short excerpts...other writings...upon occasion or as prompted...
The tiger in the water? A representation of my life -- spirit and environment!


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Seventy-Five Kilometers on Nine Rubles

Working at the Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Science (SO AN) is one of the most fascinating and rewarding things I have done. The academicians were stellar researchers, and I was in awe of their contributions to the field. When I finished my time there, I had to give a 45-minute report to the collective body of academicians and invited professors from the university. In presenting the research I had completed on their dialect, I found myself in an unnerving position in spite of all their kindnesses to me while I was working there. Their treatment of me like any junior Russian academician, a treatment that has little in common with the manner in which American academics relate to each other, made the awkwardness worse. My presentation was followed by questions from all those in attendance. The questions fell like pelting rain from a cloudburst, one after the other in rapid-fire order, some of them piercing, others insightful, few of them easy. That discussion was followed by a 45-minute very supportive public evaluation of my report by Aleksandr Ilich, who later sent me a written evaluation of my performance to pass along to my supervisor (not that I had a supervisor who could read it since it was written in Russian). If nothing else, the time there did much to help me build a bond with the people and land of Siberia and, equally important, improve my Russian language skills.

The need for speaking Russian saddened Aleksandr Ilich, the elderly and highly intelligent director of the Institute of Philolophy at SO AN. When we went to his home for lunch and dinner, nearly every day, he would spend our walking time chatting in English. He had learned English during WWII from reading technical manuals for the American airplanes he was flying as a navigator. Once at his home, of course, we spoke Russian with his wife, Natalya Timofeevna, herself a highly respected dialectologist and academician. At the Academy, we also spoke Russian even though all the academicians used English books in their research. Aleksandr Ilich would chide them on missing the opportunity of a lifetime: to speak English with a native speaker.

One of the senior academicians put the problem into clear perspective. “One native speaker in our lifetime shows up here, and you think we could possibly speak English to her? No, this is not only beyond my capacity but also beyond importance for once she leaves, we will not hear English again.” Such were the conditions of the Cold War that he was right. It would take the dissolution of the Soviet Union before Americans and other Westerners would begin to show up in Akademgorodok.

Akademgorodok turned out to be a breath of fresh air after constant KGB surveillance in Moscow. There, I often wished that there was some way for academics to play the game that military attachés had played for years, if not decades, with their KGB tails. An attaché would be very careful not to lose his tail—something that Lizzie and I never learned for we were very skilled at losing anyone following us, some of it through scatterbrained approaches to learning our way around the byways of Moscow and some of it through real skill when it was important that we not be followed for fear of getting a friend or a helpful colleague into trouble. In gratitude for always being able to follow the attaché without difficulty, the KGB agent would give the attaché an occasional “day off.” The day was designated by the attaché walking slowly along the street and when no one was looking, placing a bottle of vodka or cognac on the sidewalk. If the KGB agent picked up the bottle, the next day would be the day off. Each departing attaché would tell his replacement, and so the game continued, at least until the end of the Cold War.

So, when Lizzie and I first walked down Morskoi Prospect, the 6-block-long main street in Akademgorodok with which intersected Prospekt Lavrenteva, named after Mikhail Alekseevich Lavrentyev, the first Chairman of the Siberian Division of the USSR Academy of Sciences (called, in short, SO RAN), and location of the Institute of Philology of SO RAN, we immediately felt the influence of Moscow. We saw, for example, the high-rise apartment buildings that were slanting slightly to the left or right, as the concrete slabs they had been built on absorbed the warmth of the typical 70-plus-degree heating of the apartments and melted the permafrost.

We especially quickly spied the elevated militia posts on poles at the beginning and end of the street, but they were unmanned. People talked freely about anything they desired. Surprised, I asked Aleksandr Ilich about this.

“What can the Soviet government do to us here in Akademgorodok?” he asked. “Exile us to Siberia? We are already here!”

Dear Aleksandr Ilich! He had helped us so much. He became our best friend in Siberia — my research advisor, father figure, and teacher. What I learned about Siberian language and culture had come first from his books, which I had read at Lenin Library. Then, in person, he filled in many missing pieces for me, providing a foundation that I would build on for years and am still building on.

He was like most Siberians that way. In a land where everyone has to fight against the harshness of the climate, being one’s brother’s keeper takes on a literal meaning—and action. Even strangers would help us out. One taxi driver, in particular, I remember with intense gratitude.

Lizzie and I had been in Akademgorodok for a while when I realized that we had better go the airport, the only place we could get a return ticket to Moscow. Our visas would run out soon, and we had come on those one-way tickets proffered by Inotdel. With the airport 75 kilometers away, we would have to go by bus. Of the two buses in town, one went to Novosibirsk, originally named Novonikolayevsk after Tsar Nicholas II, the third largest city in the Soviet Union. The other went to the Novosibirsk/Tolmachevo Airport. Both cost 75 kopecks for me and 25 kopecks for Lizzie, exactly one ruble all told. That was good. I had only 10 rubles left to my name. I had traveler’s checks, but the bank in Akademgorodok was unable to cash them. I was hoping that I would be able to do that at the airport since the airlines would take them for ticket purchase. I obtained the departure schedule for the bus and set off with Lizzie for the airport.

At the airport, getting the tickets was not as easy as I thought. All tickets to Moscow were sold out until after our visas expired, and there was no way to extend a visa while in Akademgorodok. Well, what we were to do? Purchase the tickets for the earliest day possible and worry about the visas later. (When we got back Aleksandr Ilich told us not to worry about the visas; no one would be checking—and besides, what would they do? Send us to Siberia? Like everyone else in Akademgorodok, we were already there! And so we overstayed our visas, with no questions ever asked.)

Once we had purchased the tickets, we returned to the bus stop. It was not there. The stand where the bus had pulled up earlier was a drop-off spot only. There was no pick up. I checked out all the other bus stops; at a tiny airport like Novosibirsk/Tolmachevo, there aren’t many. One bus driver noticed my obvious confusion and opened his door,

“Kuda khotite?” (Where are you looking to go?)

“V Akademgorodok.” (To Akademgorodok.)

“Akh, nu, avtobusa netu.” (I see, well, there is no bus.)

“Dolzhen byt’. My syuda na avtobuse iz Akademgorodka priekhali.” (There has to be! We came here by bus from Akademgorodok.)

“Da. Syuda priezhaet, no tuda ne vozvrashchaetsya.” (Yes, the bus comes here from there, but it does not return there.)

Along about that time, the driver of a taxi parked nearby came over and asked if he could help. I explained our dilemma: we had come to the airport on bus from Akademgorodok, never dreaming that there would not be a bus back. He offered to take us. I would have agreed with alacrity. However, all I had to my name was nine rubles. Certainly, a 75-kilometer-trip would cost at least 30. I hesitated, then explained my dilemma to him. He smiled and said that he would take us for nine rubles. (Obviously, I had forgotten about Lizzie being with me; most Russians will do anything to help children.)

Taking us to Akademgorodok along the road between Tolmachevo and Novosibirsk and then along the Ob River was a long trip in and of itself. When we came across unexpectedly derailed cars from the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which crossed the Ob two blocks from our dormitory at Novosibirsk State University then sped eastward across the open steppe, the trip became considerably longer. We had to turn around, go back to the airport, and find back roads to Akademgorodok. The trip wound through the woods and passed a Strategic Rocket Forces airbase that we were not supposed to know about, especially in the days of the Cold War, as we wended our way back to Akademgorodok for more than two hours.

Along the way, Lizzie and I chatted in English. Surprised to hear a foreign language, the taxicab driver asked us, “Are you speaking Czech?”

We said no and admitted that we were Americans, speaking English. The trip immediately became more interesting to him. He had never met an American before and was full of questions — just as many questions as the Soviet media was at that time full of propaganda. The driver’s good deed turned out to be very educational for him. He turned back the meter to its starting point three times, and when we reached our dorm at Novosibirsk State University, he proudly announced that the meter read nine rubles. We handed him nine rubles, along with a pack of American cigarettes that we often carried as a bribe, Russian cigarettes being distasteful and unhealthily unfiltered. To that, we added American coins for his nephew and a few other pieces of Americana that we happened to have on us. He was pleased. We were pleased. The Russian Good Samaritan may have lost 20 rubles, but he gained much that day that he has probably never forgotten.

At the time, I told Lizzie that we were really lucky to come across this particular taxi driver. Now I wonder if we really owed our rescue only to Lady Luck leading us to one kind Siberian Samaritan.

This excerpt is adapted from my book, Blest Atheist (MSI Press, copyright 2009).

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About Me

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I am the mother of 4 birth children (plus 3 others who lived with us) and grandmother of 2, all of them exceptional children. Married for 42 years, I grew up in Maine, live in California, and work in many places in education, linguistics, and program management. In my spare time, I rescue and tame feral cats and have the scars to prove it. A long-time ignorantly blissful atheist converted by a theophanic experience to Catholicism, I am now a joyful catechist. Oh, I also authored a dozen books, two under my pen name of Mahlou (Blest Atheist and A Believer-in-Waiting's First Encounters with God).

My Other Blogs

100th Lamb. This is my main blog, the one I keep most updated.

The Clan of Mahlou
. This is background information about various members of the extended Mahlou family. It is very much a work still in progress. Soon I will begin posting excerpts from a new book I am writing, Raising God's Rainbow Makers.

Modern Mysticism. This blog discusses the mystical in our pragmatic, practical, realistic, and rational 21st century world and is to those who spend some or much of their time in an irrational/mystical relationship with God. If such things do not strain your credulity, you are welcome to follow the blog and participate in it.

Recommended Reading List

Because I am blog inept, I don't quite know how to get a reading list to stay at the end of the page and not disappear from sight. Therefore, I entered it as my first post. I suppose that is not all that bad because readers started commenting about the books, even suggesting additional readings. So, you can participate with others in my reading list by clicking here.
I do post additional books as I read them and find them to be meaningful to me, and therefore, hopefully, meaningful to you. One advantage of all the plane traveling I do is that I acquire reading time that I might not otherwise take.