Saturday, February 24, 2007

Classes at Far Eastern State University

Although most Fulbrighters in Russia don’t take classes, I decided to take a couple this spring related to both my project topics and own interests. They’re great language practice, a good way to meet people closer to my age (and smart professors), and in the case of classes related to my project topics, a great source of background information, current events and ideas. On the Fulbright you can’t get grades or credit for your courses, so I am truly just an auditor (and can do as much or as little work as I choose J ). Far Eastern State University (DVGU) actually let me “shop” for my courses for a couple of weeks, which is rare in Russia. I’m not taking all my courses with one group of students or in one department, either – also an exception here. I take all my courses with Russian students – there are no other foreigners. I am taking 3 courses at DVGU’s Environment Institute: Nature Protection and Regional Environmental Issues; Geoecology, and Political Geography. The first class covers a number of topics of great interest to me, from ecological monitoring approaches to environmental impact assessment in Russia to natural resource use in the Far East, to why and how the Russian Far East is one of the most unique places on Earth in terms of nature. Given my avoidance of the PoliSci department at Wellesley the Political Geography course might seem an odd choice, but the professor is interesting so I decided to go with it. I don’t really get Geoecology but hey, in the worst case scenario, all of these courses are a glimpse of Russian education and great language practice and, which in itself is useful. I realized I have come a long way since Irkutsk, when at the beginning of courses I would miss every 3rd word in the lecture – now I have no real difficulty getting everything down.

I’m also taking a 20th century Russian literature course at the Language and Literature Institute, because I just can’t get away from Russian lit! It is always so fascinating to me.

Otherwise I will also being doing some of my own research, of course, and will start exploring the library soon. I’m going to start by reading more about the history of natural resource use and human-nature interactions in the Russian Far East, which will give me a great excuse to read a bunch of works by Vladimir Arseniev, a famous explorer of the RFE, that I have wanted to read for a long time. And I am going to read more about the development of the protected areas (i.e., nature reserves) system here. And then I will go from there! In addition to the research thing I want to participate a couple of “practical” activities here, so I am not just doing the theory side of things, and as I am meeting more people associated with the Institute of Marine Biology and some local environmental NGOs, I am learning more about some cool possibilities, so I can make a few choices soon. But more on that later!

1. Main building of Far Eastern State University (the Environment Institute is located on the second floor), 2. The staircase near my building is half-cleared 9 days after our Valentine’s Day blizzard. Traffic jams and icy, unplowed streets and sidewalks have made getting around Vladivostok slow, difficult and treacherous over the past week and a half.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Day of the Whales and the Institute of Marine Biology

On Friday (February 16) I met Andrei Adrianov, director of the Institute of Marine Biology (IMB; Институт биологии моря), and made my first trip out to the “Chaika” (“Seagull”), the train stop a few minutes outside of Vladivostok where all the institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences Far Eastern Branch are located. Formerly the Soviet Union wanted to make a special little academic city (“Akademgorodok”) just outside of Vlad where all the institutes would be, but this did not quite work out in Vladivostok like the original Akademgorodok outside Novosibirsk. But, all the RFE branch institutes are in a nice spot easily reached from Vlad, and the Institute of Marine Biology is a horseshoe-shaped building perched scenically right on the coast.

IMB has 18 laboratories, 4 field stations throughout the RFE (including one on Kamchatka) and nearly 450 employees (a number that is decreasing due to reorganization required by the Russian government; of course, many of these employees are also administrative). Adrianov proposed to me two potential options for participation in scientific work at the institute: first, to work with scientists using underwater video devices to conduct monitoring of marine populations near Vladivostok and on the territory of the Far Eastern Marine Reserve (Russia’s only strictly protected, national-level marine reserve); and second, to work with scientists defining environmental standards for construction of a large aquarium (Russia’s first) on Russkii Island just a few minutes from Vlad – a big and new project right now for IMB. Of course, nothing is defined yet…after all, there still has to be someone to train me, of course.

On Friday at IMB I got to meet not only a couple of PhD scientists and laboratory directors but also the head of environmental education work at IMB, Liliya, and the head of the institute’s museum, Natasha. They invited me out to the institute on Sunday to celebrate international Day of the Whales (actually on Monday, Feb 19) with the children’s club they have created at the institute, “Children of the Sea” (Дети моря). The kids in the group (there were about 20 there on Sunday) are mostly 7th and 8th graders who won in an environmental project and essay competition held (voluntarily) in Vladivostok schools last year. (This year IMB is sponsoring a similar competition on a different theme – economic development in Vladivostok while maintaining a clean coastline.) These kids were pretty awesome – really active, smart and interested. A few students from Far Eastern State University also work with the club. Today they learned about and discussed why whales are unique, whale biology and taxonomy, learned what threats to whales exist and proposed plans themselves about how to decrease these threats. We also went outside and stamped out in the snow on the bay the outline of a whale, which they photographed and are sending to a school group in Kalinngrad for their Day of the Whales holiday.

In general, it seems that there are a number of activities in Vlad related to environmental outreach and education. I definitely really enjoyed the enthusiasm of all the kids, students and adults at the Day of the Whales – it’s exciting to see, and I always get into this kind of stuff. (The adults and students also did a really good job putting the whole event together – it was nicely done and really well-organized for both learning and lots of activity on the kids’ part – these people are pros.)

Also, I got my first admirer at the holiday – a 7th grader named Aleksei who wanted to take a picture on the bay with me, got my tea and bliny for me at snack time, and asked for my email address. Very cute. J

In other news…

Valentine’s Day Blizzard
On February 14th we had a fantastic snowstorm in Vlad. (I took some videos but I can't put them on my blog :-( Although the ultimate snowfall appears to not have topped a foot, the wind was unbelievable – it blew at a consistent 40-50 mph for all of the daylight hours (at least 12 hours straight). I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. (After all, in Denver in December I spent more time looking for my luggage then looking out the window at the snow – so it’s hard to compare.) For me it was literally impossible to go outside – I made it about 10 meters from the apartment door before I realized that getting blown over, slipping and falling – and not just once – was absolutely inevitable. Vlad does not usually get a lot of snow, although even if it did, who knows how quickly the city would have worked to make it possible for people to easily get around again – it’s Russia, after all. For the most part none of the sidewalks here have been cleared (and at this point, most of the snow has hardened into a sheet of ice, making simple shoveling impossible), and for the first couple of days after the blizzard very few of the many outdoor staircases in Vlad (it’s a hilly city, after all) had been cleared, meaning the snow packed up over the individual steps, hardened and the staircases turned into literal, smooth 45-degree angle ice slides. (Actually, I saw kids sledding on trays on the staircase outside my building….hmm, safe?) But, if walking faster than a mile an hour is potentially fatal, on the bright side they also did not plow the roads, which means many of the Vlad drivers have been forced to slow down, so you can cross the street more calmly. Plus, of course, the trees are very pretty coated in fresh snow.

Roman Viktyuk Theater (Театр Романа Виктюка), Moscow
On Saturday night Marina and I went to the theater to see the play “Nezdeshnii sad: Rudolf Nureev,” about the life of ballerina Rudolf Nureev, which was performed by the Roman Viktyuk Theater (apparently considered one of the most “scandalous” in Russia), visiting Vlad from Moscow. There was nothing really scandalous in this play, but it was totally different from anything I have seen before – different means of expression. Although at first I was not sure, I really enjoyed it! It was very, very well performed and brought up a lot of universal themes within the context of Nureev’s (very interesting – you should check it out) life.

1. Me trying to look scholarly sitting at an old scientist’s work table at the museum at IMB; 2. Katya, Arina and Ilya drawing a baleen whale (усатый кит) in preparation to explain how baleen whales are different from whales with teeth (зубчатые киты). 3. Dima explains his groups’ proposals for measures necessary to save the whales

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Destination: Vladivostok

(written Monday, February 12, 2007)

Despite one interesting neighbor on my flight (maybe always a given when flying domestic in Russia), the Petropavlovsk-Vladivostok trip was a nice smooth ride on an old Soviet plane, and I was very jealous of the girl sitting at the window as we flew over the Sea of Okhotsk (which still looked iced over despite the warm winter temperatures this year), Sakhalin Island and the mountainous east coast of Russia on a very clear day.

When we got off the plane in Vlad they stopped all the passengers who appeared to be foreigners, but I passed through, although I have never considered myself to be too Russian-looking. Or, this may be because, as I have heard, in Vlad they assume you’re Russian if you’re not Asian, because the Korean and Chinese population here is pretty high. This doesn’t stop me from feeling flattered (who knows why, actually – everyone wants to fit in, I guess) when people take me for a Russian, which has already happened a few times here, even after I’ve started talking.

As most of you know, I picked Vladivostok for a 10-month sojourn even though I have never been here before. The name of the city means “Lord of the East,” and this port town is known for being dangerous at night, home to unbelievable traffic jams, and plagued by poor air quality (so far, true, I’d say) and the occasional toxic metal contamination. But Vlad is also capital of a region that is one of the most naturally beautiful on Earth, and in terms of activities related to environmental issues – science, monitoring, protected areas, education, institutes, etc – Vlad is an active place, and I hope I succeed in taking advantage.

When I arrived to Vlad I was meant by a friend of Wild Salmon Center and Wellesley College’s travel agent, Debbie Chapman. Her name is Marina Bozhko, and she is wonderful. Marina had already found me an apartment before I had arrived here. I really like it. It is a one-room, Soviet-style apartment, very neat and on the 9th floor of a building very close to downtown, across the street from Vladivostok’s biggest supermarket (a convenient – although not cheap – option – although actually, Vlad is really not a cheap city) and within walking distance of my university courses and the Golden Horn Bay and Amur Bay on the Pacific coast. From a geographic standpoint Vlad is well-situated and very scenic. The city is laid out on a bunch of hills on the bay, and as you walk around town you get great views of the water (and ice right now) below and the hills on the other side. Of course, Russians will tell you that the way that the buildings are built up and around and on top of the hills is not exactly the best example of city planning, but I am really no great judge of this. So far it has also been pretty clear every day in Vlad (clear blue skies today), and warm (around freezing – somewhat abnormal temperatures like in much of the world this winter).

In Russia a one-room apartment is perhaps a bit more than what you may imagine in the states. I have a corridor when I walk in, and to my left is a walk-in closet for clothes, shoes, etc., and immediately ahead is a very large living room, which has my bed, a table and two armchairs, a wardrobe, 5 shelves full of books (a real home library), a cabinet of fancy Russian dishware and glasses, and a fold-out dinner table that for now is serving as my desk. (All of this without being crowded.) I also have a little balcony off the living room, where I can dry my clothes and which also has a lounge chair – a potential good reading spot in warmer weather. I have a very big kitchen – so, another room – probably twice as large as a usual Russian kitchen, which also has a big couch in it (I decided to put the TV here, too). So, despite a couple of “nuances,” as Marina calls them – e.g., the bathroom is big but not the most modern ever, the washing machine must be about 100 years old and has all directions in Japanese, and I have to unplug the refrigerator to dry my hair – the apartment is great. And it is pretty spacious, so I could easily have guests (so you should come visit).

On my first night in Vladivostok Marina took me to an event that may never be repeated for me again. This was the “Regional Far East Hospitality Awards” (no, Kamchatka didn’t win anything), which Marina was covering for her job and which I can only compare to the Oscars, but for Russian restaurant and hotel owners. Although there was no red carpet, it was a gathering of a number of beautiful people, many in evening wear (not me), with a stage and an emcee (in a white suit, white tie and black shirt), complete with red, blue and yellow strobe lights and popular music switched on with the announcement of each winner. Needless to say I felt a little weird, but hey, it was a new experience!

Over the last two days I have devoted much time to sterilizing all the dishes in the apartment and rearranging furniture, but I did get out some, too. On Sunday I had a little walking tour of Vlad with Marina and Leslie, another Fulbrighter here. (Leslie is an English teaching assistant – a different award than mine.) Today I went to Far Eastern State University (DVGU) to complete various administrative affairs (visa registration, filling out forms, etc.) and to choose my courses. This went well. They were waiting for me at the International Department at DVGU, everyone was very nice, including the student who helped me, Masha. I am going to choose about 3 courses to take at DVGU’s Environment Institute (Институт окружающей среды), and I also want to take a course in the humanities (maybe Russian literature), for variety and also to keep up my personal interest in that sphere. We went over to the Environment Institute (IOS) today, and we happened to bump into the dean, Yurii Zonov, while checking out the course schedule in the hall. Although I had never gotten a reply to my emails to IOS, it seems that Zonov read them and knew I was coming – he knew exactly who I was and even had some course recommendations (one of which is “Nature Protection and Environmental Issues,” taught by the deputy director of the Pacific Institute of Geography – cool!). Zonov also wants to introduce me to the director of the Pacific Institute of Geography later this week (an Academician – a high rank in Russia), which I don’t object to. So tomorrow Zonov and I are going to have a meeting, and hopefully course details will be worked out soon. The next stop is to figure out details with the Institute of Marine Biology, as soon as its director gets back to town, and then I hope to do some scoping of environmental organizations around town and potentially choose one to work with here. Hopefully this will keep me busy and happy, and who knows, maybe I will even have time to find a non-environment activity to do, too, which might be good to keep me from being too one-sidedly green.
Короче, всё впереди!

1. view from my apartment window in Vlad, 2. my apartment kitchen, 3. my apartment living room (love the leopard print), 4. newly-restored church in Vlad, 5. Tsarevich Nikolai II’s arch near the waterfront on the bay(built 1880, recently rebuilt)

Kamchatka: Skiing, Dog Sledding, and more (Friday, February 9, 2007)

Some moments, I think, are made only in Russia. On this trip to Kamchatka I accepted an invitation from a colleague, Sergei, to attend a chamber music concert beginning exactly 2 hours after my plane landed from Moscow, and which was taking place in Petropavlovsk, 45 minutes from the airport in Elizovo. My chauffeur to the concert, it turned out, was not Sergei himself, but his teenage son and his son’s friend, with whom I agreeably got into the car, despite having almost no idea of who they were supposed to be. Since after having waited for my luggage and resolution of various other issues, we were running quite late, my drivers quite logically calculated that we would need to travel at about 200 km/hr to reach the concert on time, which is in fact possible on the road from Elizovo to Petropavlovsk, and which they did with great enthusiasm, to the sound of Russian pop music blaring from the radio and text messages ringing from their cell phones. And as we flew (literally) over a bump in the road, I looked out the window at the sun setting over the volcanoes, peaks of white against a pink sky, with a Soviet military helicopter flying low in the foreground, and I thought – this is strange.

The concert was good, by the way.

I really enjoyed myself on this 11-day trip to Kamchatka, mostly because I realized how many people I have gotten to know here over the last year and a half, and how many people here know me, and how much I enjoy the opportunity to talk to them and work with many of them; and I also got to have a few new experiences, as well as meet some new, very knowledgeable and interesting people.

On my first Saturday on Kamchatka I was invited to the Institute for Teacher Qualifications, where two teachers and two education specialists whom I hosted for the Wild Salmon Center in October surprised me with a фуршет (like a little spread at a party, champagne included), pictures and a slide slow about their trip to Oregon. (I realized as I watched the slideshow that now I was reminiscing about Oregon, too, just like they were.) We ended up spending 5 hours talking – and these were teachers who were so shy in Oregon in the fall! It was great to see how much they had loved the opportunity WSC had given them, and to hear about all their plans for further developing environmental and salmon education programs on Kamchatka. They also gave me a collection of quotes from 7- and 8-year-olds about salmon, which I am reading with much enjoyment.

On Sunday (Feb 4) I had my first ever cross country skiing experience. After skiing downhill for 16 years, I have to say I felt fairly stupid sloshing along on inch-wide cross country rentals, especially in the midst of the expert Russians, but even though it took me an hour to go 3 kilometers and I fell about 8 times (you’d think that would be hard to do when the slope is flat!), I still had a great time. Russia is cool because you can go cross country skiing for a couple of hours for $6 at a little resort located literally 10 minutes from the city. Although, I have to say that when you take off your cross country skis and don’t feel the pain of having worn downhill ski boots for the whole day, the feeling of accomplishment is somewhat diminished.

I spent Monday through Wednesday (Feb 5-7) at a seminar on protected area (PA) management. This gave me the chance to get to know some awesome out-of-towners, some of whom I had known of for quite awhile and was really looking forward to meeting, such as Olga Krever (head of the Protected Areas Regulations Department, Russian Ministry of Natural Resources, Moscow – who is SUPER sharp and nice, really ready to talk enthusiastically to anyone, as few начальники (bosses) and officials anywhere are) and Aleksandr Laptev (director of Lazovsky Zapovednik (zapovednik = strictly protected nature reserve), which is considered one of the most successful protected areas in Russia). I also got acquainted with some people I did not know of earlier but am really glad to have met, such as a whole delegation of successful and innovative PA directors and related stakeholders from the Altai-Sayan region (known as one of the most scenic places in Russia), including Aleksandr Rassolov (director of Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve) and Valery Dorovskikh, who owns a tourism company and works with the biosphere reserve to conduct subsistence hunting activities and monitor their effect.

Lazovsky Zapovednik is located about 200 km from Vladivostok, and Laptev says he believes that I could be involved in some of the reserve’s work while I am on the Fulbright. This would be a dream, and although I am trying not to get my hopes up, I am also going to do my best to try to make it come true. (Lazovsky, by the way, is home to 10-12 Siberian tigers.) Moreover Rassolov and Dorovskikh also invited me to Altai-Sayan over the summer for a tour of the nature reserves there and their operations – another incredible offer I am going to try to make happen (while also not hoping too hard, of course). I feel like there are so many potential opportunities out there, and if they end up being real – perhaps a big if – then it will be amazing.

This trip to Kamchatka also held for me one more new event – dog sledding, a true Russian experience. It was really cool (-15 C temperatures included). How does dog sledding on Kamchatka work? We went sledding together with snowmobiles on a big loop track not far from the city, through the woods and with a view of the volcanoes in the background. We had one snowmobile in front, followed by a sled with a team of 8 dogs (the dogs chase the snowmobile), then another snowmobile, then another sled with 6 dogs (for the girls – it’s easier to stop 6 dogs), and then another snowmobile bringing up the rear. The first snowmobile takes off, and then the dogs go chase it, and so on. If you’re not sledding, you’re riding the snowmobile (a real diesel fume experience). When you go dog sledding on Kamchatka, they give you an intro speech much like the safety intros for something like white water rafting, after which you would think you will surely fall out of the raft 10 times, be tugged along by rope and buoy, and eventually drown. Except that in contrast to white water rafting, I had never been dog sledding before, so I really thought my chances of falling, the sled landing on top of me, and the dogs dragging me over long distances through the snow were about 99.9%. This feeling wasn’t helped by the fact that I know very well from childhood sledding and amusement park car rides that I cannot steer. But I didn’t fall, it turned out, and it ended up that I only wished I could have been sledded for longer. After we sledded we also had dinner and all received certificates pronouncing us true «каюры» (“mushers”).

And then on Saturday, February 10, after collecting some thoughtful gifts and new memories, I left Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky for another city on a bay on the Pacific – Vladivostok.

1. Avacha volcano steaming on Kamchatka (visible from Petropalovsk – picture taken at hotel 2. me and Tatyana Oborskaya (UNDP Protected Areas project), 3. Kamchatka teachers seining in Washington last October, 4. me and Yuliya cross country skiing near Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, 5. working groups developing action plans at PA seminar, 6. presenting an action plan for Nalychevo Nature Park, 7. preparing for an interview on the seminar, 8. Svetlana Kopylova (Ecocenter “Zapovedniki”, Moscow), Lara Peterson (US Forest Service International Programs) and me (in two down coats) getting ready to go dog sledding, 9. translating dog sledding instructions, 10. dog sledding! with Koryaksky volcano in the background

More Moscow pictures (January 26-27, 2007)

1. me and Alyona Ratataeva downhill skiing near Moscow(as you can imagine, no mountains, just hills, and for quite the expense at Moscow prices – but I had great company, including Alyona, her husband, and a young guy who works for a think tank for the Ministry of Natural Resources and is developing a concept paper on defining acceptable anthropogenic loads for ecosystems (экологическое нормирование) – I love meeting people like that – kind of inspiring what people my age are doing here! , 2. me and a Siberian tiger at the Moscow zoo(which has an amazing number of exotic animals, but unfortunately zoo living conditions for them do not seem too great)