Zane is a 2019 alumnus of the design track of IFTER’s Moscow Art Theatre School Summer Intensive. Here’s a look into his training in Moscow.
Upon arriving in Moscow and waking up for our first classes of the week, we started out with a walk. The walk down Tverskaya was around thirty minutes, but it was one of the nicest walks I’ve had the pleasure of taking on the regular.
The classes we had were about what most would expect to be taking, Set Design, Costume Design, Lighting, etc. but, the Russians treat design completely different than we do here in America. Design is treated as a fine art, something to be appreciated, and they train you that way. Twice a week we had drawing class and painting as well where we practiced our fine art skills that could transfer into our designs.
However, my art skills are nothing compared to the other Russian students; the designs and projects that they were doing were absolutely incredible.
This is a set a technologist student did for Peter Pan. This quality is what the professors wanted out of each and every student, which was very stressful but very worth it.
We had intensive classes in nearly every aspect of design including history of set design, history of costumes, a whole class dedicated to military dress in Chekhov’s time, and classes spent at the state art library pouring over original photos from Chekhov’s time.
One other absolutely amazing thing we were able to do is tour the workshops, stages, and backstage areas of multiple theatres in Moscow including the Moscow Art Theatre, the Bolshoi, and Lenkom Theatres. (Most theatres asked me not to post pictures)
This program was absolutely amazing and a blessing to be a part of. I would recommend any aspiring designer or tech person to take this and share in these wonderful experiences.
Our next design course will be offered in Summer 2021. Stay tuned for more information!
This post is by guest blogger and MATS Summer Intensive 2014 alumnus, Brendan Thompson. Originally from Alberta, Canada, Brendan has been living and working in Moscow for the past year. He is an actor, director, and playwright who loves literature, hockey, and pizza. You can read more about his adventures in Moscow here.
My first experience in a supermarket in Russia was a terrifying one. When I arrived last year I was taken to Ashan (actually French owned), a store that is like Superstore, but if it were the Autobahn. I have since become much better at navigating grocery stores, and have also made some observations.
I’ve noticed that Russian food, in supermarkets at least, seems to have fewer preservatives and chemicals when it comes to the essentials, like milk, eggs, dairy products, and fresh produce. This is both good and bad.
On the one hand the produce is fresh; tomatoes aren’t abnormally large, there isn’t a waxy substance around your apples, the vegetables look like they were literally pulled out of a garden, put directly onto a truck and brought to the store. Nobody sprayed them with chemicals, no one gave them any growth hormones, or whatever other wonderful things are done to our produce in North America.
On the other hand the vegetables look like they were literally pulled out of a garden, put directly onto a truck and brought to the store. Were they cleaned? Clearly they were not because they are often still covered in dirt. That’s probably fine, but it is interesting to note. It also means that the produce, the milk and often the meat goes bad quicker than in North America. Our refrigerator is often the victim of something we left for a day or two too long. Grocery stores, the bigger or cheaper ones anyway, are not always as quick to replace old produce so old, not quite rotting, food is sitting out, sometimes with swarms of fruit flies that need to be shoed away.
There does seem to be a greater appreciation for fresh food from the people here, from what I can tell in talking to people. I would argue that this leads to healthier diets, but what do I know? There are always many farmers’ markets selling fresh fruit, berries and vegetables on certain days of the week.
At first glance the majority of supermarkets are not too different from the average Canadian grocery store. You can buy snacks, chips, vegetables, dairy, meat, bread, etc. There is one popular item I’m very grateful is popular here. One of my most glorious moments upon arriving in Russia was coming around a grocery store aisle and going “Hey Nutella! Nutellaaaaa!!!!!” (That’s from a play right?)
The details are a bit different though. Salsa is often absent because the Russians are not big on spicy food. When I order spicy food I am often warned that it is spicy and what I am given is usually “mild” to “not spicy” (I pity the few Mexicans living in Moscow).
The chip flavours are slightly different, crab being a big hit. The pop is different, root beer is absent (my girlfriend didn’t even know what that was), and something called kvas is present. It’s not really pop, I would describe it as what would’ve happened had the inventors of Coca-Cola made it not as fizzy, slightly alcoholic, and bread flavoured instead of caramel (yeah, that’s right, Coca-Cola is caramel flavoured). Peanut butter is very difficult to find, but I did it once. Maple syrup, and syrup in general, is not really a thing, but select stores have it regularly.
The dairy section is a bit more diverse. They have their own versions of things. Buttermilk is hard to find, but there’s something called “kefir” (key-FEAR) which tastes mostly like if buttermilk was thinner and you were supposed to just drink it straight. “Tvorok” is cottage cheese though less… runny? Liquidy? There is also a wide range of butter, spreads, cheeses, etc. Skim milk is not a thing, except at a few grocery stores. Even 1% is difficult to find, the norm being 2-3.5%.
Seafood is also popular, herring being one of my new favourite fish. It comes in a plastic dish and is drenched in fish oil and you just eat is straight. I like to have it with seaweed salad (morskaya kapusta, which literally translates to “cabbage of the sea”). You can get all kinds of fish, crab and lobster. My friend mentioned that in one restaurant he went to, one of their finest dishes was “Canadian lobster”. Nice job, Maritimes!
Finally, getting out. You will pay less for your groceries in Moscow if you stick to the essentials. Bread can be as cheap as 70 cents a loaf. I think I pay about half as much for fresh produce as I do in Canada. Brand name things are probably comparable.
I have not seen a self-checkout from what I can remember. This makes things less frustrating, but more personal. If you don’t speak Russian, the cashier may not be happy with you. The cashier is, however, sitting down. What!? I feel like this would make many employees in Canada much happier and is a much more reasonable system than having them stand all day just to scan things. Maybe I’m wrong.
Anyway, grocery stores in Russia. The same. But different. Thanks for reading.
At 9 a.m. on a rainy Saturday we began our first ever workshop in partnership with Susan B. Productions. It was the kind of morning that begs a person to stay in bed. Would anyone be there? Would it be a success? We couldn’t be sure.
When it was time to begin working, the room was full of bright, eager faces ready to discover Biomechanics. Our instructor, Ana-Maria Bandean, filled the room with energy and confidence. A room of strangers quickly became an ensemble moving from one exercise to the next, discovering, for most, their first taste of Biomechanics.
Although I was also participating as a student in the workshop I couldn’t help but take a step back, take a deep breath and say to myself: “This is why we do this!” Since IFTER’s creation our goal has been to link American students with International theatre artists both abroad and here at home. We are in our second year of international programs and now we can finally offer programs in the US too.
Through out the workshop Ana-Maria carefully explained Meyerhold’s techniques and invited every student to try exercises to go along with them. Each student stretched and pushed their body and mind continuously for three hours to understand the basic principles of Biomechanics.
We worked at lightning speed through a long series of exercises designed to help the actor understand Biomechanics with his/her body and mind. We worked with organic movement, energy, space, balace, coordination, objects, text and with partners to begin to develop a sense of the fundamental principles of Biomechanics: otkas (refusal), posyl (sending), stoika (stance), and tormos (brake).
When twelve o’clock came and the session had ended we were all equally surprised that time had passed so quickly and that we had covered so much in three hours.
We couldn’t have asked for a better kick of to our new Workshop Series. Special thanks to Ana-Maria Bandean, Susan B. Productions, and our fantastic students for making the workshop possible. We hope to offer more Biomechanics workshops in the future.
Have a great idea for a workshop? Feedback on this workshop? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Today’s blog post is written by 2009 MATS Summer Intensive Alumna, Jessica Strauss.
My month-long summer intensive at the Moscow Arts Theatre School was highly influential with shaping my perspective on the arts overall. During our time in Moscow and St. Petersburg, I was exposed to the highest caliber of theatre that I had ever experienced. Although the plays were in an entirely foreign language and several hours long, the
works that we attended were by far the most engaging pieces of theatre
I have ever seen. All elements including technical, directing, performance, etc. were presented in a professional level that is rarely if ever achieved in America. It was amazing to be in a culture that so deeply appreciated theatre as well. We attended Three Penny Opera at the MXAT while it was still in previews and the audience was completely full (just like every show we attended). My exposure to Russian theatre showed me that anything really is possible and theatre is so much more than the words on the page. Those two concepts were of course presented to me at Butler by Elaina’s classes, but it was such a gift to see them fully realized and actualized in the highly professional and high achievement setting of Russia.
The classes at the Moscow Art Theatre School carry the same high expectations as the professional theatre and it’s clear to see the professors aim to equip students with the skills to truly master their craft. We took classes in Acting, Ballet, Movement, Singing, and
Theatre History. Each one stretched me and challenged me in new ways as an artist, student, and simply as an individual. In Ballet and Movement, I was challenged to move beyond my comfort zone and physically and mentally work hard. I really appreciate in Movement being instructed by Natalia Fedorova to do the impossible. We were
directed to run on walls, jump over tables and chairs,and accomplish physical feats we had deemed impossible. She broke down the mental limitations and unleashed new freedom in her entire class. I had similar experiences in our Singing class, where I was pushed beyond being a beginner in voice and guided to remove previous boundaries. I
thoroughly enjoyed our acting classes that focused on both building ensemble and achieving individual artistic growth. Again, all these classes exemplified that the impossible was in fact possible. That principle is definitely not a foreign idea to Elaina’s students and it so rewarding to get to experience that lesson in it’s fullest as capstone to the Butler Theatre experience.
I would definitely encourage other students to attend the program. It’s such an incredible experience to be challenged in unique ways in such a historically and culturally rich country. From my time in Russia, I have learned to dream bigger and work harder.
Today’s blog post is by guest-blogger and MATS Summer Intensive Alumna, Melissa Fenton. Melissa is a 2010 graduate of Butler University and now lives and works in Los Angeles.
I remember an immediate respect for the quality of art I saw – not just in theatres – everywhere. Advertisements were glossy and beautiful, the people themselves seriously aesthetic, and everywhere I turned, some street performance was wow-ing a crowd. First impression? Russians were serious about, well, just about everything.
This proved to bode well for our group as we made our way, awkward and American, into the world of Russian Theatre. We bumbled about in ballet class, ached and moaned and human pretzel-ified ourselves in movement, reveled in the absolute joy that was acting class, and any spare time we had left was dedicated to seeing shows. I think we saw over twenty shows while we were there. They were all amazing and alive, like nothing I’d ever seen or felt before. Everything was perfect. Refined over and over and over again, sometimes for years, we were told, until the Russians decided it was perfect. Their standards account for the often-lengthy rehearsal schedule.
But it showed. It was truly an experience I wish for every student of theatre. When I saw what was happening in those theaters, I felt something “click”. I understood why I loved this art form so much and how endless the possibilities were.
One final memory, and I think that will do. I remember this beautiful group of young actors, standing in line to audition for the school. They were 16, 17, some probably younger. All beautifully decked out in their meticulous clothes, personalities shining, the girls in red lipstick and collected brows. There was an air of dignity about them, lined up from the stone steps and on through the narrow corridors. I could tell they were honored to be there. They were there to learn.
Believe me, you will come back inspired, informed, and if your experience is anything like mine, a better person all around.
More information about the MATS Summer Intensive here.
In today’s blog, guest blogger and MATS Summer Intensive Alumna, Marcy Thornsberry, describes her experience with Russian theatre and how studying at MATS informed her career as a professional theatre artist.
The summer before my senior year of college, I participated in the Moscow Art Theatre School Summer Intensive. My trip to Russia was the first time I had ever been abroad, and I loved it! As a theatre artist, I gained vital experience both from the classes I took and from the plays we saw while in Moscow.
We were lucky to see a production almost every night. Although I do not speak the Russian language I was still able to understand the majority of the plays we attended. The language barrier encouraged me to observe the characters closely in order to better understand the story, and as a result of the talent and dedication of the performers, I clearly understood the intentions and relationships performed. I feel as though experiencing the Russian repertory theatre system, as well as working with and watching artists that are closely connected with Chekhov and Stanislavski, provided me with an experience that I could not have received in America.
I still vividly remember sitting in the audience seeing Butusov’s production of The Seagull, one of the most beautiful productions I have ever seen in my life. Krymov was another of my favorite directors. His productions were all enthralling, visually dynamic, and the performances were always excellent to watch as an acting student. I was also fortunate enough to visit the homes of Chekhov and Stanislavski.
Since graduating college last December, I have been working professionally as an actor. My training in Moscow has made me more marketable as a theatre artist. The experiences both in the classroom and in the audience have made me more rounded both as an actor and an ensemble member. Understanding how to work in an ensemble is essential in any career, and my time in Moscow developed those skills.
In addition to the amazing theatre in Moscow, the culture and history are just as awe inspiring. I would recommend this program to anyone interested in furthering their study of theatre.
In this post, guest blogger and Moscow Art Theatre School Summer Intensive Alum (2009) Raphael Schwartzman tells you what this program meant for him.
Interested in joining us for MATS Summer Intensive 2014? Click here.
One of my clearest memories [of the MATS Summer Intensive] is of being so wonderfully sore after my first movement class. The performance training we received, which included Droznin movement technique, yoga, acrobatics and ballet, was demanding physically and mentally in a way that I hadn’t usually experienced back home. I had to learn to move with parts of my body, in rhythms and isolation, that I had never done before, and this woke me up to how important it is for actors to train their body like an instrument, in the same way that dancers, musicians, and athletes do. I also got the chance to run across a wall and try to flip off of it, which was challenging and frightening and unbelievably fun.
I saw as much theatre in a month in Moscow as I do in a year in the United States. Every single show was evocative and visually stunning. Even though I don’t speak enough Russian to follow the dialogue, the actors’ performances and the stage design are so compelling and attention-grabbing that it is impossible to look away. It’s even possible to figure out the general plot of the play because the actors are so specific and clear with their bodies and voices.
One experience that I had in Moscow that has stayed with me is the incredible quality of the diploma show done by the third year students at the Moscow Art Theatre School. It was a series of short scenes that the students had created themselves which included performing as animals, puppets, celebrities, and in extreme situations like sky-diving and fire-fighting. Even though there were minimal technical elements, and the actors almost never spoke, the scenario and the progression of the characters were so clear and moving. The scenes were simple, subtle, and extraordinarily powerful because they were so detailed. The students had been working on these scenes for the entire three years that they had been in school. This is common for actors in Russia to do, where they will perform multiple shows in rep for years. This level of commitment and passion was formative for me as an artist, even though we only got to experience it for a short time.
I try to bring that perspective with me into the theatre work that I do here in the United States. These students could work for so long on these little performances and continue to refine them, to find more details, more questions to explore. In the US we only ever have a few weeks to put up a show, so it was extremely valuable for me to see what could be made when the right amount of time is invested.
I would recommend this program to current students (or anyone who has the opportunity) over and over again. The training is superb. The opportunity to experience the culture is priceless, and the perspective that it offers is eye-opening. In Russia, there is a deep-seated respect and need for theatre that is ingrained in the culture. We struggle with this outside the artistic communities in the US.
About the Author
Raphael Schwartzman graduated from Butler University with a BA in Theatre in 2011. He currently lives in Chicago where he works as a director, actor, designer, and educator.
Eliana Sigel-Epstein shares more about her experiences studying directing at GITIS. Visit her personal blog here for more!
Понятно (pahn- YAT – nah)
It’s strange to me that it wasn’t until the past few months that I realized how frequently Russians say Понятно. It literally means “understandable,” but it’s usually used as a question to check understanding, so it’s like asking “Got it?” but it’s used even more frequently, and isn’t quite as condescending. Understanding, and checking a person’s understanding, is becoming the theme of my experience at GITIS. I had already experienced how the simplest of tasks are made extraordinarily difficult without being able to understand the other person’s language. And now I’m trying much more complicated tasks: sitting in a classroom, trying to learn fairly complicated ideas about theatre. And then the most complicated task of all – forming friendships with other people. How to understand a person without understanding all the words they say.
Not to mention, trying to get others to understand your artistic ideas. I am now working on three separate projects with Russian actors. And it is so hard. For the first rehearsal of each, I wrote out what I wanted to say in Russian (well, first in English, then I translated into Russian) and read it aloud at the rehearsal. Of course, I’m positive I made embarrassing errors in my translation, and sometimes I’ll come across a word that I don’t quite know how to pronounce, or I won’t be able to read my own handwriting, and it’s just awkward to be reading off a sheet of paper at a rehearsal. Voice inflection is so important in communication – especially communication in theatre, and it’s hard to do that with words in a language you’re still learning. Also, I try to communicate my ideas using simple words and sentence structures that I’ve already learned, and for me, it’s always been difficult to simplify my thoughts. After the first rehearsal, it’s almost impossible to write everything out beforehand, because a rehearsal is a living thing with unexpected problems. And the best ideas are those that come from collaboration. So how do you collaborate when one person only speaks the language 50%? How do you bounce ideas off of each other? How do you solve problems? How do you express problems in a way that is понятно? I mean, in rehearsal with American actors, I struggle to communicate with them sometimes. How do I translate the result I want from them into words they can use for their process? How do I change the way I say something that they are not understanding? How do I create an environment where we can feel free to share ideas and build on the ideas of the other person? How do we come to the same understanding of the character or the situation in the play – one that not only we share but that is in line with what the playwright wrote?
I am quickly learning that understanding is the source of all good theatre. Our master teacher’s guiding philosophy is that once you understand, everything else comes. Understanding the character and understanding the play is key. Simply understanding. “What’s happened?” he frequently asks when analyzing a student’s work. Not even “what does your character want?” or “what are the surrounding circumstances in which your character is living?” Those questions are important, but the answers come from simply understanding what is happening right now with your character. What has just happened that makes you act the way you act. And being able to distill what’s happening to the simplest, most powerful, most playable words. I frequently understand his Russian, not only because he is quite old and speaks quite slowly (he also frequently says “don’t rush” and clearly lives by that philosophy), but also because he speaks quite simply. He uses simple, straightforward sentences but each word has wisdom and truth.
So, more understanding to come – about cultural differences, about theatre, about everything.
This fall, three students from the American Course at GITIS Spring 2013 are studying along side the GITIS Second Year Directing students. Through the success of the American Course this fall and the exceptional talent and hard work displayed by our students, GITIS and IFTER teamed together to bring this opportunity to life.
Eliana Sigel-Epstein shares with us what the first week of the school year (Sept. 2-7) had in store for them. For more about Eliana’s adventure visit her personal blog here.
GITIS Fall 2013: Week 1
On the first day as “Stajor” students at GITIS, we arrived feeling weird and awkward. We knew, from a phone conversation with one of our teachers, that we were supposed to show up at a certain time. So we did, without knowing remotely what to expect. We were horribly, horribly nervous, and had been all week. Though, what made me particularly nervous that day was, actually, talking with my suitemate, who moved in a few days before. I really like her. She was born in St. Petersburg, but her parents are Jordanian, and when she was 13 she moved to Jordan. And now she’s here studying directing and, at 19, is the youngest director in her group. It’s also impressive that she was accepted as a woman into the directing program because some teacher teams (each year has it’s own teacher team, or “faculty,” that is led by a head teacher, the “master”) do not allow women into the directing program, still convinced that it is a man’s profession. Anyway, she was telling us about the horribly grueling and cut throat audition process. While Jackie, Daniel, and I all applied to IFTER, that application process was nothing like what she described. It made me nauseated just hearing about it. So, I went to bed that night, not only worried about what I was going to do should any of the teachers speak to me, but also knowing that the class of students we were about to join had survived and succeeded at this audition process one year prior (we’re joining the second year students). Certainly, we would be treated like second class citizens, nothing but an imposition – a joke compared to the seriousness and talent of the real students.
This turned out to be far from the truth. From when we walked into the room, students approached us and introduced themselves. Three of the directors came up to us and with perfect English informed us that they were here to help us. If we had any questions we shouldn’t be afraid to ask. Class was, of course, difficult to understand. Jackie, Daniel, and I spent the time listening as hard as we could, writing notes about our conjectures of what they could be talking about, and, of course, observing the social dynamics of the class. But it was such a relief that after class we could ask our English speaking experts what exactly the conversation was about – and also what assignments we needed to work on, and when our next class would be. They informed us that we had to pick and present a monologue by the 16th, which we could do in English, and I was to pick an episode from any Shakespeare or Chekhov play and present a concept for the episode on Wednesday. Clearly, we would not be spending our time on the sidelines of the class.
And indeed we haven’t been. The class has been working on a production since last semester and they are due to perform in on Friday. They have graciously offered to include us in the performance, which is a sort-of cabaret slash parody show. It started from character studies of famous singers, particularly Russian pop stars of the 20th century, and some American ones too. The show is an opportunity for them to not only embody a larger than life personality, but also to create a comedic performance, and showcase the singing and dancing skills they have been cultivating over the past year. A lot of them also accompany each other on musical instruments. We actually saw one of their first presentations of this performance for their teachers in the Spring. It has certainly come a long way since then and keeps getting better. It’s really interesting to watch the amount of time and meticulous work the students and teachers put into a show that could be dismissed as “just fun.” Yes, it’s a light-hearted parody, but it’s treated with as much serious artistry as a Chekhov scene. That’s Moscow theatre education for you. I’m just so grateful for how patient and inclusive they have been with us. In general, they have all been really friendly and excited to get to know us. While the three directors who first offered their help probably speak the best English of the group, some of the other students know English quite well or are learning it now. So, sometimes, I’ll be in a conversation where I’m trying to practice my Russian so I’m speaking Russian, and they want to practice their English, so their speaking English. It does take us a while to get through a topic of conversation.
Understanding the teachers, and understanding the students when they aren’t speaking clearly and slowly with simple words, is still really, really difficult. I’ll be able to hear certain words that I know, but not enough to actually surmise what is going on. It’s still really interesting to hear the cadence of the speech, and be able to tell the gist of what they’re saying from inflections and reactions. Like when a teacher is making a joke, or calling out a romantic couple for flirting instead of paying attention to what he’s saying. Or asking a really difficult question that stumps the student. At the episode concept presentations on Wednesday, I wound up not presenting my concept, just telling them which episode I had chosen. This was because the other students had all been working on this assignment all summer, and thus had time to prepare a write up and a model of their set design. They also all had to chose an episode from one of Maxim Gorky’s plays. I am very grateful they let me choose among Shakespeare and Chekhov, as I’ve only read one Gorky play, and the majority aren’t translated into English. Anyway, it was fascinating just to hear the rhythm of the conversations as the directors presented their concepts and the teachers asked questions and gave feedback. I could tell what they were saying had weight and truth, even though I had no idea what exactly their words meant.
Of course, it is horribly frustrating to not know what they’re saying. It’s like being stuck in the moment when everyone’s laughing at a joke you don’t get – and sometimes it is that exact situation. But, I have to remind myself to be patient, that it’s just the first week, and it will take time.
We still have a long road ahead of us. Who knows what surprises this next week will bring, how presenting my director’s concept in a language I still hardly know will go, how I’ll be able to properly understand notes on my monologue. But, unbelievably, so far so good.
American Course at GITIS Spring 2013 Alumna Eliana Sigel-Epstein gives us an inside look at her time abroad after classes ended this spring. Read more about Eliana’s summer on her personal blog here.
Classes at GITIS ended on June 4. The last week was spent learning from the Dean of the Directing Faculty who specializes in Michael Chekhov’s theories and taught alongside the assistant teacher to Michael Chekhov, himself. Ever since high school, I have been particularly interested in M. Chekhov, so it was sort of a long-time dream come true to work with a teacher who is so close to directly studying with M. Chekhov. I think one of my favorite exercises we worked on the last week explored four different ways of conceptualizing characters: as Earth, Water, Air, or Fire. It involved exploring the physicality and the emotional effect of that physicality when, essentially, “stuck” in that element. So, for Earth, we imagined that we were each stuck in a pile of rocks and were trying to break free. For Water, we imagined that we were at the bottom of the ocean trying to run as fast as we could. I then loved imagining which element was strongest in myself, my classmates, characters in plays I had read, etc.
This fall, I will be enrolling directly in GITIS in a post-graduate program called “Stajerovka.” I will be studying with Russian GITIS students in the Acting/Directing program, learning from many of the same teachers I had this semester. This is all, of course, without a translator of any sort, meaning my knowledge of the Russian language needs to be awesome if I want to understand anything that the teachers are saying.
Because of this, and a general desire to improve my language skills, I enrolled in a Russian language school, called the Pushkin Institute, for the summer. I had Russian language class for four days a week for about 4 ½ hours each day. It was definitely exhausting to spend the majority of my days studying such a complicated language. But it provided the kick-start I needed to prepare for the fall. Also, I can now order in restaurants much better and even answer people when they ask me questions on the street!
However, before my time at the Pushkin Institute started, I also took a two week long trip with my parents. We had a whirlwind of a time, starting in St. Petersburg, then moving on to Moscow, and finishing in Kyiv, spending about 5 days in each city.
The adventure started from the moment my parents landed at the St. Petersburg airport and we finagled a reasonable price for their taxi to the hotel. As soon as they dropped their suitcases off, we hit Nevsky Prospect, stopping almost every twenty steps for my mom to read to us from her guide book and for my dad to take pictures. Though jet lagged, my parents powered through a full day – we didn’t return to the hotel until midnight. Which continued to be the trend for all of our St. Petersburg days. Thanks to the Summer Solsitce, St. Petersburg was experiencing what they call “White Nights,” meaning that it did not get dark until about 11:30. And even after then you could still see a bit of twilight in the sky.
We took a free walking tour with a great St. Petersburgian named Igor, did the cornerstone tourist activity of taking a boat ride on the Nevsky River at night to watch the bridges open, and of course visited the Hermitage Museum. We also went to Catherine’s Palace just outside the city. All of St. Petersburg was crawling with tourists, both international and Russian. White Nights is a very popular time for tourists. However, Catherine’s Palace was probably the most crowded, tourist-ridden place of them all. The palace and the grounds around the palace were gorgeous and well worth the trip, but the crowds getting inside the palace were worse than the Moscow Metro at rush hour.
Another highlight was seeing Cinderella at the new Mari’insky Theatre. I was really excited to see the new theatre with all the press that it’s been getting. The dancers were truly terrific, and the orchestra, conducted by Russia’s most famed conductor Valery Gergiev, sounded beautiful. The acoustics really were fantastic.
But for me personally, the highlight was going to the Museum of Political History, which featured two awesome exhibits. The first was an overview of the last two centuries in Russia. The second exhibit focused mostly on how the leaders of the Soviet Union from Lenin to Yeltsin used and maintained their power. There was a large focus on Stalin and the tactics he used to maintain power, through propaganda and total control of Soviet life. It really clarified a lot of things about 20th century Russian history for me. It was also really incredible to see artifacts like documents signed prohibiting certain artists’ works or pictures of landowners rioting.
After five days of exploring St. Pete, we took an overnight train to Moscow. We had scheduled a driving tour of the city for our first day, and somehow managed to survive and enjoy it through our total exhaustion. The next day we got a tour of the Kremlin and enjoyed some more historical education. We of course also saw Lenin,St. Basil’s, some art museums, Gorky Park,Kolomenskoye Park, the All Russian Exhibition Center, the Space Museum. And I insisted on taking them to my favorite Moscow Metro stations, which they really enjoyed seeing. I even learned some trivia about the metro stations from my mom’s guidebook.
Unfortunately, however, there was no way for my parents to see my favorite part of living in Moscow – incredible Russian theatre. Most theaters’ seasons were closed for the summer, and if I were going to take them to a show, I would want it to be something that they could enjoy despite the language barrier. One of Krymov’s shows would have been perfect to take them to, because of the limited amount of dialogue he uses, but none were playing. We did, however, wind up going to the Bolshoi Theatre – now that the Mari’insky had whetted our appetites for ballet. The Bolshoi Ballet experience was as different as night and day. Unlike the Mari’insky, everything from the building, a recently finished reconstruction, to the ballet itself was traditional and grand and beautiful for the sake of beauty. We really enjoyed both ballets each for different reasons, and I’m really glad that we got to compare the two.
Another overnight train later, and we began the third leg of our trip in Kyiv (one of the many things I learned about Kyiv/Ukraine/Ukrainian is that “Kiev” is the transliteration of the Russian word for the city and “Kyiv” is the transliteration of the Ukrainian word for the city). It was the perfect place to end our adventures because Kyiv is a much more laid back city than the previous two we visited, and by that point we were exhausted. I knew very little about Kyiv and the Ukraine, so I really loved learning about its history. We took another free walking tour lead by a young Kyivan who talked freely about his opinions of Kyiv and his home country. It was very interesting to get a glimpse into the life of someone my age in Kyiv. We also went to the Chernobyl museum, which turned out to be one of our favorite museums of the entire trip. The English audio tour was very informative, and the memorial to honor the victims within the museum was beautiful and interesting.
Kyiv has a long history of Jewish influence; for instance, Sholem Aleichem (author of “Tevye and His Daughters,” on which Fiddler on the Roof was based) lived in Kyiv, and the town that inspired Anatevka is located nearby. As for the more unfortunate moments of Jewish history, Babi Yar is located in current Kyiv (it was just outside of city limits in 1930). There were several memorials scattered around the field, including one for the Ukrainian Nationalists who were killed at Babi Yar, gypsies who were killed at Babi Yar, a memorial for a woman who had served in the resistance, and the memorial erected in the 1970s that had absolutely no mention of the disproportionate number of Jews killed. The memorial for the children who died was particularly moving. It was of three dolls that look like children from afar but as you get closer you see subtle details symbolically linking them to the tragedy at Babi Yar. Small holes in the statue symbolize bullet holes, their heads have been partially torn off, and the boy wears a Yamaka on his head. It was very beautifully done.
My parents left early in the morning the next day but my train to Moscow was later in the day, so I had one extra day there. I walked through a beautiful park to the main square of Kyiv called Independence Square, the sight of both their October Revolution in 1917 and the Orange Revolution in 1991. The day before was actually their Constitution Day and around the Square were remnants of a parade that I guess took place that morning. I picked up a “Kyiv Cake” to take back to Jackie and Daniel – vanilla cake with nuts and wafers and chocolate frosting. It’s really sweet but also quite light. I had been told that it is a Russian tradition to bring a Kyiv Cake back to Moscow after a trip to Kyiv. Sure enough, nearly everyone on the train had a Kyiv Cake with them too.
Another highlight of the summer was a trip to the dacha of the family we stayed with when we visited Yaroslavl. The word dacha usually gets translated to “summer cottage,” but it is really so much more. It is an experience. It is very common for Russian city dwellers to have one of these “dachas” in a small village that they frequent as soon as the snow melts enough to drive on the narrow gravel streets that leads to the dacha. And dacha season lasts until the first snow of the winter. Until coming to Russia, I had never heard of a dacha, but apparently they are a Russian tradition dating back to the 1700s, that became even more popular during Soviet times throughout the entire Soviet Union. According to Wikipedia, up to 50% of Russian families have dachas.
Our experience at the dacha was really lovely. We woke up late, played cards, walked to the small pond, ate outside, just really relaxing. I kept thinking how nice it must be that they could frequent this second country home whenever they had a free weekend, especially because their dacha was only about 40 minutes away from their home in Yaroslavl. Their dacha, and from what I can tell most dachas, consisted of one floor split into two rooms, and an attic which they converted into a third room. They had an outhouse (the nicest outhouse I had ever seen), berry bushes, herb bushes, and (the piece de resistance) a banya. Now, I had thought that a banya – usually translated to “bathhouse” – referred primarily to the large bathhouses that you can visit in Moscow and other Russian cities. However, their banya was a separate wooden house in which you use chopped wood to crank up the heat in one of the banya’s small rooms to 90+ degrees Celsius. You hang out in the hot room for about fifteen minutes, then you can retire to the other small room to snack and chat and cool off, or go outside to cool off a bit more. Then back into the hot room and do it all over again. So, it’s not just about going into the hot room – which was like a sauna except it was entirely dry heat – it’s more about the whole experience of relaxing together. Apparently the extreme dry heat is good for you, especially your skin, but I more enjoyed the whole ritual of the thing, and the opportunity for bonding with your fellow bannya-mates.
One night, we made pelmeni, which are small dumplings that seem to be a staple of any Russian’s diet. Again, the experience was not just about the physical making of the pelmeni – which was fairly easy and I feel that I could repeat it – but about the time that you spend together. We also bought milk from a lady’s truck that looked straight out of Fiddler on the Roof – minus the horse. I think it was my first time drinking milk that had come straight from a cow.
We returned to Yaroslavl late on Sunday, showered (finally), and went bowling, Which was not something I expected to do while in Russia, but there you have it. But seriously, I could sit and watch the grass grow with these people. They are just so ridiculously warm and generous. The true embodiment of Russian hospitality.