students and teachers, including our principal, arrived in carnival gown. Once, my favourite teacher put on astronaut suit and flippers. My best costume was a ghost-like cloak and heavy make-up (my friend and I found a box of a stage makeup, so my face was death-white, and I had violet lips with blood all around my mouth).

Like any other day, we had classes on April First, but they were all zany. Our teachers made parodies, joked and made us the butt of their jokes. April Fool's Day normally ended with the KVN, a Russian abbreviation for Club of the Funny and Inventive, when a team of teachers competed with a team of students by giving funny answers to questions and showing prepared sketches. It was a fair competition, and teachers were not afraid to lose to students.

Like any carnival, April Fools' Day in our gymnasium was an expression of spiritual and intellectual freedom. By breaking down conventions, we learned to enjoy independence and responsibility. It was perhaps the most important lesson we've studied in our school.

Monday, March 28, 2011

How to deal with long Russian words

Often enough, my students get frightened by long Russian words. A student, who normally reads fluently, stops in terror upon seeing a four-syllable word, and approaches it like a horse face-to-face with a tall hurdle. I found that explaining what the long word consists of helps to disassemble or lower the hurdle.

Horse 5
Photo by Stefano Losardo

Compare two words: “reincarnation” in English and “перевоплощение” in Russian (reincarnation is перевоплощение in Russian). In English, it has an suffix — (a)tion that is common for many abstract nouns derived from a verb. The prefix re- is not a problem either, as it shows that a certain action has occurred repeatedly or at least one more time. Next to re- is a prefix -in, which indicates the direction of an action, namely, moving inside. The rest is the root -carn-, which means flesh (see carnal, carnivore etc). The six syllable word in fact, is nothing but a root with a few affixes.

You may perform the same operation with the Russian word “перевоплощение”. If you are a student, your first thought might be “oh no, it has the whole seven syllables”. But take a closer look at it. Put aside the ending -e, which is nothing more but the indication of the neuter gender of the noun. The suffix -ени- is common for many abstract nouns formed from the verb, similar to -(a)tion in English. A prefix пере- is similar to re- in English, and it shows that the action was performed one more time. Another prefix -во- is the exact translation of -in- in re-in-carnation. The only difficult thing is recognizing the root, which is -площ- and which is, in fact, -плот(ь), flesh. For some words in Russian, consonant sound -т- changes into -щ- because in the olden days, our ancestors had trouble pronouncing soft т (like T in Tuesday), so they changed to щ (like Ch- in Chicago).

Now that we've anatomized the word, it looks like “пере-во-площ-ени-е”. Most long words in Russian may be decomposed into affixes and a root, and the actual number of affixes is quite limited, so they recur in different words. The technique “Decompose a complex thing into many simple particles” works well for memorizing words, too. Next time, when you feel anxiety over an extremely long word in Russian, take your imaginary scissors and cut off endings and affixes until you get a bare root. You will notice your fear will have disappeared during the engaging process.

Please note that I have tried this technique with advanced students only. I'm not sure if it works for beginners, since it requires some vocabulary.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Siberian Wooden Houses

Local history is what makes the place unique. Europe is known for keeping its spirit of history.
The past surrounds you everywhere in Europe, you can see history, and feel it in your skin. Ancient cobblestone roads that recall Hannibal, castles built by knights, countless domes that store books written by monks' very own hands — all this helps us realize that the "past" was once the "present" and it was real for many people who lived before us.

Unlike Europe, Siberia can not boast of a rich historical heritage. People have inhabited in Siberia since prehistoric times, but not much remained from its early history. Archaeologists found primitive burial places of tribes that occupied the Altai mountains about a million years ago. Scythian burial mounds — this is almost all that can remind you about the ancient civilizations here. For a long time, Siberia was terra incognita for Russia. The history of Russian colonization of Siberia starts in XVI century, when Yermak began his voyage into the depth of Siberia. Russian cities in Siberia have a relatively short history of about 350-300 years. One of the tenuous clues that still connect modern Siberia with its past is Siberian wooden houses.

When I was a child, I enjoyed walking through old Barnaul. There were many old wooden houses that survived the great fire in 1917 and kept preserved the unique spirit of the old town. Those houses were richly decorated with fine lace-like patterns, and I thought that in the old times, dukes and tsars lived there. I believed that only members of elite society could enjoy that beauty. I think I owe my aesthetic taste to the old Siberian craftsmen.

Time went by. The old town, located right in the modern-day downtown, became a target for greedy developers. When my husband and I came back to Siberia after living in Europe for a few years, we couldn't recognize our hometown. The old wooden houses had been demolished almost everywhere. High rise apartments and offices stood in their place. Each of the wooden house was unique. All high rise buildings are alike. The city lost its face. The thread that bound us to the history of the place was cut. Our ancestors created beauty with nearly bare hands. Nowadays, we have technologies and produce ugly cubicles. Who can evaluate what we've lost? Children that walk on the streets today only see unified buildings. They will think that this is a normal view of a typical city. Their imagination will never be inspired by the beauty of craftsmanship.

Fortunately, not all cities share the destiny of my hometown. A few days ago I found a website with marvelous HDR photo gallery of the Siberian wooden houses.

I wish the houses could stay for centuries, so that our descendants could enjoy them, but let's be realistic. Wood is not the material that can resist time. Most likely, in a few years, these houses will be lost forever too, and this makes the photos even more valuable.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Women's Rights In Russia

On March 8th Russia celebrates International Women's Day. Started as a political and feminist event, the holiday turned into an occasion for men to express their love and admiration to women. Flowers, chocolate, nice gifts are the usual attributes of the holiday.

Why there's so little about feminism in the holiday and in the modern Russia on the whole? Indeed, Russian women very rarely go to the streets with any gender-related manifestations. Russian women do not demand to be treated equally. I think, they just don't need to.

Starting with the great social reforms of Peter the Great back in the XVIII century, women, particularly of the high society, were normally treated with respect and never considered to be intellectually unequal. The time when Russia was reigned by tzarinas, is considered by some historians as the most successful and productive years throughout the Russian history. Since the Revolution in 1917, all Russian women got full access to education, job and political life.

To my mom, being a woman meant being a wife, a mother and a professional all in one. She worked full time all her life, and it was normal in the Soviet Union. She was so well-organized that she combined her professional life with her duty as a mother easily. Almost every Soviet woman was so. To be just a housewife would be somewhat bourgeois and amoral in the Soviet times. It was never questioned that my elder sister and I would get high-school education. We took it for granted.

When I was a child, we played in what we would like to be when grown up. What is noticeable, none of my friends planned to be a housewife. We all preferred professional carriers. Back in 1980s, we wanted to be doctors and teachers. I grew up in a society, where gender was never an obstacle.

I couldn't understand feminism as a social and political movement until the last year, when I had a shocking experience of discovering cultural differences. I was in a subway of a large North American city. While waiting for a train, I was reading social advertising in order to entertain myself. The printed advertisement said, “Being a girl means when your brother goes to school and you don't, when your brother get the best food and you eat what he's left for you...” The list of what being a girl means was quite long. I was invited to join a society for equal women rights. I have never been treated like these poor girls. I thought the approach of this kind was usual only for countries where religious fanatics are in power. Well, if feminists fight against this, I could understand them.

In terms of rights or access to social benefits, Russian women are equal to men, or even privileged. I noticed, that in the modern office life, women can get promotion easier due to their social skills. However, Russian women do not demand to be treated like men. Russian women like to be feminine. We like to attract the attention of the opposite sex, we consider to look good mandatory, we like flowers and sweets and enjoy being fragile and tender. March the 8th is the day when our men help us to feel beloved and admired. Since during the rest 364 days a year we enjoy our equality.

Photo by Kirill Kondratyev

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Russian Vision of a Healthy Lifestyle

While the Western world is counting calories in everything including toothpaste, Russian women say half-jokingly: what could I eat to lose weight? The Russian vision of a healthy lifestyle and the idea of healthy living in, say, North America have very little in common. People from the United States wonder how Russians can be so careless with their health, and Russians are shocked by how marketing-based and advertising-addicted the American lifestyle is.

Healthy food

For the average American, healthy food is what is sold under the label “low fat”, “diet”, “salt-free” and so on. If you want to eat healthy food, just buy diet cola instead of normal cola. In Russia, food is still all about cooking fresh products at home. Many Russians (well, at least, those who are not incarcerated in the office cubicles) prefer hot dishes for lunch. Lunch always means a hot, freshly cooked meal, like soup, and/or a piece of meat with vegetables. Many Russian women still feel uneasy about microwaved food, since freshly cooked food is considered much more healthy.

Photo by Artem Goncharyuk

In the USA, fruits and vegetables are available in the supermarkets all year round. In Russia you too can buy fruit and vegetables in supermarkets in any season, however, people prefer to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables in farm markets or to plant them themselves in their dachas. For Russians, healthy food is home-grown. The less intermediaries are between potato and me the better: the best potato is what I planted myself, bought from other farmers is still ok, bought in the supermarket is much worse and the frozen potato chips are almost unacceptable. Potato chips with the label “fat free” doesn't make them any better either.


Like many Americans, Russians love different kinds of diet. However, I don't know anybody who would really keep the diet for longer than a week. The Russian social life is such that any holiday is arranged with lavish meals (and Russia has a lot of holidays throughout the year). Traditionally, Russians drink a lot. I don't mean vodka, I mean just any alcohol. And alcohol doesn't fit with the idea of healthy lifestyle. When I was devoted to fitness and visited the gym 5 times a week, I often came back to my office after my workouts or went to my friends and joined in their parties. As you may guess, what I drank was not water or juice. And what I ate was not a spinach.


In the North America, I saw ladies and nearly apoplectic gents jogging along highways during hot summer afternoons. Many people visit gyms or play team games like football. Though gyms and sport games are fine, I don't think that jogging along highways and inhaling car exhaust fumes is a healthy habit. In Russia, jogging is not popular. There are gyms in almost every Russian city, and these gyms are quite popular among people with a high income, since membership cards are relatively expensive. Winters in Russia are harsh, but winter outdoor activities like skiing and skating are very popular too.

Though Russians are on average less into sports than Americans, Russians move more in routine activities for the very simple reason that there are significantly less cars in Russia. In Russia, it is absolutely normal to take 20-25 minute walk from the bus station to your home. Everyday walks work as well as one hour workout at the gym on Sunday. Besides, many Russians have dachas (summer houses) and spend all their spare time planting vegetables and fruit.In my experience, working at a dacha is comparable with a good advanced workout. Actually, workouts are easier, since they only last only an hour or so, whereas working at a dacha can take any length of time at all. You work until the task is done and there are always new tasks waiting for you. I saw quite aged ladies on Russian suburban trains carrying heavy 20 litre buckets in both hands and a backpack full of potatoes or tomatoes. I very much doubt that you could convince them to buy a gym membership.