Sunday, January 08, 2006

Coming Home

I came back from Siberia as a visitor to my own home. Three months earlier, just as the plane was about to take off from Moscow to Ulan Ude, in the province of Buryatia, I spoke to my mother by cell phone. She said something I had anticipated hearing for years, almost every time she called: granddaddy passed away. Just like that. I never imagined that a day I always imagined was happening just as I was going the farthest away I could ever imagine. Sitting there on the icy tarmac that night, staring numbly at the wing in shining in the plane’s flood lights, I realized things were changing, and just how little I could appreciate how much they were changing. I knew that after he died, my mother’s home (where he lived), my whole childhood of Christmases in the living room surrounded around him, of living amidst a 60’s ensemble of zebra patterned and wicker furniture (I imagined he and his wife brought these back from their brief life in Cuba, where my mother was born), I knew all of these would be different. Despite the distance between me and my grandfather, with him gone, these trappings of home, whatever that is, wouldn’t ring right anymore. And I wouldn’t just be coming back to his empty chair in the library, where he would sit for hours meditating in front of every variation of evening TV show (news, entertainment, game, law, order), I would be coming back from a completely new direction. When I returned home, it would be the future. And home being New York, where the only constant is change, where mine and so many others would quietly undergo seasons of emotions, the future would be especially distant from the present.

There was no turning back, and there was no going home. There was using clichés. I was a stranger in my own home. Rather, my home was a stranger to me. Rather, homes. Some background: My father’s home is a veritable wonder cabinet slash museum slash garbage heap of objects meant in some way to remind us of our past, to lazily shove back the onslaught of some destructive future or loss (is this the best response to late late capitalism we Americans could come up with, this hording of confusing, otherwise value-less goods, piles of pathetic but somehow important things that only my father and I would save from the quiet waste of the landfill?), a simple immigrant-born saving instinct, a pathological demonstration against wastefulness. The things had gathered on the shores of my room like they had never before. Like the slew of cranky adopting parents I made my peace with on the plane over, like CNN international with its minute long explications of the AIDS crisis in India, it was another rude awakening. Look at your life, Alex. I could hear a more sinister David Byrne whispering in my ear as I stood in the middle of the wreckage (“how did I get here”), evidence of a four year stint in university and the intentional failure of some attempt to gather them into a time capsule, a devotional monument, a pyre. My trip, my desire to leave so quickly after the summer was as much a removal as it was an escape from the lovely, confusing mess of college--one I dreamed of as a perpetual collapse of my dorm room floorboards along with all the stuff that gathered over four years--the trash, the trash, the thoughts, the things, the thing.

more to come ??

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

There is hell, and there is an absurdist play written by the devil

Having not slept at all the night before my big, anxious return to the United States of America, I wake up to find us still on the runway in Moscow some hours after our plane was supposed to take off. The disorientation normally felt by such an awakening, coming after a completely blank, indefinite period of unconsciousness and right next to a large Russian woman whose chubby hands are suddenly, inexplicably handing over a pillow, urging a pillow, is doubled by the loud voice over the loudspeaker. It’s intoned by a man who can only be the captain, in one of those slow, delicate, meticulous cadences that can only mean there is a problem. “It appears…” some words about the work of technicians and the time and the safety precautions, and two minutes later, “…there is a problem with the fuel pump in one of the main fuel tanks.” It occurs to me that this is one of those things one would much rather hear while sitting on the ground rather than floating or falling in the air.

But then the periphery becomes less foggy: toddlers are everywhere, new adoptees crying for their about to be lost country, maybe for the parents they don’t even know they have, for their yogurt, for anything that might save them from this mess of being on an airplane for the first time. Helpless, that is how a child feels. Maybe this is the source of so much crying for them as much as it is for us: being stuck in a situation about which one is unable to do anything. That might mean simple communicating in Russian, or figuring out what’s wrong, or how to survive a horrible crash with unluckiness. We are told we are returning to the gate. And just as I’m about to semi-voluntarily pass out again, I notice Steve Martin’s comforting face on the television screen, which I must crane my neck to see. The movie “Plane, Trains and Automobiles” might be a sort of last measure stewardesses whip out in desperate moments like sudden flight-stopping weather, runway traffic, fiery engines, or being stuck in an immobile airplane with 30 small children. Here’s Steve Martin having a hell of a time getting to the airport, almost getting stranded, sitting next to John Candy on his flight, an obnoxious shower curtain ring salesman who earlier stole his cab, before actually getting stranded at his connecting airport. They end up sleeping in the same bed at some dingy motel. Something about it seemed like a premonition of what was to come. I turned my eyes ever so slightly and cringed at the large Russian babushka sitting next to me, fearing the worst. But no, of course we wouldn’t end up stranded, in some dingy motel.

In Russia however things are both never as they seem and always as they seem; never predictable and yet, curiously enough, always predictable in that unpredictable way. Four hours and a exhaust-filled, stuffy busride later, one of the more desperate sounding fathers whined to one of the brusque receptionists at some anonymous Soviet hotel, “I am not sharing a room with a complete stranger!” Sorry sir there is nothing to be done about it, or some such response in weak English fluttered back to him. Peering around the lobby like a madman, he caught my eye, moaned in my direction, and before I knew it we were checking into the same room. Of course, no more than two minutes had passed before the same receptionist explained that we would be in different rooms altogether. If it isn’t already taken—I think it is—“Expect the unexpected” would be a good, neutral slogan for Russia’s tourist bureau, sort of like India's "Incredible" India tagline. Or maybe, "Russia may never leave you--and you may never leave Russia."

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ecology/Environment/Wilderness in Russia

The relationship Russians have with nature is beautiful and intimate. “Environment” is not a word here, not a word in the dictionary, not word under a non-democratic system. Ecologia and piroda, however, say it all. The first is the study of nature, the second is nature itself; we don’t work at a natural history museum, we work at a musei pirodi, where all aspects of the outside world come together in rock displays, stuffed animals, diagrams and models, bones and live animals. Our host family, which runs LAT, never evince any interest in the political issues—they merely love the world outside (well, Igor despises Greenpeace, arguing it does more harm than good in Russia, which is true). The version of nature here doesn’t inspire the sort of sleeve-worn, nalgene environmentalism that thrives stateside; it’s an automatic lifestyle (none of this may be good). They don’t treasure it they live in it. They take it for granted.

The natural uncertainty principle says we can’t hear a tree fall in the forest if we haven’t knocked other trees down to get there. What nature means here (defined by groups like the Laboratory for Active Tourism, FIRN, the Museum of Nature) hinges on the wildness of the forest, on a very Siberian appreciation for nature that cannot imagine urban life without an appropriate balance of wildlife, without the retreat to more primeval scenes, an edginess of a whole different sort. An edginess to take the edge off beer damp, dirt-caked, blood-stained city life. Along with a general, deep rooted antipathy to “business strategy,” this philosophy is not conducive to the eco-tourism that keeps so much of Eastern Europe afloat and that has come to define the American national park system. The tension between preservation and appreciation, between appreciation and tourism, between the old and the new, keeps the park pretty but poor. It’s anyone’s guess how many visitors our eagerly-anticipated brochure will bring to the park; but it’s also unclear how they’ll manage to pay for a new brochure. And if they can, still unclear is how the park could afford to clean up all the trash that all those new visitors would bring.

In-between (mehzdu)

Drifting through the shards of a language, drifting through surroundings you have before only begun to imagine, so far from home that nostalgia is either impossible or so deeply set in as to be un-diagnosable, the feeling of non-existence, of ghostliness sets in. As visible as you are, people try hard to see you here, to see into you. What they manage to see however may have little to do with you. It becomes hard to make an impression of yourself on others unless you can find yourself; and doing that of course depends on others. Even moving around, amidst a din of musical, unintelligible words, and the customs that define us, in a city (helplessly impersonal, furious), can physically feel like an out of body experience. Just as when trying to translate ideas, vodka seems to help, if at least only to obliterate the sense of mediate-ness and throw you into the present. Lost and found in translation.


For the health-minded, traveling anywhere is generally not advisable. Siberian Air operates daily flights from Moscow to Irkutsk, Novosibiersk, Ulan Ude, and a snowy mountainside somewhere in the Urals. On the way, passengers may encounter unfeeling stewardesses, bad feeling drunkards, and, squeezed somewhere in front of one’s seat, non-feeling legs. While a trip home on the microbus is a cheaper, chancier, and kitchier alternative to a roller coaster made of rotting wood, getting in and out demands all sorts of intense determinateness and awkward body-twisting (befitting only of a culture obsessed with gymnastics), hairy, head-injurious jumps in and out of a moving vehicles, and a range of stares that would make even Clint Eastwood keep his eyes glued to the window, with its gorgeous display of spewing factories and smoke-brown apartment complexes. A taxi might be the best and safest way to go, assuming you don’t speak Russian in which case the driver may be less likely to spend half the trip facing the backseat in conversation.

Chut’ chut’

Perhaps my favorite Russian expression, especially when enunciated by Igor, with a slight gaping of the mouth and ever so much “shhh.” It of course means “a little bit,” as in, “vi hatyiti moloko, Igor?” “Da, chut’ chut’.”


Aside from the occasional mud wrestling (fortunately I was only wearing a pair of old chinos), the only sign of bears were their footprints, impressed in the mountain snow next to our own as a kind of ominous greeting upon finally reaching the top (nb: only one part of that sentence was factual.) Now then, two interesting habits of the Siberian Bear (both factual): 1. above almost every man-made marking on trees along the trail, a bear had left his own pawprint in order to lay to rest the issue of whose land it indeed was, and; 2, bears like to play this game called Stupid Squirrel, so named because it involves digging a ditch where squirrels might be inclined to deposit their latest batches of nuts and thus walk into a trap whereupon they are eaten along with their nuts.

The 80s

I think we’re alone now, take on me, 99 luftballoons. I’m living with children of the 80s, Melissa and John. She turned to me during Blondie and said, “can’t you just imagine us girls, singing along to this in a California junior high in the 80s, with our hairspray up to here?” Uh huh, I think so. Neon and legwarmers. Headbands.

The 70s

This room John and I live in, it’s so 70s. Great big old map next to my bed, medals and pins about, two old guitars (one seems truly ancient), endless photos of soccer players and race car drivers with mullets, faded pastels and primary colors, unvarnished wooden fold out desks and a gauzy mustard curtain that gives everything a warm, aging tone. Vladimir Putin looking bored on a certificate for Russian orienteering champion.

Russian-American relations

Even five years ago (so I’ve heard), being American in most far flung Russian towns bestowed celebrity status overnight. By morning, every local wanted to get a piece of the liberal democratic capitalist action, and you couldn’t go anywhere without getting some variation of the old royal treatment. It was partly a relic of the Soviet days when every westerner on some semi-official business had some handler to make sure the floors were swept, the doors were opened, and the rooms were extra hot. Back then the only Russia a westerner could visit was often limited to Moscow and Leningrad as many other places were “closed.” Such was Ulan Ude. Melissa suggested that perhaps we were among a the first set of westerners ever to have lived in our particular suburb. This may explain why recently, after apparently years of inaction, dozens of women dressed in scrubs showed up to renovate the dimly-lit, urine-soaked, asbestos stairwells.

But probably not. More likely is that the man-whose-name-we-don’t-know-who-always-comes-over-late-at-night-wearing-a-track-suit is a spy, keeping close tabs on us. While we’re a subject of intense fascination, we’re not exactly celebrities anymore. It’s clear that everyone recognizes us as foreigners, no matter how much leather we wear, or how well we mutter demands in Russian, or how hard are our stares. The security guards, as common as police are uncommon, shadow us throughout the stores, listening to their walkie-talkies. Either they think we’re going to take something or they want to take something from us. I think they just want us to feel suspicious. It doesn’t help that Melissa’s dark skin allies her with the Gypsies, John’s Asian (more acceptable here of course, but never completely alright), and I look like a dumb western European.

The Russians here have a lot to gain from us, but it’s unclear where our understanding of the world fits into theirs. When we ask them about Russia, their political system, they don’t say much; they’ve got a lot to say about America, but it tends to be just as informative. I know they’re holding back. Sometimes they like to practice their English on us, which I’m happy to accommodate (many Russians have some knowledge of English, only few of those I’ve met dare try to speak it); mostly though we remain on opposite sides of an invisible fence, not out of anything specific other than our foreignness. What are you doing in Ulan Ude? How can you possibly get any work done in two months? (Many cell phone photos). On the bus or in the store or the bar, the whispering is unmistakable: “Americanitz, taam.” I can’t tell what’s behind that simple there. Some weeks ago, Melissa overheard them saying something like, “Typically, when you stay in someone’s home…,” but as with the email she happened to see from our Moscow liaison Marina to our host mama, she didn’t catch the most crucial words. That missive read something like, “Melissa emailed me today to ask about the money… These kids must be crazy. I don’t understand—they all requested home stays [not true, John pipes in] and all they’re doing is complaining. I’m sorry they’re causing you so much trouble. It’s really….” What comes next may provide the clue to our cultures’ real relationship. We don’t know what it said.

Capitalism (Democracy), Fast, then Slow Onset Of

After the dust cleared, just as we were becoming aware of the world if not the incredible historical landslides taking place around us, the capital rolled in. The capital that kept us happy and rationally exuberant and rich and occupied with informercials and OJ and the tech boom, the capital (not indomitable) that people all over the world craved (not everyone). The capital and perhaps maybe the political bodies that come with it, like the lady who welcomed some of our ancestors in to begin with, the ones who knew that a new entrance and a new name and all the perpetual newness meant at least the freedom to get the stuff to make the stuff, or the lady who sits across from the Capitol, blinded and carrying a light and balanced load. Or perhaps the capital would flow in accompanied by just the skeletons of those bodies, like the ghastly horseback visitors of fairy tale hamlets that slip in at night, quietly leaving everything and nothing the same. Not just the bodies of oligarchs’ enemies, but the nameless bodies of wars waged partly in the name of a freedom that could not possibly exist yet, and partly in the name of the capital that could make, at the very least, the long travails, the long continuing wait, worthwhile. Worth something. The first months after the Soviet Union had passed on seemed the most exuberant and exciting politically, the most lawless, but the most exciting in Russia since the earlier revolutions. The succeeding months, it turns out, saw the exuberance and lawlessness continue across the bustling cities and unending swath of natural resources, but only for certain individuals. Everyone tried to get in the fold, including even some treasury department hacks and a couple of Harvard economists. Things changed and then they kept changing, so that the whole country fell into an unsteady but subtle rhythm of evolution between not two wildly different economic philosophies but a host of different corruptions, frauds, half-truths, prides and desperations. The display of wealth remains gaudy and intense because eager, while displays of non-wealth lie everywhere, and a growing middle class ekes out some ambivalent, new-fangled survival between the rosy culture of dedushka’s withered utopia and the newly-dyed Chinese or Malaysian or maybe Italian threads of the young marketplace, perhaps as glossy as before but delivered from the dictates of national songs to the candied, hypnotic din of ringtones. Where this colorful, painful, disorienting tension leads remains to be seen, beyond the parodic “Moscow Millionaire Fair” and the pathetic suffering of so many, perhaps in a future that might actually (as opposed to hypothetically, and emptied of mere ideology) have to do with a revolution—or a re-evolution—of the people for the people and by the people. But that is not a slogan on the dollar bill.

Toilet Paper

Typically very rough, and might explain the general mood of your average man in the street. We bought some softer stuff at the nearby supermarket—a very western affair—and left it in the bathroom as a sort of token of our appreciation. It’s going to save our asses. And I think it’s already helped ingratiate us a bit more with our wonderful hosts, who I like to imagine secretly look forward to going to the bathroom whenever westerners come rolling in with their three-ply. Then again, I wonder if they think our bathroom imperialism impolite.


Some people have inquired about this. Yes of course, Russians are a very light-hearted people (within the confines of their home) and have a rich and complex sense of humor. Much of it is based on a set of “inside” folk jokes, stories, proverbs, word plays and sayings. With enough command of the language and all of its infinite prepositional constructions you can capture a Russian’s ear, but if you don’t know the humor, you’ll never capture a Russian’s heart (Eugene). And if you don’t know the Russian heart well—and the language—you won’t understand the humor.

Kitchen Table

The epicenter of Russian home life. This is where you will find the chai, the chai paraphernalia, the chai biscuits, the chocolate, and family and friends in the evening, drinking chai and breaking off bits of chocolate and biscuits as they chat, slap each other on the back, tell jokes, and drink chai.


Coldness doesn’t exist in Russia, except outside (and in certain bad-tempered people). And even na ulitsa (literally “on the street”), it’s been mostly sweater weather since we’ve been in Ulan Ude, knock on wood. The dark, salty wood of a banya (a sauna-like sweat bath), the wise sturdy logs of a cabin in the middle of the Siberian forest outfitted with a heavy-duty stove that keeps me up all night, the worn pine of the kitchen table where a cup of hot tea is the only beverage served with steaming borscht and piroshky and kartoshky. Ice can be found in the northern tundra and maybe there’s some cold vodka in the freezer, though even that will make you feel really warm. Russians have a bizarre pathology about the cold, which explains (I’m beginning to see) why there are so many coat and hat stores: even on the warmest days by Boston standards, Russians are bundled up in their North Faces, sleeping-bag jackets, fur shapkas, etc. To make things even more confusing, it’s only on these days that the lines wind around the town’s ubiquitous ice cream stands. Hard to understand.


Russia can be a dangerous place for foreigners; use special caution when going out at night, handling money and expensive things, using ATMs, crossing the street, sitting in a car, drinking, speaking English loudly in public, going into the banya, eating meat, not hanging up your jacket upon entering a house, placing an empty bottle on the table, whistling indoors, wearing your shirt inside out, feeding the dogs, uttering Russian curses, uttering Russian curses to men with knives, applying Russian toilet paper, “meat,” and plugging in electric devices. If you think you’re being followed, a simple “Nyet,” “Ya amereekanitz,” “Shootka!” or “west siiiiide” will fall flat. If you must go out doors, best to hide your passport and run to your destination, probably screaming, so as not to attract attention.

Monday, November 07, 2005


Not exactly what you imagined, Siberia is a land of incredible places and people, and contradictions and all that jazz. “Blues” clubs (Abba, the Beatles and Jim Morrison being the closest things to that genre). Siberian bears (we’ve only met one, an imaginary medved named Sergei). Siberia has wolves, the sort that might rise up and howl in the eye of a full, gorgeous moon, of which the nights as many as they have brilliant suns lavishing the mountains and valleys and factories with intense white light. Siberia has large department stores where you can find crystal vases and Moschino eyewear and ebony-appointed samurai swords and gleaming washing machines. Siberia has desolate tundra and sometimes intense heat (see “Hot”) and often intense cold, underlaid at places by 600m of Permafrost. Siberia has Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, the world’s eighth sea containing 1/5 of the world’s fresh water, and at that size, the cleanest water you can find: that’s no commissar’s exaggeration. Also true: Siberia has thousands of factories spewing many carbon dioxide and mercury and mystery molecules into an otherwise pristine (is there an otherwise?) atmosphere and as many of other chemicals into the soil and watertables. Siberia has wizened, homeless goats who will eat cigarettes butts off the mud if you won’t share your piroshky, or your Snickers or your Pringles. Siberia has the hardest and most toothless (literally, not, not at all figuratively) and most beautiful and placid and nicest persons in Russia. The geography seems to mirror them in a certain, vague way (or vice versa)—immense wilderness punctuated by lakes and unreal mountain ranges and smokestacks and flats colored brightly and in dirt. Like places all over the former empire and like no where else in the world. Long confrontational lines at the bank. Gold in the mountains. Carts and motorcycle sidecars on the rough roads. Calm and cross-cultural, withered and obstinately progressive, in a completely apolitical way. The sales at the new supermarket. Pirated Kill Bill and Microsoft Word. Numbing chill and numbing homemade vodka and a rainbow of indigenous birds, emptiness and horror and industry and rustic pleasure and survival, braving, with ancient patience, the continual reinvention.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Ulan Ude (formerly Verkhneudinsk)

As the last Russian stop on the Moscow-Beijing train route before Mongolia—once it was a major hub on the tea route to China—this modest capital of the Buryatan region has long nurtured a mixture of Russian and Asiatic cultures far from the cosmopolitan fury of Moscow. Though it remains covered in the unmistakable, generic Soviet rust that persists in the apartment complexes and sober streets of most Russian cities, Ulan Ude still surprises with its time warped style, the occasional scenic decay of its still glorious wooden classical Russian and Mongolian architecture and the easygoing spirit of its people, half Buryat. Not far from a fantastically dilapidated opera house (decorated with hammers, sickles, and similar Buryatan cresents), a handful of dusty but formidable museums, an energetic market and main street of shops and street performers, and the Brehznev monstrosity of the Hotel Buryatia, sits the excessively large main square and the similarly enormous head that once made it all possible, and impossible. Lenin’s bust might be the world’s largest bust—a fact that means increasingly little and indeed may have never meant much. Especially to a city this far from Moscow, and so close, almost so close to the future.

What We Are Doing

We are volunteers chosen for our a) experience with the program theme (in my case, historical and cultural preservation—my experience being, largely, that I’ve studied history and literature) and b) experience with Russian (I have some experience with Russian people). Obviously, considering my extensive expertise, it makes perfect sense that I be exiled to lovely Siberia by the sinisterly-named organization IREX (international research and exchanges board). This is the situation now. Of course the culture and language is not so inaccessible as it might at first seem, Buryatia is a warm place, as much in mood as in temperature, and cultural and historical preservation skills are not really what’s needed here. What’s needed are hands and tongues: booklets, websites, museum placards. What else: Providing valuable ideas and insight—essentially our impression of the way things work here, and what about it could be done differently. How can we get more people from around the world to volunteer and visit Lake Baikal? ( What would happen if we were working on conservation near California’s Lake Tahoe, Baikal’s sister lake? (

We give our opinions on how to get more visitors, more volunteers, more money, more members—we just came from a weekend conference for the Great Baikal Trail (—essentially the immediate goals of each of our organizations. The Laboratory for Active Tourism (, the outdoor education and volunteer group run by our host family, wants (or papa Igor wants) us to create a tourist booklet for the Zabaikalsky National Park ( heavy with our impressions. This seemed to be going too far—could our impressions of Baikal really draw tourists here?—and how would we even begin to translate its beauty to paper? Reading about the lake in the Russians’ literal translation, with its incredible hyperbolism and bizarre, almost unintelligible constructions and delightfully absurd rhetorical questions (“Who on Earth doesn’t know the amazing incredibleness of the pearl of Siberia”), is almost a more appropriate way to discover it—that is, with no pretense of expertise, no attempt at demystification. We are not the most qualified for this work, but we’re doing it anyway and I think we’ll do a fine job. But there’s so much more to do, especially in the area of the environment: more than we can fully grasp right now, more than the Russians seem ready for, but so much work that it demands some attention.

The Selenga and Uda rivers, which pass leisurely through the city, look sky blue from the bridges; up close, they are lined with a year’s worth of trash—forties, cans, cigarette boxes. The dogs scavenge here. It’s hard to walk in any public space in town without stepping on a bottle or kicking a bottle cap. A small group of college kids is trying to keep the river clean, and wants to encourage the city to dig into its modest pile of funds to provide better trash collection. More ambitiously, they’re trying to put a stop to littering. Yesterday we trolled the shores of the Uda taking photos of trash for a publicity campaign; it was pretty bad. It’s hard to know how best to make change, and though we’ve been encouraging the Russians to try tactics that work in democracies (don’t ask river-dwellers to pay for new garbage cans, sign a petition that can be delivered to the local governors), this is not a real democracy. Not yet. But perhaps these suggestions alone, no matter how silly they may seem in the context of “politics” here, or “activism,” (or, on the other hand, “tourism” or business), are the sparks of change. There’s so much to be done—legal and political reform, the stemming of corruption (Russians supposedly paid in bribes roughly half of what the government spent last year), more transparency and access, and more engagement between the politicians and the people, not necessarily in that order. Besides not knowing where to begin our work as “historical and cultural preservation” volunteers, the hard part is not knowing whether anything you do is going to matter. That was the question that the young head of the local, budding Green Party asked us the other day: “Tell us honestly, will any of our work make any difference?” They have a long way to go, like those few hoping for change here, but we told them that their hope and their work alone would matter of course. We hope so too.

Friday, October 21, 2005


Stalin, like the Cossacks and other Russians before him, didn’t much favor these people, with their Mongolian dialect (still alive, floating in between Russian in the conversations of babushki) and their Buddhist and shamanist leanings, but he compromised and allowed them to have their temples and yurts and their own republic too. Today Buryats make up about half of Ulan Ude’s population, but the traditional trappings grow ghostly in the face of Russian and growing western influences. In a quiet way, there seems to be a very slight racial divide in Ulan Ude, favoring whites--though there is no apparent racism here, for which Russia is typically known. It's a wonder that any tension could arise: they are as deeply, demurely beautiful a people as you can find.