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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: