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.


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.


part of Doroga, and their working art project


the Boy Scouts climbing wall


Boy Scouts


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:


the school cafeteria


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.)


discussing their own “team” equations


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


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:


Left: Happy Birthday! Right: Our artwork.


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.


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

IMG_0363 IMG_0377   IMG_0381

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.


a bicycle from their collection


Bikes the group has revamped


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


“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.


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


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.

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