Sing your heart out

Since October, I’ve been singing in a choir here in Samara. I’ve sung in choirs before at school and university, but they were very different from this.

Firstly, they were far less serious – all very amateur. Although this is technically an amateur choir too, the standard is very high, and I sometimes find it hard to keep up. We rehearse three times a week for 2 and a half hours each time, which on top of everything else I do can be quite exhausting!

I’m glad I do it, though. It’s been a great opportunity to meet some more Russians, practise my pronunciation (nothing helps you learn a foreign language like singing songs in it), stretch my musical muscles, but also to learn a lot about Russian attitudes from music in general, to the second world war, to religion, to recent ongoings in the Crimea, something I really hadn’t expected. As this year we have mostly been singing Russian songs, each with its own cultural associations and attachments, I’ve learnt about them as we go along.

We’ve done a variety of concerts – we sang a festive mass in Samara’s main concert hall in October; performed the national anthem for Russia’s “Constitution Day” in December; most recently, we sang songs from the Second World War, in anticipation of Victory Day on the 9th of May.

Thinking about our repertoire, I was reminded of a question a Russian friend recently asked me – what do I think the differences between a Russian sense of humour and a British one are – because the first thing that came to mind was our ability to take any desperate situation and make a sort of self-depracating or fatalistic joke out of it.

I think British wartime songs are a prime example of this – “Hush, Here Comes a Whizzbang”, “Bombed Last Night, Bombed the Night Before”, etc. The other members of my choir were nothing less than shocked when I told them that humour and sarcasm were a key element in British wartime songs. For them, war – particularly (but not exclusively) World War II (called “Великая Отечественная Война”, or “The Great War for the Fatherland” in Russian) – is a sacred topic, where humour has no place, understandably, as a) the USSR suffered more fatalities from the war than any other country and b) under Stalin’s rule, sarcastic, unpatriotic songs had no place in a wartime repertoire. I was struck by the way in which people even in my generation feel personally affected by this; in the choir and the audience there was a distinctly patriotic ambience during both our Constitution Day and our Victory Day concerts. People were very solemn, some stood up, some even cried, especially during a song set in the Crimea…

Anyway, I’ll let you judge for yourselves – here’s a video (well, two videos, actually) of our Victory Day concert.

War Songs, part 1

War Songs, part 2

(I’m afraid the sound quality isn’t great, not sure if that’s the fault of the choir or the video equipment…! And in case you’re wondering, I’m the one on the second row who keeps messing up the lyrics)


“God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t”

Russia is a bureaucratic country (newsflash).

In order to be “legal” in Russia I have to have a few documents:

1. Passport

2. Visa

3. Migration card (a little form you fill out when you arrive on Russian territory)

4. Registration (all foreigners have to be registered in the city where they’re staying. If foreigners go to a new city and stay longer then 7 days, they have to register there. Only one registration is valid at a time, so every time I travel, I also have to re-register when I come back to Samara)

These four simple bits of paperwork have caused me, the other volunteers, and the staff of ICYE who have to deal with all this, no end of trouble.

The latest mini-drama happened just as I was preparing to visit an old friend in Kirov. I had been to Rostov for volunteers’ mid-term training, and had allowed just enough time between the two trips to re-register in Samara. However, about 36 hours before my flight to Kirov, I received the following text from my boss:

“They can’t register you”.

Upon further probing, I learnt that the cyrillic transliteration of my surname on my migration card – filled out by officials at Domodedovo airport, and not by me – differed ever so slightly from the one on my visa, and that therefore, the immigration centre panicked, even though I’ve already registered several times with this card. Because, obviously, it’s beyond officials whose entire job involves dealing with foreign documents to realise that there is more than one way to transliterate a foreign name, or to see that the Latin versions on both documents matched up.

So the lady in our office who deals with all our visa issues went to the immigration office (where my passport was being held hostage) on my behalf the next morning. From there, as far as I understand, she was sent to a different branch in another part of the city. There, they told her that in order to issue me a new card, I would have to come into the office and say that I’d lost the original one. Obviously, she refused, as that would mean me falsely claiming it was my fault. Sources dispute what would happen in this case, but it varies from me being issued a new card for free, to me being fined an indeterminate amount, or even not being allowed to leave the country (which seems somewhat illogical, but since when has logic had a place in Russian bureaucracy?)

Eventually, they gave up and registered me anyway without bothering to issue a new card. (Why, why couldn’t they have done this in the first place?!)

This is just one of the many examples of the weird and wonderful world of Russian bureaucracy – and it’s nothing compared with the story of the two volunteers who accidentally damaged their visas and were almost deported!

But I got my passport back in the end, survived my scary internal flight to Kirov on a tiny propellor plane, and all turned out well and dandy! Photos will follow if I ever locate the cable for my camera…

*here are those photos I promised!

View from my tiny prop plane to Kirov

Reunited after two and a half years!

Reunited after two and a half years!


View of Urzhum

View of Urzhum, about 200km from Kirov

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In front of Urzhum cathedral, about 200km from Kirov

In front of Urzhum cathedral

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London is the capital of Great Britain and the United Kingdom

My apologies for the radio silence these past couple of months!

I went back home for Christmas and New Year (the journey there was a story in itself, but perhaps a story for another time…) and so there wasn’t much by way of pithy observations about Russia to be had.

My time at home did get me thinking, though. I spend so much time trying to understand the Russians; but the Russians are also having a hard time trying to understand me.

Here are some of the commonest and best things that people I’ve met think about the UK. Some of them are to be expected, but some really took me by surprise:

1. Tea-time is 5 o’clock. (5 o’clock? Not where I come from!) Apparently Russians learn this at school – I’ve had it said to me on many an occasion. Some believe it more seriously than others. There is some truth in the notion of tea-time, especially as a relic of the past, but plenty of people really do believe that we still regularly uphold all the ceremony surrounding tea – perhaps because the Russians do. The tea-drinking culture here is much more prominent than in the UK, but both Russians and Brits are in disbelief when I say so.

2. It rains a lot. Fair point, I suppose.

3. Everything is cheaper. I was sent home to London – one of the world’s most expensive cities – with a long shopping list that included cheese, sausages, “genuine English Bailey’s” (for anyone who’s uncertain, Bailey’s is as English as marmite is Swedish), a leather iphone cover – to be got for no more than £10 – books, and mascara. To be fair, one or two of those items really are cheaper in the UK, but plenty of people seem to think that you can get anything you want for any price you want, in any shop.

4. British people are polite…

5. …but when we smile, it’s meaningless. A lot of Brits complain that Russians don’t smile enough, that they’re cold and unfriendly. Well, the flipside of that is that for them, we smile unnecessarily, and it makes us seem a bit daft and insincere. When a Russian smiles (excluding some of the younger “internationalised” generations), you know (s)he really means it.

6. The UK is full of dogs. I really have no explanation for this one…

7. We all love the queen. Like, really love her. People have a hard time believing me when I say that we don’t all think of the queen as our national hero and that she’s just sort of…there.

8. The UK is full of foreigners. This is true to some extent, but it also comes down to a difference in our perception of what makes a “foreigner”. For me, if someone moves to the UK from, say, India, that person remains Indian and not British; his or her children, however, will be British. Not so for the Russians. Here, national identity is more often perceived in terms of your background than in terms of where you grew up. I guess this must be largely due to the mass movement of people between the different states of the Soviet Union. I have a friend from Kazakhstan, for instance. His parents are Belarusian. Although he has a Kazakh passport, and not a Belarusian one, and has never lived in Belarusia, he considers himself nationally Belarusian and not nationally Kazakh. (I say “nationally” to distinguish between being “nationally” Kazakh and “ethnically” Kazakh, which he is not.) Likewise, when I tell people I am “еврейка” (that’s the Russian word for “Jewish” by ethnicity, as opposed to “Иудейка” which would refer only to the religion) they often see that as mutually exclusive to being English.

9. We really need to be told that “London is the capital of Great Britain and the United Kingdom”. I mean, really. If I had a pound for every time a Russian reeled that sentence off at me as if I didn’t know…


Человек Дождя

My conversations in Russia have often, for one reason or another, turned to the question of disability, partly because many of the other EVS volunteers are working in organisations that deal with physical or learning disabilities, and partly because my own brother is autistic with learning disabilities, and when people find this out, they are usually very curious as to what it means.

I always knew that disability would be perceived very differently in Russia from how it is in the UK, but I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which I feel personally affected by this difference. The fact that the everyday Russian word for disabled – инвалид – literally translates as “invalid” somehow encapsulates the Russian attitude towards disability.

I have spent a fair bit of time visiting Desnitsa, an organisation who provide support, activities and legal advice for people with physical disabilities. On my first visit there, we started the day’s activities with a video about discrimination. The video was made and filmed in the UK, and dubbed into Russian, so it provided a great jumping-off point for comparing the two. (If you’re interested, you can watch it here)

The film explores (albeit rather heavy-handedly) the subtle instances of discrimination that occur in everyday life: lack of facilities in the workplace; lack of understanding as to what different disabilities entail; a general patronising attitude; and so on.

As  Brit, I was part of the films intended target audience and so it had its desired effect on me – I identified with the situations and accepted that our so-called progressive society still has a lot to answer for.

The Russians who saw the film, however, saw it in a completely different light. Where I saw discrimination against the disabled in the workplace, they saw light in the fact that disabled people were even present in the workplace. They explained to me that in Russia, it is almost unthinkable that a disabled person would find a job – there are simply too many barriers. Lifts and escalators are scarce; doorways are narrow; public transport is not equipped with ramps; and, most importantly, there is a lack of understanding as to what disability – physical or learning – really means and of the huge variety in different forms it can take.

They challenged me to look for physically disabled people in public places, and I accepted the challenge. At the time of writing, I have been in Russia for  just over two months, and outside of Desnitsa I have only seen a single wheelchair, for example. Whether this is a problem that spans all of Russia or is only the case in Samara, I don’t know. In Moscow or St Petersburg, for instance, the situation might be entirely different – I don’t hold any particular authority on the matter, and am only speaking from my personal experience.

If physical disability is little understood here, then learning disability and autism are even less so. When I tell people that my brother is “аутист и необучаемый” (autistic with learning disabilities) their usual reaction is “то есть, он болеет?” (“so, he’s ill?”). (I think that the very fact that, as I type this, my Russian spellchecker is highlighting the words “аутист” and “необучаемый” as incorrect is rather telling…)

Two conversations struck me in particular. The first of these was with D, the head of the organisation I’m currently working in. She is a highly intelligent, well-travelled and open-minded person, and in particular, quite well-informed about autism. She told me that she has been to forums on autism, for instance. However, when I spoke to her, it was clear that there was a fundamental difference between the way autism is understood in the UK and the way it’s understood in Russia. Everything I’ve ever read or heard in the UK treats autism as an inherent part of a person – like having blue eyes or brown hair – it is present from birth, and cannot be developed later in life, although it can become more visible as a person grows older. Crucially, it is not an illness.

From what D told me, however, it seems autism is treated in Russia as an illness that can be brought on as late as teenagehood by emotional trauma, much in the same way that schizophrenia can sometimes be triggered by trauma. This article would seem to confirm that. The comparison of autism – a lifelong condition – with schizophrenia – a mental illness – seems to me as logical as comparing lukaemia with a pencil. The two are fundamentally different, and therefore incomparable. But I had trouble explaining this with my broken Russian.*

The second conversation was with the mother of the host family I’m living with, K. In order to help explain to her what autism is, I referred to the film Rain Man (or Человек Дождя, as it’s known in Russian). Of course, the depiction of autism in Rain Man is highly fictionalised and what’s more, the film depicts an autistic person with “Savant’s syndrome,” which is very rare; but nonetheless, it provides a good base for understanding. K had seen the film before, but, she said, it had never even occurred to her that such people might really exist. For her, it was simply a pretty fairy-tale.

With all the above, it might be tempting to think that Russia is a country living in the dark ages, where discrimination and ignorance are rife. This is not the case. For all the lack of understanding that I have encountered since my arrival here, I have also met some incredibly intelligent, well-informed, and open minded people.

On my “on-arrival training” session for new volunteers in Russia, I met some fantastic people volunteering in various organisations for children with autism, learning disabilities and physical disabilites in Nizhny Novgorod and St Petersburg. These volunteers described their organisations to me, and they seem like a beacon of hope: although facilities for the disabled in Russia are lacking in many places, there really are some excellent places run by excellent people. I hope they continue to grow.

*I have since had it explained to me that autism and schizophrenia are not necessarily as far from each other as I had at first thought. Both are classed by the WHO as “mental and behavioural disorders”; furthermore, I am told that there is a case to be made for viewing schizophrenia as a delayed onset neurodevelopmental disorder. Nonetheless, autism is not a mental illness and cannot be brought on by environmental factors.

The Sausage Saga

I had a strange, somewhat uncomfortable experience the other week. I happened to meet a certain woman. Like most people here, she was interested to know that I was English (“I’ve never seen one before,” she said, before taking hold of my shoulders and examining me from every angle, including looking in my ears).

We happened to be sitting at a dinner table at the time, and when I declined her kind offer of some bread and salami on the grounds that I can’t eat pork, she asked “what, English people don’t eat pork?” I explained that it’s not because I’m English, but because I’m Jewish, and that’s when the madness started.

“You’re Jewish? How interesting. You don’t look like a Jew.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Well…you’re pretty. Jews aren’t usually pretty.”
When pushed for justification, all she gave me was,
“Well…okay, maybe they’re not so ugly. But they’re not usually very attractive.They usually all look the same. Trust me, I know – I’ve worked with lots of Jewish people. They’re not so nice. You’re so much nicer, and so much prettier.”
The conversation went on in this vein for a while. Then (of course) she asked me if I had a boyfriend. When I answered that, no, I don’t she said:
“Well, great, you can find yourself a Russian boyfriend! But wait…are Jews allowed to date non-Jews?”
I explained that it really depends on the individual – some do and some don’t – but personally, I have no problem dating non-Jews. As a matter of fact, I’ve never gone out with a Jewish guy.
“Oh, good,” she said, “you don’t want to date a Jewish guy. Really. Much better not to. Find yourself a Russian.”

The strange thing about this conversation was that she seemed to think she was being really nice to me. I don’t think she was malicious – just ignorant, and I found that sad. She couldn’t see why her comments might be considered hurtful, or even accept that they weren’t the objective truth. She insisted on telling me about my own people, as if she knew best – she has, after all, worked with lots of Jewish people. I almost felt like a child being scolded at school.

I feel like I ought to add that this is the first such experience I’ve had in Samara (or indeed elsewhere). There is a sizeable Jewish community here, and although not all that many people know much about Judaism, in general, most are interested to learn and understand.

However, I often hear similar comments from well-educated people about other groups: muslims, homosexuals, black people and – most often of all – people from the North Caucasus. As with the lady from my anecdote, I think that deep down it doesn’t stem from malice, but rather, from a lack of understanding (cliche though it might sound) and a deeply troubled history.

I don’t yet know enough about the nature of this hostility to make a reasoned judgement. Nonetheless, I do find these kinds of comments very hard to stomach, and I frequently find myself in a position where I have to choose between keeping quiet on an issue that bothers me and risking alienating people I respect.

I don’t expect to be able to provide any answers yet; but I do have a lot of questions. To what extent are these attitudes prevalent? Or founded? Or mutual (people from the North Caucasus can be just as hostile to Russians as the other way round, it seems)? Maybe the nine months that I have left in Russia will shed some light on the issue. But then again, maybe not.

Autumn in Samara

Samara is a large, industrial city. It’s full of old, Soviet tower blocks, big factories and crumbling streets. Despite this, it somehow manages to be beautiful. If you look hard enough, you can find some extraordinary spots. Besides, Samara has some of the most breathtaking sunsets I’ve ever seen. I’m no photographer, but here’s my attempt at capturing some moments of beauty in and around Samara.

View from my bedroom window at sunrise

View from my bedroom window at sunrise

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I liked the contrast of the industrial cranes and the sunset

I liked the contrast of the industrial cranes and the sunset


A mishmash of buildings in the centre of town, including the Zigulevskoe brewery

A mishmash of buildings in the centre of town, including the Zigulevskoe brewery


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Samara's full of run-down buildings like this, and I think they have a lot of character

Samara’s full of run-down buildings like this, and I think they have a lot of character


In Shiryaevo, a little village across the river from Samara


Taken from the ferry to Shiryaevo