Minimalism, Industrialism, & Reflection-ism

After Phil’s departure there was a considerable photographic void in my Petrozavodskian life, and of course I managed to significantly decrease the amount I document; however, in my own defense, it was additionally the culmination of my own stay in Petrozavodsk.

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The first day of spring greeted us with this wonderful snow…

Wednesday night, I uncovered the “Youth Center”, another location in Petrozavodsk, not far from The Youth Union, where young people meet for different events. The Center operates as something of an open platform. Thus, they have their own individualized programs, yet they also open the space up to other organizations or events as requested. To exemplify, they normally operate from Monday to Saturday from 9-6; however, upon request, they opened the Center on Sunday night to one club creating a miniature of the setting of a video game.

First I met with Zhenya, the director of the Youth Center, a young guy interested in extreme sports, one of their most popular clubs. He showed me around the building, an old but vibrant place, filled with bright colorful murals and a youthful atmosphere. Zhenya explained that the center has been around for about nine years, and sponsors different programs from city cleanup to extreme adventures. I additionally met various other leaders and directors associated with the center, who quickly invited me back in June for a conference.

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Part of the Center’s decor: a hand-painted map of Petrozavodsk

In addition to it’s programming, the Youth Center also brings in speakers and invites the general public; that night I was attending such an event. The guest speaker was, Igor, a young man who has traveled a significant part of the world on bike. He brought with him some pictures of his journey and was there to talk about it, then field any questions from the audience.

Egor’s latest trip had been throughout Russia, from his hometown Tomsk, through Siberia, the steppe, and then to the north. Petrozavodsk was one of his stops through this journey. “I wanted to see my own country,” he explained.   “By bicycle, you can see how people actually live, rather than staying in a hotel.” Within Russia, he declared one of his favorite places to be Kalmykia, and he focused on their desire to preserve their heritage language and culture. Throughout his travels, he would either stay in a tent or be put up by locals. Often he went to schools, orphanages, or other community areas, and he many pictures with natives.

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Igor, presenting a map of his travels

Egor, at only 26 years of age, had been to a significant number of shady places: Nagorno-Karabakh, Dagestan, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Syria, as well as all of Central Asia. It was in Afghanistan that he sat in jail for a chunk of hours: problems with his paperwork.

A well-filmed and fun video by himself about his travels: https://vk.com/video6865863_166790834

(Opening the World by Bicycle: 9 Countries, 156 Days, 12546 Km, through: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey, and Georgia)

Of course there were questions about his safety – no he wasn’t really ever in danger, nor did he fear harm. Of course he had his moments when he almost got hit by a car, or two. Yes, of course his mother always worried and wasn’t too happy when he took off on his journeys. “I would never let my child do that!” claims a woman in the audience. Good thing its not your kid then, eh?

His travels have also infested in him vegetarianism, as most of the time on the road he ate and drank only fruits and vegetables. “I would come home and tell my mom ‘I don’t eat meat’. Then I would take off again, and later I would return home and tell my mom, ‘I don’t eat fish.’ Then the next time I came home I didn’t eat bread… She’s wondering what’s next; but she’s used to my craziness.”

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The Center’s adorable pooch got tired out from all of Egor’s traveling.

Egor defines minimalism, and Russians are pretty good minimalists. While most Russians don’t have a lot and live far into their means, he owns maybe a few shirts and that might be all. When traveling he brings almost nothing, except a laptop, in order to keep in touch with home and post about his adventures online – whenever there’s internet. He fell into an interest in Buddhism when visiting Elista, Russia. His mentality, simplicity, outlook on life, and desire for adventure were astounding and quite motivating. Another example of a human doing what they love, without desiring a pay raise (or even a job, for him) or the next materialistic item. Very admirable.

At the end of the talk, he was presented with a medallion from a gentleman in a suit coat. The community of Petrozavodsk congratulated him on his travels and endeavors, and wished him the best of luck on the rest of the journey. Egor smiles, “It’s my first medallion,” he admits.

Thursday, I was invited to the ‘Museum of the Industrial History of Petrozavodsk’. There I met the wondrous, Ilona who recently started working at the museum after a long stint of government employment.  Ilona is in her 50s, with a son of 25. She was wearing bright striped socks of orange, red, and purple, which once discovered perfectly suited her vibrant personality.

The museum was named “industrial”, as it covered different types of production factories in Petrozavodsk. Essentially the same factory was ‘reinvented’ twice. It produced everything from cannons and anchors to construction equipment used for the demolition of trees. The museum is quite interactive, with moving displays that portray how the factory operated and a entire exhibit of mini-games to teach children the basics of the factories technical aspects, such as magnetism, cranks, and levers.

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The mini-interactive exhibit; Ilona leans against the wall on the right

After our tour, we stood in the cloakroom, as it was the warmest part of the museum, and chatted with our museum guide and the coat man. He wanted to take my picture for the museum and also had me sign the guest book. I then went with Ilona for some lunch.

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Soviet propaganda present in the old factory

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Some Soviet essentials: a berry picker, bread storage, a spade, and the head of an axe

We had a great conversation about life, Russia, and the city’s history. I learned that in the 1920s and 30s, approximately 6,000 American-Finns relocated to Petrozavodsk seeking an escape from the Great Depression. They found work in Petrozavodsk’s factories bringing with them some essential inventions and ideas that helped the plants prosper. Unfortunately, during the Great Purge half of them were killed, under the pretense that they were spies. Those that remained started families in the area; they created schools that taught English and Finnish and became quite well known in the local community. By the end of lunch, I realized Ilona was the type of friend I would like to have for a long time, and that I would immensely enjoy meeting weekly to discuss some new relevant topic over coffee.

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I was the boss for a hot minute.

Sadly, I had to part ways with Ilona. Later she sent me the most complimentary message:

“And thank you! I am so happy that people like you exist. I believe that there are many more people like that. Together, we can accomplish much!”

I then headed to the Youth Union for the last time. I reveled in my walk there, crossing the bridge, while playing hopscotch with the gigantic puddle covering the sidewalk. It passes over a small stream gushing with spring’s waters, fighting the newly fallen snow. I saw the shopping mall Tetris in the distance; a colorful amalgamation of squares juxtaposed amongst Soviet-style residential quarters. I turned right, and crossed the street twice, passing at 76-Family Grocery store on my left, one that I saw often but had never entered. I approach the old orphanage, again amazed at it’s withering beauty, a paradox against the youthfulness that it emits thanks to Denis, Sergei, Sasha, and so many other amorous leaders who work daily to reconstruct the building into a motivational gathering point for youth.

Dasha, a young woman who organizes volunteers, invited me into their headquarters, and presented me with my (requested) gift: A Volunteer Handbook. I had seen these in Tolyatti, and really wanted one as a souvenir, and also as future reference material. The book includes all the volunteer’s information and countless pages for them to record their volunteer activities. The event is then confirmed, signed, and stamped by whichever organizer can vouch for the volunteer’s attendance. In addition to my book, I also got it stamped and signed. Finally, I have been initiated into the Russian volunteer community.

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I then presented Dasha with a few English games that I had been hauling around since March 4th and was extremely happy to have off my hands. She was ecstatic for the opportunities to practice her English, and as many college students also meet at the Volunteer Headquarters, I figured it would be a fun and appropriate place to bequeath the games to.

That evening I joined a group of volunteers for a theatrical performance at Petrozavodsk’s Philharmonic Theatre. The Theatre has two stages: a large stage for concerts, and a smaller stage for smaller productions. We sat in the latter, waiting for the play to start. Suddenly, the directors voice came over the intercom and suddenly, like that the play started. The audience was confused for a bit, wondering what was going on, until we realized that the whole production set and crew were part of the play. We were seeing a production inside a production, and it was excellent, as least from my perspective.

It told two short stories on love and life, Russian style. The first was about a middle-aged woman unhappily married and living with her husband, with whom she practically had no relations, and her mother, who continuously watched TV and yelled from the next room. She was expecting a guest: a man. He arrived visibly drunk; yet they cracked open a bottle of vodka over a traditional Russian table of appetizers and fish. It turned out, the man was a friend, and was greatly upset because he had written a song that was stolen by a colleague. Through conversation and mannerisms, you could tell the two were interested in other another, and the discussion quickly turned to how good of a woman she was and how she shouldn’t put up with her husband, who we discovered was in the next room, drinking tea. The setting then transforms into the next day, when we realize they had slept together. She is distraught; they both dress and leave the apartment. He invites her to walk around Petersburg; she denies and bids him farewell.

The second skit covers a different type of relationship, as a provocative-looking woman is sitting in a bar, and an old, timid man approaches her. She names him Mr. X, and through cognac, they become acquainted; turns out that Mr. X is a famous pastry chef who was scheduled to participate in a national competition the next day. She invites him back to her house, and Mr. X discovers that the woman is actually a singer and writer, who had performed often on the stage. He reads her poems and declares them to be shit. They continue drinking cognac and she becomes suicidal. He coaxes her to sleep, and Mr. X goes to make her a pastry. He places a cake next to her bed and leaves. She wakes up the next day, confused, and eats the cake while attempting to figure out what happened the night before. The couch she is sitting on is moved to the edge of the stage so that she is directly in front of the audience. And the act ends.

I greatly enjoy unique, simple performances such as this one, and I thought it was brilliant both in the script, and in execution. There was a great amount of sexual innuendo and the young boy sitting next to me got extremely squeamish in these moments, obviously uncomfortable with the topic. I don’t think he liked the swearing and constant drinking either. Art is art, and I found it to be a very successful piece of art.

Thursday – my last day/afternoon in Petrozavodsk. I packed my bag, procrastinating as much as possible. I then went and had coffee and lunch with Sasha, as we discussed his upcoming camp for school kids as well as his summer plans for travel to Norway and other areas of Russia. We parted ways, and I hauled my luggage to the train station. And now, as I sit on the comfortable train to Saint Petersburg and slowly approach the culmination of my fellowship time in Russia, my main thoughts:

  • Such trips are a fantastic way to discover a broad variety of organizations and meet diverse people. Networking in this way definitely encourages mutual understanding, and I have seen this firsthand many times throughout the past month.
  • I immensely hope to continue building on the connections I made in Russia and I hope that it will not be another three years before I am again able to visit with these people.
  • My heart hurts incredibly for the fact that I couldn’t make it to Astrakhan and Moscow to see some of the wonderful people that I know there – so close, yet so far away.
  • The life lessons Russia provides are insurmountable to any sort of conventional education. Interacting with people who are doing what they love, passionately, regardless of the financial sacrifices they may have to make, is motivation enough to self-reflect on your own ideals and dreams.
  •  Sometimes, you simply connect really well with certain people so quickly, it’s difficult when you have to leave them behind so suddenly. Imagine what life would be like if you could group all of those people into one place and spend all your time with them.
  • I have missed Russia greatly, and will be boarding my plane to the US with a heavy heart and much on my mind…

And here a few last images to ponder as I leave Russia for the homeland:

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astounding SPB art

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Thank you DELTA, I do agree.

Where should I place that light again? Are we teaching?

Phil’s a teacher. I’m at teacher. So we’ve been teaching, a bit.

I gave a short lecture on American life and culture, which I titled: “America: is it just like in the movies?” I’ve often fielded this question, and to be honest its somewhat hard to answer, as the films are filmed in America, in neighborhoods where we live, in places we go to daily (like that 50 cent movie that was filmed at Grand Valley), and with many conceptual ideas that reflect American life.  Naturally, the film industry is exaggerated; yet, in many ways foreigners can learn much about American life through movies.

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I toyed with this theme for a bit, showing them different types of American residences, schools, and youth, pulling from some of my own photos and experiences. We then transitioned into various questions about America and Russia.

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Notwithstanding an unsuccessful attempt to deviate one young man from ranting on the media and politics, we also were able to cover interesting topics, such as “What do you grow in your gardens?” and “Do you can things and store them for winter?” “Do you really put mayonnaise on everything – ‘not real butter’?”

Phil also gave a lecture on creating a film backwards; thus, first putting your client through a “Data Dump” in order really understand what they’re seeking from their film, and then working backwards from the final idea to actually the start of the filming process.  The students watched and listened attentively, though did not at all actively participate in the lesson; however, at the end there were numerous questions for Phil that primarily related to how many people were on his filming team and the amount of equipment that he had.  Phil showed him a video he created for the San Diego Home Brewers Convention and also his own personal reel, and they seemed to enjoy actually seeing Phil’s work. Phil thought it was interesting as most of the youth there were interested in film from an artistic perspective, and when inquired whether they were looking to do this professionally, most of them declined.

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Sunday we attended a small theatre performance titled: “Theatre Sweethearts”.  The program was a compilation of small skits written by adults, but performed by a mix of adults and kids, a lot of whom had disabilities.  Sasha also performed with one group, as they explained various morals through the stories of animals. Another skit featured six young girls who told the story of women soldiers in World War One, and explained different perspectives of going to the front; there was also a lengthy, chaotic skit about love and relationships, set at a village fair; and the final act featured only four performers and told the story of a misbehaved boy with an attitude, a prim and proper school teacher who was a incessant crier, and a principal that just wasn’t sure how to handle the situation.

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“Theatre Sweethearts”

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Morals of Life, as told through animals.

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Women on the Russian Front

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The Impossible Young Man

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A Crazy Village Fair

In our free time, Phil and I spent a lot of time recording video, especially of our own experiences.  Phil has started on a compilation of my fellowship experience, and also filmed his own thoughts and perspectives here in Petrozavodsk, which he hopes to turn into a video blog.  While we concocted lofty plans for video and written collaboration, we realized time was disappearing; sure enough, we were able to get everything filmed, but didn’t quite complete any projects – yet.

Monday, we headed to the Eco-Biological Center and quickly joined a school tour of the facilities. Housed in the center were some gorgeous foxes, a few giant ravens or crows, two ponies, a plethora of rabbits, two PORCUPINES (THEY’RE ADORABLE), a sundry of exotic of birds, a few “North American” roosters, some repulsive bugs, and two male turtles fighting to mate with a female turtle, among many other creatures.  Our guide, Max (perhaps that was his name; we were never formally introduced), took the kids around, explaining the animals and asking questions about their mannerisms or habitats.  The kids had a worksheet they needed to fill out at the end of the excursion, and were attempting to jot down answers as we went along, or probe Max for the right answer.

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astonishing mural on the outside of the Eco-Biological Center

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foxy foxy

IMG_0748 IMG_0754IMG_0761After the tour, we met with the director of the Center, Svetlana.  This woman is astounding.  We sat in her office drinking brewed coffee and discussed the workings of the Center as I attempted to translate for both her and Phil.  She took over approximately two years ago and has since been reconstructing the organization.  Essentially the prior location and/or director were told that they either had to move or shut down, as the Center was in such poor shape.  It moved to the building where it’s currently located, and Svetlana has completely revamped its substance, as well as the programs for school-children.

She is lighthearted, vivacious, and hilarious, telling us one story after another. She has a few Masters students working under her as teachers and tour guides.  Upon coming in for an interview she promptly told them,

“The salary is small, the work-load is large, but we have fun.”

She guffawed, “They’ve been here for two years now!” We inquired as to where they get the animals from: many have been donated by various people, others they’ve bought from vendors in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Their health certificates take precedence, as the Center only takes in healthy animals; many ill animals have been sent their way, only to be denied.  “We’re working with children – we have to make sure the quality is the best it can be.”

Svetlana also opened up to us about her true passion: “The Center is my full-time job, but what I really love to do is theatre.  I graduated from two different theatre institutes, and it’s my real passion.”  She continued, “This is the best thing about practicing extra-curricular education. Let me tell you a secret: we’re connected to the municipality, but in reality, as long as we follow simple guidelines, we can do whatever we want!  So I can’t complain, because we’re able to pursue our own passions as well as help children learn and grow.”

She stated that the same went for Denis.  As long as “Doroga” operates, there’s a ton of leg-room for programs, lessons, and organizations that they’re directly interested in. The passion that they both have for these Centers is written all over their faces, and it has been a refreshing breath of air. Logically, they do what they love, they perform passionately, and the kids gain significantly from their ardor and dedication.

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Svetlana: “We have two bears and they were gifted to us from a previous mayor. Then, he vacillated stating they were a gift of a son’s friend’s cousin’s brother (…) and that maybe he wanted them back. I told him, ‘Listen, if you keep them here we’ll tell everyone that the mayor gifted us two awesome bears. And if you take them back, we’ll still tell everyone that here should be two awesome bears that the mayor gifted, but look – they’re not here!'” She chuckled, “They’re still here.”

The jokes and stories continued, from stories of their travels abroad, to playfully making fun of certain Russian stereotypes. I didn’t want to leave her office. But alas, we were due at Doroga for Phil’s next classes and some interviews with Sasha and Denis.

Phil gave his first class on three-point lighting, using one of the students as a test subject. He ran through a brief PowerPoint, and with the help of Denis the information got across. Two of the students present will be attending the Student Television Network next week, and they were listening ardently.

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Then, we hauled all of Phil’s equipment (he has TWO suitcases, a big backpack, AND another bag for his tripods – I can give him hell, as I helped carry around that luggage often) to the first floor to find the darkest room: the Boy Scout’s activity center, which houses barely no windows and a rock-climbing wall. After struggling for about a half hour with set-up, short circuits, duct-tape, and extension cords, we (Phil) got everything set up.  I sat as his test subject as he moved the light around, asking the students which one look best.

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A Russian Mary Poppins, perfectly suited for Denis.

Denis continuously found new props for me to pose with, including an half-decapitated bear, a portrait of Putin, a welding mask, a Soviet gas mask, and Phil’s white umbrella used for lighting. We jammed to some Dave Matthews Band as I got fidgety and Phil had to constantly remind me to hold still. I don’t think I ever volunteer as a test subject again.  Nevertheless the students enjoyed providing input and being able to visualize the differences in light.  They had worked with the Center’s camera before, but Phil’s equipment was impressive, and they were all ecstatic to check it out.

IMG_0778 IMG_0779Phil and I then got in two long interviews with Sasha and Denis, as we tried to pull from them the essence of their work and their ideas.  It wasn’t too hard, as I said before, they both work so vehemently to ensure their programs are successful and they measure success through the happiness of their students and their own personal gains.

Tuesday, after a nice lunch with Sasha and his girlfriend, I dropped Phil off at the train station, hoping he would make it to Moscow in one piece, with all his luggage, and especially his cell phone, which he already had left behind in Saint Petersburg.

It’s been nice having Phil around for the last couple of days and being able to help him discover a different form of Russian culture than that present in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Furthermore, being able to discuss the events we attended and the people we met, has helped both of us categorize things, and also analyze and reflect on our experiences.  I’m really looking forward to some of Phil final projects and videos, as I am certain they’ll be vibrant, emotional, and captivating.

A few more days in Paradise

Life in Petrozavodsk is beautiful in many ways, and exhausting in so many other.

Days pass by, feeling as though you don’t really do much, but yet they’re so fulfilling you fall into a bed of exhaustion each night.

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Lycée #1

Wednesday, I attended a film competition at a local high school (Lycée No. 1) on the other side of the city.  The competition was hosted by another sub-program of Doroga called “Me and Society”, the sister program of “First Step into Society.” In small groups from different schools, 5-7th graders created short films that analyzed various problems existing in youth societies. The students chose issues such as emotional drama, cheating, misbehavior, apathy towards education, and rudeness amongst friends.

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The entrance for the cafeteria on the left. Mirror used to watch oneself wash one’s hands, or brush one’s hair for long periods of time. Your choice.

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Cafeteria, where we enjoyed a meal of excellent borsht, scrumptious potato, pea, and mayonnaise salad, and sub-par potato pastry, all for less than 3 bucks. winning.

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Hallway at Lycée #1. The school is extremely hip, with amazing murals plastering the walls.

As we watched the videos I attempted to take notes and remember which video belonged to which school and group.  At the end, each group was given a prize for participating in the competition.  I gave out two “special” prizes for films I liked the most.  The first one I named, “American Style”; I gave this to a group of boys who filmed an indie-style clip about love and suicide. The videographer never shows the boys face; it’s filmed in an abandoned run-down building, with dark hues and sharp contrasts. The boy (Mark) gets a message on his iphone and the camera quickly zooms in.  It’s his girlfriend, stating that she wants to break up with him.  Without responding or showing any visible emotion, he walks up two flights of cement stairs layered with graffiti, and flings himself out the window. One word flashes on the screen: “Why?”  I was transfixed throughout the entire two minutes, which seemed like hours, and throughly impressed with their young abilities to juxtaposition such color, music, and light to such a strong issue. The film was very much a prototype of the new youth movement in film and music, also extremely prevalent in Karelia, home to some of the strongest youth artistic movements.

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The auditorium where the videos were shown

The second award I named “Future Hollywood Actors” and I gave this to another group, whose lead actor did an excellent job expressing his emotions and playing the role.  The others in the film also played great supporting roles and suppressed much laughter and emotion, not withstanding the hilarity of the film.

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“Thank you, school” in Russian, English, and German. Outside of Lycée #1

Wednesday night was the arrival of Phil, another SEE Fellow, who will be joining me here in Petrozavodsk for the next few days.

Thursday morning, Phil and I took the long way to the Center, walking around the embankment. Phil lent me his way too expensive camera, which I held nervously, and taught me a few basics in photography, since I am an amateur who utilizes the wonderful features on her iphone.  The embankment was windy and cold, greatly varying the temperate days I just enjoyed earlier this week.

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We arrive at the Center to a plethora of young students waiting outside the door.  Sasha arrives, letting the chaos flow into Doroga’s office.  The lesson is НАНОЧЕМОДАН or NANO-SUITCASE. He immediately begins his lesson, grabbing a large metal-looking (but probably plastic) container, on which was written “Science in a Box”.  Sasha adds mystery by holding the box up, describing it and vaguely alluding to its contents.  The students crowd around eagerly, whispering to one another.

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that kid’s expression says it ALL… “wth is this?!”

“Nano – what does this mean?” Asks Sasha, writing the word on the board.  The students guess; some get it wrong, some right.  Sasha explains the meaning, spelling out a few examples.

He then slowly opens the box as the students exclaim, “WOW!” “WOAH….”  Sasha shows them all the contents of the box, a bunch of small articles used to demonstrate various science experiments with the aim of explaining, or attempting to dabble lightly on the deep subject of nano-technology.  They won’t be covering all of the objects today, just a few to get started.

The first object is a ball of putty. Sasha starts by explaining the object a bit, then passes it to one of the young boys and tells him to pull the putty apart.  The boy abides, creating a long string, “WOW! It doesn’t even break!” The others exclaim. Sasha rolls the putty into a ball and places it on the suitcase.  He then takes some magnets out of the box, showing them visibly to the kids. Taking one magnet, he places it on top of the pile of putty, all the while explaining the magnets and asking the kids what will happen.  Upon the release of his hand, the magnet sinks into the pile of putty. The kids erupt into commotion, gathering closer to see this magic in action; they take out their cameras and phones to photograph the event.  Sasha, meanwhile, is asking them why, and how this phenomena is possible. One student gives a detailed answer; Sasha congratulates him and continues the boy’s explanation on magnets, showing each student in the circle.

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“Okay everyone take one step back.” They all abide.  “Now stay there.  See how everything is visible to everyone now?”

Sasha’s next experiment includes some magnets and a Ferromagnetic liquid. He fills an empty cap with the liquid.

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“Okay, what will happen if I place the magnet into this liquid?” He asks the group.

“It will splash ALL over!”

“It won’t do anything…”

“It will splash up, around the magnet!”

“It will create waves!”

“What if I tell you,” Sasha continues, “That I’m going to place the magnet under the cap?”

“It will make a puddle!”

“It will scatter and create a ring around the magnet!”

“Let’s just see…” says Sasha with a bright smile.  As he places the magnet under the cap, the liquid in it begins to crystalize into a round ball and then form small spikes.

“That’s awesomeee…”

“Cool!”
“It’s like a porcupine!!”

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this kid has perfect expressions, and I’m sure he’s the one who related it to a porcupine.

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The kids shout out exclamations as Sasha shows off the cap around the circle. They were extremely enthralled, with one kid shoving his camera close up to the cap to video everything. Sasha goes through an explanation, asking the kids for their questions, probing for answers, which he promptly received. He then moved onto another experiment regarding solar energy; the kids’ excitement didn’t wane.

After the lesson, I ask the teacher if one of the students will sit for a small interview with Phil about the lesson.  Immediately this boy volunteers and I enthusiastically respond and reach out to take him. “No, you don’t need to,” says the teacher, “He won’t answer appropriately, take this girl instead.”  Laughing, I agree and bring the young girl, Sophia, to our “interview station”.  We ask her a few questions, and she answers shyly, but ran away obviously excited that we ‘chose’ her.

Phil and I then joined in on an activity for the program “First Step into Society.”  The 3rd and 4th graders at different schools, who have been earning “money” for the past few months by participating in events, were now able to use their money in an auction.  The items up for bid included lots of chocolate, board games, pencils and notebooks, as well as a few special prizes from me (Crayola coloring books and other English language games).

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the girls with their bidding numbers

The bidding begins, with a female volunteer acting as auctioneer, a young volunteer, Anton, counting money and handing out prizes, and Sasha with the authoritative mallet. The kids are screaming in excitement, amped up by the host, and collaborating in their groups as to how they’ll spend their money.

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i love love love these girls and their reactions.

A packet of Angry Bird notebooks come up.  “No no, don’t.” says a girl to one of her friends, stopping her from bidding on them.

Groups of friends try to outbid kids from another schools in a fight for a Petrozavodsk puzzle. It goes for $95. The female hair ties go for $9. Another game comes up and the screams intensify. $83.  They’re all so excited.

Anton clutches tightly to the prizes as he counts the kids’ money, making sure they’re paying the correct amount. One young girl slams the money on the table and grabs the prize with a wink.  A priming attitude. These girls are rolling in prizes, pretty much filling up the cover of the piano: an American card game, M&Ms, Chocopuffs, notebooks, candies, these girls are straight gamers and totally seriously about winning what they want.

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Another box of Chocopuffs comes up; the kids quickly vault out of their seats, yet it only goes for $22. Oh no, Milky Ways.. the girls up front stop at $77; their stash must be depleting. Yet it seems that the kids keep pulling money of the their pockets. Perhaps they’re just running out of steam. The tables are still loaded with prizes.

Phil pointed out a young girl, continuously squinting at the stage. He zooms in on his camera, “she needs glasses.. really badly.” Shortly after, one group of students leaves the auction; thus this girl and her group move right up to the front row. An adorable blonde wearing a skirt over her jeans, as she’s trying to count out her money, I realize she’s greatly struggling to separate and keep track of what she has.  I go up and encourage her, then, as a small favor, I go and check out the remaining prizes. “There’s only candy left.” I relate, as though I’m a spy, gathering information from the enemy. The auctioneer holds up Mars Bars, “Go, go!” I tell them.  She’s nervous as the bidding is taking place, turning her back to the stage and clasping her hands together. They win the candy.  Another candy comes up shortly after.  She’s squinting at the stage and shouting, “40! 40!” She stomps her feet in excitement as the auctioneer counts down, “Going once, going twice, SOLD!”  “YESSSSS!” she shouts and throws her hands in the air.

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The girl on the left is the one who could use glasses; the right is my protege rockin’ a head band. Ata girl.

We finish our Thursday with a 6 PM meeting/lecture with some college-aged students who are part of the volunteer club.  We were both exhausted, so speech in general was difficult.  I fought through a presentation on American culture and norms, while Phil took a few pictures and then his eyes started to glaze over as he scanned through the days’ photos. We managed to survive until 8 PM and were so grateful for Kiril, one of the students who attended the round table, for offering us a ride home. At least I was able to get a few more shots of the building architecture and artwork, which I find so amazing.

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Cheburashka, vot tyi

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Don’t spit! Micro bacteria breed very quickly!

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the office for Karelia’s team in Russia’s national comedy league

Friday, Phil and I are up and ready more early than usual (especially for my own schedule), and we head out of the city to meet Sasha for a youth day camp. We hop in a taxi with him and Katya, who is also coming along to assist, and drive out of the city into the middle of nowhere Nature-ville.

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The base: Matkachi

We pull up to this enclosed group of buildings, most of them completely Soviet and abandoned, overlooking this beautiful lake, still frozen over with winter’s remnants. Standing alone at the base of the lake is a newly-built wooden building called Matkachi.  This building was built in cooperation with the Karelian government, along with funds from the EU and in connection with Finland. In fact, since the place has opened in just October, there have already been mixed camps, with an abundance more in the planning.

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Sasha welcomes the group and sits them in a circle.  He immediately introduces Phil and me, and a plethora of English phrases are mumbled amongst friends. Sasha then runs through the three main rules of the today’s camp:

1) Listen and pay attention; don’t talk when someone else is talking (technically two, but you know, they’re connected so it counts as one)

2) Clean up after yourself.  We are in nature, and the nature we are in is beautiful and clean so keep it that way.  Sasha goes on to tell some jokes, about how normal people eat, and not normal people pig out.  If you want to pig out, he says, go into the kitchen, but no matter what, clean up after yourself. The kids are giggling and chuckling, but they get the point. They repeat together: “Those who eat quietly get more in the future.”

3) Safety: be careful, it’s slippery out.  And it is.. really really slippery; a bed of ice. He jokes about a tour of the sewage system and warns them not to go behind the building or they just might get such a tour. All the kids laugh again. Sasha is vibrant, capturing their attention and getting his messages across without negativity.

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After this lecture he transfers into another discussion on safety: “If you see a strange man walking around this place you must ignore him.  Simply say ‘Hi, I’m going to get my teacher.’ Then you walk away quickly and effectively.  Do you understand?” My interest perked immediately, though I was more curious as to whether this man truly existed, or if it was simply a test for the children.  Either way, Sasha is extremely serious. He repeats himself again. Then he turns and asks Phil if he can pretend that he is an unfamiliar man so the kids can practice.

Phil plays the part perfectly, though turning a serious conversation into a giggle-fest (he deserved the giggles, however).

They all fail the task, and Sasha is sure to make them aware of this.  So Sasha then tries again.  The kids shake his hand, then walk away, going to their teacher.  Sasha says, “You failed again. Why would you shake his hand? You’d all be gonners by now.” Turning back on his serious face, he again repeats what they need to do if they encounter a stranger, then provides them with various situations, discussing how they would handle them.

The kids then get a tour of the facilities; it’s their first time there. They wander through the kitchen, as Sasha explains how at the extended camp there will be a long table where groups of students will practice cooking. Pictures of the building process cover the walls of the meeting room.  A series of posters in a youthful style line the corridor of the dormitory rooms.

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dormitory hallway; cool artwork.

Sasha sends the kids down the hall, “Who can tell me first how many people can stay here at once?”  The kids take off, sprinting down the hall, opening doors left and right, counting beds and attempting to add them up.

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The dormitories

The group begins their game. Four kids from the group are chosen as captains to pick teams.  As the kids got picked off and ran to their teams’ corner, the remaining kids, as always, became more and more nervous; left was a girl and a chubbier boy.  One captain call out the boy’s name, “Igor!”  His friend next to him hits his arm, “What are you doing? Are you an idiot or something?” insinuating that Igor should not have been picked and he was better off picking the girl.

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Then the moment was over; everyone had been evenly disbursed and Sasha started to explain the game.  He would take one person from each group and together they would hide a few “prizes” outside and draw a map of the area to explain where they were hidden.  In the meantime, the other members of the group would gather and create their own “codes”. The codes would be given to the ‘hiders’, who would then write a message in the code to tell their teams where the prizes were hidden.  They would give the message to their team, who along with the map had to solve the code and find the prize.   Sasha elaborated, “If you write in just simple language, everyone will know. You must find a code that only your team understands!”

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The game got started, and the kids discussed what kind of code they would create while the captains and Sasha got dressed and headed outside to hide. Some of the kids actively participated, drawing pictographs or some illegible symbols slightly resembling Armenian.  Others pushed and shoved each other, danced, or floated between groups chatting with their friends.

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the captains/hiders

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The captains returned and Sasha caged them up in a dorm room, so they couldn’t cheat and give their teammates hints.  As the codes were exchanged the kids started pushing, yelling, “Let’s go!!”  “Hurry up!!” “We know where it is!!” as the mom’s called out, “Put on your jacket!” “Don’t forget your scarf!!”

They took off running outside, sliding on the icy ground communicating with each other through shouts and gestures.

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“Look here!”  “We already tried that!”  “What’d you guys find?” “Ughhhhh, you’re way behind, we’ve already been there, there was NOTHING!”  “WE FOUND IT!!!” screams one team.  Sasha announces, “You have ONE minute left”, and the kids continue scrambling, looking between trees and jumping through abandoned windows. I stopped by Sasha, congratulating him on the success of the game and the enthusiasm of the kids. He elaborates:

“These quests are a great way to get kids going… they come to an unknown place and suddenly they know it.”

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After the scavenger hunt, Sasha sat the kids back in a big circle and demands silence. Out of his pocket he suddenly pulls an empty candy wrapper. The silence that ensued couldn’t be cut with a knife. “I found this on the ground.  What is it?” He asks.  There’s no response. “Why is it so hard not to put this in your pocket and bring it back here to throw away? Hm?” He continues as the kids start to bow their heads and fiddle with their clothes.  A few look at each other quizzically. “Why do you think you can just throw it on the ground?  Didn’t we just discuss why and how important it is to keep this place clean?” More silence. “Who can put this where it belongs?” he asks. A brave boy stands up and approaches Sasha, taking the wrapper out of his hand. He marches over to the garbage, stomping his feet a bit, and throws the wrapper away.  “I’m sorry I had to do that,” Sasha apologizes to the group, ” And also to those of you who weren’t guilty.  But it needed to be done.”

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The second activity for the day was a competition called “Berendey”, based off a character from a Russian tale.  It’s an exam on nature: different kinds of trees, flowers, plants, animals, important instruments used to measure the diameters of trees, the history of ecology, and a few geographical questions. Some of the students placed themselves at tables, while the few who didn’t participate went with Sasha.  I joined Phil outside to set up his camera for the solar eclipse.

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Phil snaps some amazing pictures of the eclipse, which we can only view through his camera. Our feet freeze. We round up the kids, so they can witness the eclipse and they take turns checking out the moon and sun through Phil’s lens. “Wowwww…” “Cool!!” “That’s amazing!”

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We take lots of selfies (one they start they never stop). They comment on Phil’s camera and complain about how bad their phones are. We take a few more selfies then go in for tea and a warm up.

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After another game and more running around, it’s time to head back to town.  The kids enjoyed the afternoon and visibly didn’t want to leave.

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Sasha waited until the mumbling ended, demanding their attention. “So, we’ll meet again next Thursday for the “First Step Into Society” meeting.  You guys think about what you’d like to do.  And I’ll think about different activities.  You’ll plan half, and I’ll plan the other.  Agreed?”  “Agreed!” They chimed in unison.

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The kids hopped onto a rickety old bus.  Phil, Sasha and I walked down a dirt road into the nearest village to catch a taxi back into the city. A day full of fresh air and astronomical phenomenon is a successful day indeed.

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Karelia in all its Beauty.

I suppose I had forgotten the meaning of ‘exhausted’ until Sunday. I had stayed up late on Friday and Saturday and was up by 4 AM to catch my flight out of Tolyatti, destination Petrozavodsk.

Before leaving, with travel plans in mind, I had looked up the city to check out its airport. I found minuscule traces of its existence, meaning it practically doesn’t exist, so I scratched the idea of any air travel. Yet, I was now flying INTO Petrozavodsk. I was curious as to how this was all going to work out.

Let’s not overlook my ride from Tolyatti to the Samara airport, about an hour drive. I’ve been in some crazy, secluded places in Russia, but I thought that my ride to Samara’s would be my last. Ever.

It was pitch black out, 5 AM, and my trusty driver decided to take an alternative route.  I’m not sure why he was worried about traffic, or anything blocking our journey, for that matter, yet he chose the non-highway route. Jet black skies, a glowing crescent moon, forest on my right, and abandoned factories on my left. “Just don’t stop the car. Omg I hope we don’t break down.” Was all I kept thinking to myself, as we hit another pothole or an underpass that we almost couldn’t pass under. Oh another car! And it’s gone, and there’s more blackness. Then a working factory, which was possibly creepier than the abandoned one, with its smoke bellowing into the dark night sky and the men standing outside the doors puffing cigarettes. More darkness. Winding curves where I thought the road would just dead-end into nowhere.

I think I released the biggest sigh of relief when we finally reunited with the highway. Alas, I didn’t die in what was practically the most perfect set up for a modern, Russian horror film.

I flew into Moscow on an empty flight with water leaking on my lap and the woman changing the lock on the emergency exit just before take off. For my flight to Petrozavodsk, we were shuttled out to this little puddle jumper decorated properly in red and gold – Old Rus’ style. With my carry on shoved under my seat and my legs propped up to my chin, I had a nice mid-age woman next to me popping my personal bubble every second I tried to sleep. Also, Russian flight attendants just don’t get it: a sleeping passenger is a content passenger and they really don’t want to be woken up for terrible plane food and mini Twix bars. But I appreciate that you would like me to be nourished, reasonable as I really hadn’t had a complete meal in over 24 hours.

And then we landed, in a field, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Russia. We were herded onto a Soviet bus and shuttled up to some random building that looked very village-ish. One of them happened to be the hub of the airport. We waited for our luggage, tossed into the middle of the room, a free for all. Here, I met with my host, Denis, who bargained with taxis for a ride back to the city. “700 Rubles!” one taxi bartered. “Ha, I’m local”, rebutted Denis. There was some mumbling and an agreement, I figured Denis had gotten a better rate, so we hopped in.

I got a short driving tour of the city; Denis pointed out a lot of buildings, many of which I can’t remember.  We discussed the history of Petrozavodsk, and how it was occupied by the Fins during World War 2 and all the Russians were placed into some barracks on the outskirts of the city. We arrived at my hotel about a half hour later and the driver demanded all 700 from Denis, who unhappily abided the dishonest barter.   A few hours later I was met by Dasha, a high school student, who was to give me a tour of the city.

This girl walked SO fast and SO much. We walked for FOUR hours. We covered the entire embankment, all the popular parks and buildings, and ended up in completely different regions of the city, across streams and through forests. We finalized our tour with some simple grocery shopping and a walk through the mall.

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Dasha never ran out topics for our conversation. We discussed the Russian school system; how, like in America there are also students who really don’t care, and others who participate in everything possible; how volunteerism and other extra curricular activities are becoming more important to get into a good university; and how many students dream of getting into major programs in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Dasha is currently in her last year of high school (they finish after 11th grade), and her current schedule is filled with exam prep, classes, volunteering, and other activities. She has to take two major exams: one in Russian, the other in Math. If you’re an active student, you also take other exams, and Dasha chose History and English. She’s worried about history, as there is so much to remember. They must pass these exams, then their grades are added up and totaled. If they get above a certain number of points they can pretty much get into the university of their choice; however, there’s a ton of pressure and competition has risen greatly in recent years, especially for Dasha’s school of choice: Saint Petersburg State University. We discussed our preference of dogs versus cats and her weekly sports lessons such as running and skiing.

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I fell into my bed that evening already loving Petrozavodsk: its fresh air, its youthful ambiance, its beautiful sculptures lining the streets, and absolutely stunning views.

Monday I met with Denis at his organization – Doroga (Road).  Doroga is located on the third floor of an old orphanage.  The building is sprawled over an entire street block, and comprised now of different youth organizations holding sports activities (I saw a karate class on my way out that evening), the local Boy Scouts club (equipped with a climbing wall and area for tent building), and Doroga; in general the place can be named the Center for Youth.  As the orphanage, especially the sleeping quarters, were not adequate for the various organizational needs, they are remodelling the entire building, and its obviously in need of much work.  However, they are utilizing their current resources well, and I can see how the place would attract creative, motivated youth.

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part of Doroga, and their working art project

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the Boy Scouts climbing wall

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Boy Scouts

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Tent building?

The essence of Doroga is similar to that of most youth organizations, so I won’t go into much detail now (it will be covered later through ACTION). Denis and I discussed my experiences in Tolyatti and set up my schedule for the week. I met various directors, boy scouts, secretaries, and teachers.

The best part about this whole program is that throughout my time in Tolyatti I only twice had to be out of my hotel by 9 AM.  Things aren’t changing in Petrozavodsk, and as a struggling morning person, it’s absolutely wonderful. However, Denis and Sasha (yes, a different Sasha who works at Doroga), provided me with some homework: a brochure about their program “First Step into Society” and it’s sister program, “Us and Society”, which I would be attending on Tuesday.  At noon, I met Inna at the bus stop.  Inna is wonderful; I liked her immediately. She’s adorable, twenty six, adorned with various small tattoos and piercings, with short strawberry blonde hair, about which she commented, “Any time I enter a school the old women never believe that I’m a teacher.. it’s my hair cut.”  “Whatever, it suits you really well,” I respond.

Inna is from a village outside of Petrozavodsk on the White Sea.  “What’s it called?” I ask.  “On the White Sea,” she responds.  Without thinking I ask, “Well where’s that?” She looks at me quizzically.. “Well on the White Sea.”  “Duhhhhhh” I say, and we both laugh.  Inna has already lived in Petrozavodsk for over 8 years and attended college here.  She graduated with a degree in History and went on to get her Masters, but as she joked, everyone she knows from college is doing different things all pretty much unrelated to history. I mentioned to Inna the fact that many mid twenty-somethings seem to call Petrozavodsk home and all of them whom I’ve already met are not married! In Tolyatti, I met maybe three throughout my entire ten days. She chuckled, “I suppose that’s true; I think we’re all too focused on our work.  But it’s funny, I know lots of young guys who are already married at 22, and girls even older than me who aren’t married yet.”  “Fascinating.” I’m serious. “Normally it’s the complete opposite.”

Inna works as an instructor for “First Step Into Society”, a sub-program of Doroga.  The program works with 3rd and 4th graders throughout the city to create programs helping them to realize their own potential and teach them that they are able to participate in society even at their young age. Inna goes to various schools throughout the week and teaches lessons to the students on topics such as leadership, environment, activism, and other issues. Upon completion of different activities associated with the program the students receive “money”.  Every so often there is a “store” where the students can bring their earned “money” in exchange for prizes.

Today, we were headed to a group of 4th graders at School #48.  In Russia, all the schools are numbered and that’s how you distinguish one from another. Upon arrival we first went to the cafeteria to have coffee and a snack. I got my favorite: hotdog in a pastry.. really it’s so good! I missed this dish so much from my days in Astrakhan.  Additionally, I was elated to be in a school and check out student life.  Inna promised to send me a video they once created that gave an overview of student life in various schools.  I snapped some shots:

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the school cafeteria

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Traditional school uniforms. I learned that these are mandatory for the younger grades. They’re supposed to also be mandatory for the upper grades as well, but as we saw students filter into the cafeteria in street clothes I guessed they weren’t quite implemented.

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Far as I understand, there is no “school lunch” program, as in the students pay for what they would like on a daily basis. M&Ms included.

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View of the playground from the cafeteria

We then made our way to the classroom where Inna would give our lesson. The school was boisterous, with kids running left and right, yelling, giggling, shoving one another playfully.

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Kids dressed in a mix of uniforms and street clothes, plaid dresses over flowered shirts, socks with ballet flats and decorated tights, and sweater vests with ties over their favorite t-shirt, all in sweltering classroom. There’s greenery everywhere, lightning the brown walls and furniture that fill the room.

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Each classroom is equipped with a projector and computer, and as I walk in the students are scanning the barely visible board, trying to figure out their grades.  In Russia, a 5 is equivalent to an A, 4 = B, 3 = C, and so on.  These particular grades on the board were for a literature lesson; I couldn’t find any fives, mainly a mix of 2s and 3s. I was actually pretty surprised to see such advanced technology in the school.  The university I worked at in Astrakhan barely had working computers in most classrooms.  The university I visited last week in Samara did not, the projector was brought in and set up before the class, if requested by the professor.

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As Inna introduces me, the kids are immediately intrigued by my teeth. One girl timidly approaches me and asks, “Why are your teeth so white?”  A few try their English; one tells me about her friend who whet to America but is now traveling the world.. in 4th grade?  There’s lots of talking and stares my way, random questions as they chat amongst their friends, “Look at what she’s writing! I think it’s in Russian!” I was trying to participate in Inna’s lesson, in hopes to keep the kids’ attention focused on her and her activity.

The students like Inna, whom they call by first name only, which she explained more in detail later on.  “After two years you get used to the kids, and your younger and not exactly their teacher, so I just told them to call me Inna, and it stuck.  Some still respond to me formally, but that just doesn’t sound quite right. It’s okay, I like it.”  She’s youthful, yet in command. But it doesn’t matter – they’re 11 years olds in their last lesson of the day.

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you can find Inna in the middle of the circle, right in front of the chalk board; check out her adorable-ness.

Inna’s lesson was excellent, and I can only imagine her others to be the same.  She started by writing an equation on the board. Inna then explained that this was the question for the composition of a good team.  The students, in small groups, had to guess what each part of the equation stand for.

K = КА + ЦЕ + ПЛ x РО – ОБ – ОС + У

к = команда

So: T (Team) = LE + GO + PL + RO – OF – CO + LO

Their results came in as follows:

Команда = качественная работа/капитан + цель + план + роли – обиды – осуждение + ум/усилие

Or, Team = Leader + Goals + Plan + Rolls – Offense – Condemnation + Logic

Of course other words and ideas appear upon sharing, and we listed other possibilities on the board.

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the students working with Inna in small groups to figure out the equation

IMG_0374 Next, Inna instructed that they would then write their own equations, comprised of ten different characteristics that constitute the composition of a team, and it should include both positive and negative.  After giving them a few minutes to work in teams, Inna collected all the equations. As I wrote them on the board, the students tried to guess what each of their classmates wrote, also correcting me in my writing, though I think I did pretty well (I struggled with the letter ж and drew a star on the board.. “That’s a star!” one girl yelled out.. “yes, I know. That’s how I write it.” She smirked.. we’re probably not friends; it’s fine.)

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discussing their own “team” equations

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equations from two different teams, waiting in line for their moment in the spotlight

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yes, the top equation I wrote. seriously.  My “star” is on the far right.

You can always tell the attentive and motivated students, and they also happen to be the ones that smile at you with that adorable smile and pigtails, and so you share a thumbs up and a wink to show you understand.  They’re also the ones that flocked to Inna after the lesson to make sure they received their “money” and got Inna’s signature on their participation sheet.

Their primary teacher is really supportive of Inna’s program and came in at the end, double checking that the kids have their money in safe places: “You won’t lose it, will you Irina?”  “No.”  “Be careful, make sure you don’t lose it before tomorrow.”  Some of the young kids held her hand as they talked: “I have a three in literature.. what can I do Marina Alekseyevna?”  Inna explained that when seeking out schools for their program, they’re sure to choose ones with teachers they can work with.  Marina Alekseyevna has been collaborating with Inna for over two years now; others are not quite as receptive, so Inna simply cancels the program.

I will enlighten you with more beautiful pictures of the school, it’s premises, and all that there is to learn from these youngsters:

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Left: Happy Birthday! Right: Our artwork.

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When the students leave, they place their chairs on their desks. The younger grades finish by lunch time and often don’t eat at school, while the upper grades continue after lunch.

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“Rules of Friendship” flower: be trustworthy; be polite; be responsible; be sincere

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After the lesson, Inna and I take the bus back to the city and have lunch at a typical Russian diner: Tea Spoon.  I remember the restaurant well from my time in St. Petersburg, and it works like a buffet of sorts. After eating a simple but delightful meal of cabbage and carrot salad and the traditional (Ukrainian) soup, Borshct, Inna and I split ways, as I headed to the Center for Youth and Inna to run errands for the center.

I then met with Roman, director of the club “Quad-Sport”, another part of Youth Center. Roman is a man in all sorts of the form: a gruff voice and rough look about him, with a buzz cut and torn jeans; of course he was wearing a fashionable watch – another Russian staple.  He picks me up from the main entryway of the Youth Center in an off-roader, loads a few old doors onto the back and stops the engine. I glance at him quizzically. “A mom and her kid are passing by.”  I look up, and sure enough, there they are.  He starts the motor and we drive around the back of the building.

Set up behind the old orphanage or current Youth Center, is a mini-course.  A big pile of stuff that could probably be burned, defunct buildings now utilized for storage, outdated houses looming in the background, and one off-roader and another go-cart-type vehicle.

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Roman is excellent with the kids.  They crowd around him, asking questions, discussing which car they like better and why.  He scolds one kid for cutting in line and makes him do 15 squats. He abides.  Roman and another older man who assists with the program showed me their “garage” with old projects and tempered bicycles.  He tells the boy with us that he should explain it to me, as he knows the most about the project. They drag out an old tricycle from another garage.

The kids, Roman, and the other older men present worked for over a half an hour to get the tricycle to started.  They even brought out an accumulator and finally got a light to turn on.  However, they couldn’t get the motor to turn and decided it was best to leave it until tomorrow.

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a bicycle from their collection

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Bikes the group has revamped

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IMG_0424They begin trying to tinker with the three-wheeler together, Roman allotting jobs to different kids as they crowd around to watch. “How do we fix that, Roma?” or “What about that, Roma, what do you think.. will it work?”  Meanwhile, they wait in line for the next ride in the man-made car, politely arguing about who’s next. Roman asks a kid who often participates in the club how old he is. “13.” The kid looks maybe 11. “Did you stop smoking?” Asks Roman. “I don’t do that,” he promptly responds. “You’re trying to tell me you never tried it?” Roman probes. “No.”  “Why are you lying to me? I know.”  “Fine,” the kid admits, “I did it… a few times.” “But you won’t ever again, right?”  “Right,” he confirms.

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Roman explaining how the off-roader works, with the kids excitedly watching, begging to ride.

The club is the perfect extra-curricular activity designed for young men from troubled families, or with difficult situations.  Many have already fallen into alcohol or drugs, if lucky only cigarettes, as noted above.  Roman works with these kids in attempt to give them a hobby other than substances, and they come every week dying to drive the cars around the small track created by Roman and his colleagues.  Roman himself was also a Boy Scout in his youth and is now considered one of the “top members” along with a few others I met on Monday.

There are also girls. One girl driver revs the engine as the “13” year old plugs his ears.

A 16 year old boy named Maksim (Max) helps run the club.  He teaches the younger kids how to drive.  He also gave me a run through of the workings of the off-roader. (I found it hard to tell him that I’ve driven one many times and have been driving for 12 years)  I commented about how he would soon be able to get his licence.. “I already have it,” he responded.

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Two helicopters fly over head, prompting everyone to gaze at the sky.  It’s a beautiful, sunny day, perfect for off-roading.

Soon the club will have a competition, testing the boys (and girls) on the rules, form, and ability to drive.  The winning team gets a chance to drive the cars a further distance, something around 50 km.  They’re also hoping to take the cars to an orphanage and teach the kids there to drive.

An older man, Andrei Ivanovich, dressed in hunting gear and river boots, built the second car by hand.  He designed it to be an instruction car.  I steered as he manned the pedals.  Andrei explained that the car is perfect for teaching young kids to drive: everything is visible and they can easily see how things work inside the car itself.  He corrected my hand placement on the wheel several times as we manoeuvred the course.

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Andrei Ivanovich is sitting on the left, teaching a student how to drive. That’s his man-made car.. cool, eh?

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Roman had the kids build a “safe-zone” out of wooden planks.  He explained that if you weren’t driving, you should stand in the zone.  The drivers had the task of not entering the zone.

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the safe zone

An older guy with a pony tail, striped sweater and tie, smoking a cigarette approached the group. “Oh, that one’s cool,” he pointed to the off-roader.  “Gazprom” responded Roman.  “What, they gifted it to you?” The guy asked. “Let’s just say I spent a lot of time behind the table,” joked Roman.

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“That you for the good mood!” A door that eventually turned into a ramp on the four-wheeling course.

I then trekked upstairs for my next meeting, only to run into a group of students playing a silent, logic game and Inna (previous Inna), typing away on the computer.  I begin to help her cut “money” she was printing for a “First Step Into Society” event.  She had to hold the paper feeder into place, otherwise it failed to print.

One of the students approached her, giving his congratulations.  After he left I asked her, “It’s a holiday, or your birthday?”  “Yes, it is.”  “Well Happy Birthday!”  “Thanks so much,” she responded.  “And yet you’re at work.” we both smiled.

A bit later we gathered around a table with broken desk chairs, Sasha (the other Sasha) piecing together his own chair from broken ones.  We ate cake with our hands and drank tea, as an older teacher/director told stories about how to pass safety evaluations. Everyone laughed; he put on his traditional Russian hat, finished his tea, and bid us goodbye.  Sasha and some of the students returned to their art project. I returned to my cutting of “money” and Denis’ class for Young Journalists.

These modern 15-17 year olds sat as an average 15-17 year old would – silent, and absolutely apathetic about something they really were passionate about, as they chose to be there. Denis had to really push them to answer, even to respond to the question “When are you free?” Denis attempted to joke with group, but it seemed like they just weren’t into it.  They did have one comedian in their own group who was the only person to make everyone successfully laugh.

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Sasha (in plaid), working with kids to complete their personal video in preparation for an upcoming competition.

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Young Journalists in their lesson with Denis

Although it seemed through previously shown publications that the group had previously worked together, they must have had an extremely exhausting Tuesday, for they were so mute. You could tell just by looking who was the oldest of members, and also the most experienced, providing more answers and suggestions than his counterparts.

Turns out this member of Young Journalists, Gleb, was set to take of for Moscow tomorrow in order to attain his American visa for the same conference Denis and I (as well as the rest of the fellows) are attending in San Diego. After listening to Gleb discuss visa details with Denis, I realize he’s extremely nervous about going to Moscow to get his visa, and all the other minute details associated with foreign travel.  Just turned 18, he’s new to all this, and I’m glad he’ll be joining us for the Student Television Conference.

And so, another two days have passed where I’m delightfully pleased with Petrozavodsk, its residents, and modernness. I again revel in the comfort of bed, and look forward to the fact that I don’t need to be anywhere tomorrow until 2 PM.  The life of a fellow is a life indeed.

Urban cruizing, last minute arrangements, and goodbyes.

Thursday was allotted to a day trip to Samara.  This journey is around two hours on the bus.. nap time! Sergei’s intentions were for me to go there and have a college student, Kseniya bring me to various organizations; however, it turned out far from that, and I expressed my gratitude for the mini-vacation.

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Samara’s theatre

Ksenia met me at the bus station and we immediately transferred to a bus, on which we sat for what seemed like forty-five minutes. We finally arrived at Ksenia’s university. She explained that the university is quite new, less than twenty years. It was founded by a business man in the city, who in order to gain perspective and emulate its system, travelled throughout Europe before opening the university. It was a much nicer building than many of the other educational institutions I’ve been in, and you could definitely tell it was newer than most.

The entry way was surrounded by students on a smoke break, girls in high heels (it’s a staple), and a plethora of dark-toned jackets. We snuck past the ferocious-looking old ladies guarding the door and into a foyer where we deposited our jackets. Coat checks are everywhere here, from the university to any concert hall, and most museums.

Young girls checked their pocket mirrors and couples sat on the nearby couches in extremely close proximity. A group of students were waiting in line outside a classroom. It was exam day, and one by one the students will enter the classroom and orally explain a topic or issue from their lectures to their teacher; however, many of the schools and universities are trying to adopt a more Westernized system, with written exams consisting of multiple choice questions, though the students always joke that the transition is not going so well. We trekked up to the fourth floor and sat for a while in a department office, drinking tea and trying Ukrainian chocolate while waiting for the next break between lessons.

I then met a group of students who are part of Ksenia’s student organization, a youth student group at the university. Most of them are younger than her, she being 22, and them 17 or 18, all recently knighted into the academic world. The students started by explaining their organization: lead by students who are working at creating student-based events and helping other students discover ways to get involved. Ksenia actually heads this organization, and plans on continuing working with the group even after she finishes university in June. A tech guy setting up a projector interrupted us mid-conversation, and then again a professor and his class, so we moved to a different room. Here, we enjoyed chocolate and tea as our conversation transformed into a comparison of American and Russian culture and their favorite hobbies.

After a few hours, Anton picked us up in is silver Lada and starting driving us around town. I was under the impression that Anton and Ksenia were good friends, and maybe even dating, as I thought he made a joke about waiting for her to get done with college for marriage, but it turns out that was only the second time Ksenia had ever met Anton. Ksenia had asked her roommate if her brother could take us around (because he’s really cute, she said), but he had to work, so her roommate sent Anton to us instead. Anton swerved through the streets of Samara in an attempt to avoid trolley tracks, pot holes, and people while him and Ksenia pressed me with questions like: “what are you looking for in a guy?”. Anton was shy and yet curious, Ksenia smart and strong-willed, and her and I continued that particular conversation later while waiting for my bus back to Tolyatti.

We cruised around the different parks and buildings Samara has to offer, walked along the embankment, enjoyed a pedestrian streets with shops and restaurants and settled into a café where Anton ordered blinis (Russian pancakes), only to be told they were out. While being sold out of something is never a shocker in Russia, to be sold of blinis is pretty much sacrilegious. He settled for mozzarella sticks instead.

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At four o’clock, not wanting to leave such a bustling and lively city, I jumped on the bus back to Tolyatti.

I have to interrupt with the following excellent picture. It’s great for many reasons. I get countless praises on my smile and I’m often asked why we smile so much, reminding me of the time the old woman in the Astrakhan park asked me if my teeth were fake. When I’m asked for any differences between Russia and America, that’s often my first go-to comparison to break the ice, as everyone always laughs. Also, it’s interesting to note that the Russians get so confused when I explain that we don’t have domestic passports. In Russia, you have both a domestic and international passport. Your domestic one contains all your personal information and is stamped when you move, or get married, or divorced, have kids, change jobs, etc. Their international one is obviously just that. As I try to explain to Russians how we have social security numbers, and cards, but that you don’t need your card and I lost mine but know my number.. “Well what happens when you die?” Russians ask the best questions.

Sasha's passport vs. Rikki's drivers license

Sasha’s passport vs. Rikki’s drivers license

Back to business: Friday was my last day of “official events”. In the morning, I accompanied Sergei to his place of work, a sector of the mayor office, and met his boss, Marina. Waiting for her in her office I admired her view, which practically overlooked the Volga. She expressed how much better it was before the forest practically burned down in entirety in 2010.

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She also had great motivational quotations plastered on the wall. The sign on her desk: “Be Positive”.

Marina was glimmering in a gold, shimmering dress, matched with wooden earring engraved with Parisian scenes, and nails of pale blue. We had a long conversation about the workings of the government, her particular job, and the role of various people in the office. Each local government is separated into various sectors occupying different buildings throughout the city. This particular building, and what Marina was in charge of, is home to the Youth Programs. Marina signed at least five documents while I was there, scanning over them briefly before the flick of her wrist sealed the deal. She joked: “this is nothing, normally we have many many more.”

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A typical meeting would not be typical without these pertinent items. High on my list: instant coffee. Close second: chocolate.

After leaving Marina, I went to an organization called “Fund of Tolyatti”. The woman with who I talked to, Elvira, is twenty-five, vibrant, and even younger at heart; Valeri, my original tour guide also joined us, as he is one of the primary volunteers and student leaders aiding in the facilitation of these projects. This private fund plays a few different roles in the development of youth programs.

First, they help create and maintain a bank of volunteers, so that when needed, they can reach out to as many as possible. Secondly, they receive a nice lump sum from the government each year. With this money, they hold open grant application for various student-led projects. Here, Valeri, and others are presented with various projects and they select winning organizations and/or groups to whom a certain amount of money will be allotted. These compromise mainly short-term projects that should be realized with six months. Last year, they funded a two-day “Comic Con” event and Valeri showed me a student-created, but extremely professional, video of the program’s highlights; the event will take place again this year. Elvira explained that often projects are initially funded by their organization, then become independent entities that operate annually or bi-annually. Of course eventually Elvira and I moved onto to stories of our time abroad; Elvira had recently attended a fundraising conference in the US, and she also participated in the work and study program while in university.

Valeri and I then drove, pretty much across the street, to an evening event. Again, I really should read my own schedule with more detail, and again, I should realize when something is a loanword from English. But again, I failed. What I thought was a Russian acronym for something (almost everything on my schedule was), turned out to be exactly what was written: Miss. Meaning, Miss TGU. Meaning, a beauty pageant featuring students from the local university. I cringed. Valeri also cringed. I felt bad that he some how got roped into attending it with me. As we were met by Sasha and other students, I learned that these programs almost always go until 11 PM. It was only 6:30. After waiting approximately one hour for the program to start (Is it like that in America? Haha no way. We’re always on time, especially for events like this), it finally took off with a big musical number that included young girls parading the stage. The first competition was actually really interesting: the girls were paired with designers and together they had chosen different dresses decorated in a sort of Old Rus’ style, modernized through flowing dresses made of silk with beautiful patterns of printed flowers. The competition started with the designers showing off their own garb, followed by the contestants in their dresses. If only I could find a store that sold some of the garments they were wearing – some were outrageous, but others were simply adorable and I definitely had a place in my closet for them.

The rest of the competition was as expected. The girls read poems, then they sang or danced, they wore wedding dresses, and swimsuits, and high heels.. lots of high high heels.

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picture taken from Sasha, who had reposted it from a friend. we actually found out who won the competition thanks to instagram.

After awhile it was just getting old, and boring, and there were continuous advertisements first shown on screen, then read aloud by the hosts. I got yelled at by one of those ferocious old women I mentioned above: “Why are you wearing your outerwear inside?!” I gave her a bewildered look – even if I could understand her, and looked down at myself. Sasha, Valeria, and Valya in unison: “She came in that way.” “Oh. Fine.” And that was it. I looked at Sasha, who was also wearing his blazer, and asked him why no one ever questions him. He also made me (practically dragged me), to the local TV reporters, who then asked me some questions. I tried my hardest to keep my serious Russian face, but it was difficult with Sasha mouthing at me things to say, and me also despising these types of events. So I echoed what we had talked about earlier:

“All the women are beautiful in their own way.”

I’ll end my time in Tolyatti with friends, and share with you this great piece of graffiti, painted in the entry way of a archetypical Russian residence, in which resides the youth of Tolyatti today, with their hopes, their dreams, their pains, and their pleasures.

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A haze of organizations and information clouded by dirty, dirty melting snow

The last few days have been an overwhelming whirl of different meetings with various organizations and so many students, teachers, and leaders that its hard for me to keep track.  My phone has been my best friend, recording hours of conversations so I can decipher which organization does what, with whom, and by whom. Of course after about five minutes of discussing their own work, our conversation quickly transforms into a question-answer session on American culture, my perceptions on Russia, and whatever else floats into their minds.

Not to mention the snow is melting, and the city has transformed into one gigantic puddle. Riding in public transportation, you cannot even see out the window. Navigating the sidewalks is a maze of rocky steps, slushy dirt, puddles that cover entire intersections, and dog poop residue.

Thanks to Sasha (selfie Alexander), who has chartered me around pretty much for the past couple of days, I have been able to document my meetings. He’s extremely well-versed at social media, and has been sure to post things on vkontakte and instagram.

On Tuesday, I visited the Center for Independent Living, a center that focuses on rehabilitation of disabled persons.  We had a small circle of members of the organizations, as well as local students doing internships or working with the organization.  They ran through the primary aspects of the center: providing a place where disabled people can learn about their rights; working with lawyers to ensure their rights are protected; creating a place and space for like people to come together; and offering courses in computers, or other practical skills helpful for them to integrate into society.

We talked a lot of the services provided to disabled peoples – they have a special taxi service with access to vehicles appropriate for people in wheelchairs.  The situation in Tolyatti has also improved, but only in recent years (since 2013).  There are now more visible ramps, sidewalks, and other facilities to help them navigate the city, though they expressed that the sidewalks and roads, especially in winter and in their current condition, have remained an issue.

I then traveled to Sasha’s place of employment: “Open Alternatives”, and met the office.  The organization works with the government to improve the lives of the youth, especially in terms of alcohol and substance abuse. That morning, Sasha had a meeting at the local government regarding legislature and implementation of methods and programs to curtail underage sales. His boss  Anatoly Gennadivich Arsenihin and I had a really great conversation about a plethora of topics, comparing the Soviet Union to current Russia; recalling and exchanging stories about places we’d travelled to and our impressions, planning for the future and ways in which we could collaborate.

With the director of Open Alternatives, Arsenihin Anatoly Gennadivich.  He kept commenting on my Turkish ring with the evil eye: "That's your evil eye, and this is ours", he said, pointing to the flag behind us. "It brings us the luck we need to do our job."

With the director of Open Alternatives, Arsenihin Anatoly Gennadivich. He kept commenting on my Turkish ring with an evil eye: “That’s your evil eye, and this is ours”, he said, pointing to the flag behind us. “It brings us the luck we need to do our job.”

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On the table, there was a small bucket with change, written on it “Tolyatti”. I tossed in some of my change, then Sasha asked for a dollar. He was so excited, he had to document it. :)

“See, in the Soviet Union, we didn’t have these problems with the youth. There were many organizations set up for youth programs, you know like the Pioneers – do you know them? Well of course you do. And these programs helped students stay focused and participate in their community. They weren’t drinking and they weren’t smoking. But in the 90s, these programs disappeared and now we have to deal with these issues and find ways to help our youth become interested in positive things.”

This summary, this comparison of generations, is something I’ve heard at almost every organization I’ve been to. And it makes complete sense. These groups working with youth are doing so in order to inform them of ways they can participate in society; provide them with a plethora of activities to spark various interest groups; and help them stay away from substance abuse. I’d have to say it works pretty well, though there are always issues with funding, and it’s difficult to reach every teenager. Yet, there are a strong number of students who see this as a social experience, a group of belonging, and a way to actively participate in local civil society. That and it helps them gain bonus points for their university applications… sound familiar?

Sasha and I then traveled to a cafe, where we met with Igor, who heads the group, “Society for Young Scholars”. As I sipped on my latte, they explained the events they hold: from logic game nights, to musical competitions, student government, and volunteer opportunities, these kids do it all. Unlike the American system, where many of the organizations are directly associated with schools, Russian youth organizations are primarily disconnected from the schools, though they use them to recruit volunteers and participants for events.  The group at our round table consisted of 17-18 year olds from various colleges and schools throughout Tolyatti.

I really enjoyed talking to these young men. They were a passionate bunch that clearly loved what they did, loved their companions, and were excited about the future and about life in general. They asked amazing questions and we shared lots of stories.  I introduced them to SnapChat and showed them my driving license and passport. They were absolutely enthralled.

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Wednesday, I met Olga Tabunov, Sergei’s wife, and her organization – lets keep it short and sweet – Chance. Here I met all the different administrators, who all focused on different spheres of community involvement.  First, there was Masha, who worked with disabled students, and also environmental matters, such as gathering students to clean up the streets in the spring.  After talking with her for a half hour and enjoying tea and sweets, they left me in their office while they attending a meeting, which I accidentally pronounced as a “date”, eliciting a good laugh.  I sat in their office admiring all the papers, awards, books, and pictures, feeling sleepy from the cool breeze flowing in from outside and the sun beating through the windows.  In a desperate attempt to not fall asleep, I perused the immense bank of pictures and videos they had collected from their many events.

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This is Masha’s desk – look at all those awards! “These are only a few of them,” she chuckles, “You should see the other piles.”

After going to the supermarket for lunch, and browsing all the wondrous Russian dishes, I settled on a crab and mayonnaise salad with cucumbers. Zhenya takes a seat next to me.  First, came a personal story – how she met her boyfriend:  Zhenya often when to her parent’s dacha, located far from Tolaytti in some remote village, somewhere. And there she met some guy, and they kept talking, and they met again there, etc. Turns out he was also from Tolyatti, and his parents had a dacha nearby her own. Fate!

Then Zhenya turned to her work (I’m not sure what was more interesting, though I adore stores of fate).   Essentially, she hosted something like a “War Club”. Students trained in the skills that may be needed for when they are drafted in the army.  They practiced martial arts, learned how to hold a gun, how to march, and the appropriate mannerisms or habits needed in a soldier.  Additionally, there were lessons on Russian history for those students who maybe were unable to get the full historical experience in school, or maybe simply desired to learn more about Russian historical events.

This program was interesting for many reasons: the first being, Zhenya was the most girly of girls there, in a short cropped dress, with high heels; so when she began describing the club, it was a bit unexpected and for a bit I didn’t understand.  When I finally comprehended the gist of the club, I was really impressed and refreshed by her ability break so many underlying stereotypes.  Secondly, these clubs are a big deal in Russia, and Tolyatti itself has many that compete amongst themselves and then continue into national competitions.  Lastly, this is a brilliant idea when you take into consideration the social and political demands of Russia.  Here, they have a mandatory service for each male before he is able to join the working world.  Whether they like it or not, they must go and spend at least a year somewhere in Russia. While most abide by these regulations, some pay to avoid serving; others move out of the country; many continue school for eternity…

Short anecdote on this note: Valerii, Sergei’s student and my tour guide on day one, had explained the events of the draft to me.  As a 19 year old, he is soon approaching his time to serve, and is quite excited about it. They are mailed a letter from the army stating that they need to meet at Tolyatti’s bus station on a certain date.  They show up, and pile into busses that take them to a military compound somewhere else in Russia – they remain unaware to which base they’ll be going.  Once there, their skills are ‘analyzed’ and they’re sent to different places throughout Russia – again, unknown until the moment of departure.  Valerii also explained that the military and police force are slowly increasing their reputation here in Russia and thus, salaries are rising.  As I explained the benefits of serving in America, and thus no need for a mandatory draft, he agreed, stating Russia has started to move in that direction, and he might just stay in the army if he likes it. He’s really into military stuff – as he knew a ton about the military vehicles we perused at the museum and actively participates in reenactments.

Anyways, back to ‘Chance’.  Lastly, in the group with whom I talked, was Nastiya, who heads the ‘leadership’ sphere of the organization.  Within Tolyatti, there is a leadership club in each region, totalling to three. Within their own separate groups they facilitate various events in each region.  Furthermore, they run seminars on improving leadership skills, how to manage an event, advertising, and other useful skill sets (similar to what Sasha also does, and I’m sure they collaborate – everyone does here).

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Their auditorium where many “Master Classes” or events are held. I particularly enjoyed the lighting and the breeze coming in through the windows.

After all that information, Masha, two of her colleagues and I traveled to a orphanage on the edge of the city, where we were to direct a game day.  We were met there by may student volunteers, some of whom I already met at previous events or through previous organizations. The greatest part, was that I was just another member of the group. The kids didn’t even realize I was foreign (or maybe didn’t care) and I wasn’t asked any intrusive questions, or pushed to discuss America. I hung out with one of the volunteers, Elshad, who gifted me a bracelet, and we joked around, encouraging the students in our group during the event.  And while I would have enjoyed touring the orphanage and chatting with the kids, it was, nonetheless, a refreshing few hours.

Here’s a short video of the kids participating in our activities.  Elshad, the student with whom I judged, was great. They was definitely the unofficial leader of the group, due to his extremely active participation in volunteer events. We laughed a lot about the students who just gave up and ran to the finish line, while praising those students who followed the rules to the very end (the little boy with the telephone around his neck, he was my favorite) and adored the little girl in our group who participated with a enormous smile on her face.

At the end, each team was awarded with a small prize. Our team came in last.  As one of the student said

“It not important if you win; the most important thing is that you participate.”

I’ve been reminded yet again that no matter what country you’re in, or what language is the medium, teens are teens. These teenagers are just like ours.  They dress similarly, they act the same (ooo lets take one big selfie!!). They’re obsessed with social media, arts, pop music, and fashion.  They enjoy volunteering and helping their community. They’re hoping to make it into university (the volunteering helps).  They follow the NBA and know who Pavel Datsyuk is. They flirt. They get distracted by one another. They love life.

However, I did notice that teens in both Russia and Turkey seem to be more inclusive   and more diverse. Even teens who enjoy listening to metal, wearing black cuff links and military style boots, or shy girls who watch anime and doodle odd graphics interact in unison with others who fit a more “stereotypical norm” within youth societies. As I reflected on my own experiences in high school I remember how cruel those years were; how if you didn’t fit a certain mold, you were perpetually mocked until the day of graduation when you realized none of it mattered anymore. Perhaps I encountered an extreme vision of bullying; however, I have the feeling its a significant problem throughout America.  Of course there was teasing, especially in Turkey, and people cried, or occasionally stormed out of the room.. but never like I personally experienced in my years.

Needless to say, I now have significantly more followers on Instagram.. and the best part: they like EVERYTHING.

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Working with the youth

As Monday was a “holiday” (as Sunday was the 8th of March, and it’s crazy popular here), the weekend was filled with primarily cultural activities.

Happy International Woman's Day from me & my flower balloon to you!

Happy International Woman’s Day from me & my flower balloon to you!

However, on Saturday I accompanied Valiya, another student of Sergei’s to their school. There, I met with one of the directors, in particular the one who works with disabled students.  She talked a lot about the school and really focused on their inclusion of disabled students into a normal school curriculum, which was super fascinating.  In fact, the school is pretty well integrated, and they are actually considered a “Rehabilitation Center”.  Their aim, is to bring students with disabilities into the normal working world and allow them to function as individuals.  Many students participate in classes with non-disabled students, encouraging a communicative and sharing atmosphere.  Additionally, there are many students who go on to teach or assist new students at the school; they also participate in Russia’s national Paralympic Games, and have won a significant amount of prizes.

corridor of the school

corridor of the school

They also took me to this “relaxation room” that they have in the school. I swear, every school needs such a room.  Imagine, classical music, a massage chair, and soft lights with floating fish.. who can go wrong?!  They insisted that I sit in the massage chair – a horrible idea for someone with on-going jet lag, but how can I resist!?  The director ran me through all the different mechanisms in the room and their specific purposes – aroma therapy to ease the mind, mood lights, which change colors depending on your feelings, and a little pit that looked like a McDonald’s play pen, that was meant to be a stress-reliving arena for people to lie in.  In all honesty, I may take a sarcastic tone (because it’s all so crazy its hard to believe anyways), but REALLY, this room was SWEET. Like seriously, all schools should have something like that – a place where students can go, close themselves up, and just relax.. I’m sleeping already.

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The water “towers” in the relaxation room with floating fish, and another student.

(insert video)

On Monday, I met with Alexander Arkhipov.  He works within the local government, as a Social Advisor of sorts.  As he explained, he works a lot with organizations to seek funding for projects, helping them learn where they can find funding, how they can apply for it, and if received, how they put it best to use. He ran through a lot of the basics of pretty much all the steps, and explain the organizations; it’s quite similar to how we go about seeking funding in the US.  There are federal grants, worth a significant amount of money, followed by regional grants, and preceded by smaller, local grants. The organization composes a proposal for their project and applies to these competitions, if chosen for another round, they may have to go to Moscow to present to a board, etc.

Thus, Alexander also provides organizations with seminars on how to draft grant proposals (he writes many of his own for the local government), how to crowdsource and fundraise for your cause, and tips on hosting good events.  Likewise, helping youth become leaders and organizers is another key aspect of his job.

[Side note: they actually use the terms “crowdsource”, “fundraise”, and “volunteer”, and it took me some time to realize they were actually referring to those exact terms, and not some unfamiliar term in Russian.]

Thus, Alexander often works with youth organizations to secure funding for different projects (such as the disability fund at the College), and also with other foundations, such as one that assists the homeless. He showed me a news report on this exact subject, regarding an older woman from Kazakhstan who lives in a cloth hut in the forest with her puppy.  Through various groups, non-perishable items are collected and distributed to people such as herself.  As she is unlikely to come into the city for help, cars are additionally donated in order to transport supplies to the people.  Likewise, Alexander has helped set up locations around town where people can come for consultations, such as if their apartment was repossessed because they couldn’t afford their credit, or if they needed legal help, but didn’t know where to find the exact expert necessary for their cause.

Essentially: Alexander is a busy man, helping the people. But before he went back to work.. “lets take a selfie”.

"professional picture"

“professional picture”

"non-professional picture"

“non-professional picture”