Thursday, March 8, 2007

Snow, Women’s Day and Russian Science

After Monday’s blizzard Vladivostok is truly a winter wonderland. I don’t think I have ever seen as much snow in a city as there is right now in Vladivostok. The last couple of days have been very cold and clear, too (only today did it get warm enough for some of the snow to start melting), so we have avoided a lot of ice so far – you have to enjoy this while you can! On Monday evening after the storm it was so calm, clean and peaceful in Vlad, and the air was fresh – you have to savor those moments. (They are quite rare in this bursting-with-traffic city.) Over the last few days we have seen many stuck cars, people pushing cars, drivers being polite and not running over pedestrians forced to walk in the streets due to unplowed sidewalks, mountains and walls of plowed snow as tall as or taller than your average person. Some streets downtown (and many sidewalks) have been cleared, while other streets are under a foot of snow, with a few lines of tire tracks forming the necessary ruts for cars to get by. All together it’s a spectacular sight.

I am lucky, because I walk almost everywhere, and the only form of public transportation I am dependent upon is the electric train (elektrichka), which is not too affected by the snow. Hiking through all this snow in the city is quite the hard work – and certainly keeps you warm in the chilly weather. But, I am enjoying it while I can and admiring the views and all the white -- once the thaw begins, it will not be nearly as clean, and much more slippery.

Today (March 8) is International Women’s Day, a big holiday in Russia (and a number of other countries, I believe), even if Americans have not caught on yet. Women get gifts, flowers, chocolate, cake, and so on, and all day long the TV and radio and everyone talks about how amazing women are. (Ah, it’s so nice to hear the truth broadcasted throughout the land!)

Everyone has off work on March 8, so you have to celebrate Women's Day during the second half of the work day on March 7. (This way, really, you get 2 holidays.) At the Institute of Marine Biology we had a little party with cake, wine and chocolate. Many Russians actually spend March 8 itself at home relaxing. I was rather against this option. There is in fact too much snow in Vladivostok right now to get out to go cross-country skiing, an original potential plan for the holiday. Instead Leslie and I got together in the afternoon and decided to make a trip to the Arseniev museum. (Leslie is a Fulbright teaching assistant in Vladivostok.) Vladimir Arseniev was a famous explorer of the Russian Far East, and I have been really interested in him ever since I first watched the Kurosawa film “Dersu Uzala.” I am planning to read a few of his books while I am on the Fulbright.

The museum was, well, interesting. From our guide, an elderly Russian women dressed in quite a bit of pink, we learned that Arseniev was a noble person, that he loved everybody and everybody loved him, and that Chinese people, as a rule, apparently have no redeeming qualities. In short, she was quite the character, although I’m not sure how much she knows about Arseniev. I asked a lot of questions nonetheless, forcing her to admit that we were very interested and curious Americans – in a good way. (Me: Can you tell us about Arseniev’s expeditions? What were some of his greatest achievements for the Russian Far East? Our guide: No, we can’t talk about that. But you can buy this book we have for sale – true, it’s rather expensive – and read about this. You can only read about these kinds of things.)

I'm going to say it was not a complete loss, though. I think we learned a couple of new things. And hey, we got to take our picture with a tiger skin.

Working at the Institute of Marine Biology means I get to have some interesting conversations with Russian scientists. Although you know that science and funding for it is in a bad state in Russia, it always more striking when you chat with someone personally. Many laboratories in the institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences are no longer able to organize collective work around a few well-defined themes, meaning each scientist in the lab does his own thing. Larger-scale field work and expeditions are nearly impossible to finance (without international support), and equipment is terribly out of date – IMB’s youngest research vessel is 23 years old, and the marine institutes in the Far East (IMB, the Institute of Oceanography, and others) expect that soon they simply will not have any functional research vessels at all. Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is that scientific research institutions can no longer attract young specialists – the salaries for scientists are so low (about $200/month) that it is impossible to live off of them, and young people are going into more profitable fields. IMB has plenty of specialists in their mid 40s and 50s and up…but attracting young people is a real problem. Although Russia’s increasing national wealth hasn’t changed the situation for science thus far, let’s hope it will in the future.

Pictures: 1. Ice on my windows, 2. Check out all this snow!, 3. Having some cake on Women’s Day at the Institute of Marine Biology, 4. Leslie checks out the tiger skin at Arseniev’s house-museum, 5. The snowplows have made new mountains for the kids of Vladivostok to conquer on Aleutskaya Street :)

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