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Life in Ryazan

So I promised to tell about my trip to Ryazan. Ryazan is a Russian provincial town located about a three hour train ride south from Moscow. I left on a Monday morning on the [7:15] train. The ticket cost about $10. The train ride was quite pleasant. I spent most of my time staring out the window because I’ve never seen what Russia looks like outside of Moscow. Peppered between Moscow and Ryazan are small towns and villages. By villages I literally mean villages. Some seemed to only consist of several houses. There were no paved roads, and thanks to the recent rains full of mud. Some of these villages looked like they haven’t changed in over 100 years.

I was greeted in Ryazan by Pavel Tribunskii, a scholar Stephen Frank knows from Ryazan (Stephen is one my dissertation advisors at UCLA). Pavel is a really great guy. He is a young historian who teaches at a Ryazan art school for high students. He set everything up for me—a place to stay, access to the archives, and even gave me a quick tour around town to show me where all the libraries were. The only thing he asked for in exchange is to speak to his students, and even better do so in English! Pavel felt that this would be good for them since many of them are learning English and get few chances to listen to native speakers, much less Americans from Hollywood.

The family I stayed with, the Uskovs, were the nicest people ever! Sasha, the father, is a foreman at a local factory that makes building materials. Nadia, the mother, teaches chemistry at the local secondary school and institute, and Irina, their daughter, studies English at the local pedagogical institute. They were all very welcoming. In fact, Nadia wouldn’t stop feeding me. Not being hungry didn’t seem to register in her mind (but neither did me not being in a relationship for over 13 years and not married as well as Heather and I not wanting children. This last one seemed completely unacceptable, even though I explained that we have a dog and that was enough.). With the three dinners I had there, Sasha broke out a bottle of vodka which we both drank dry. The funniest part was that Nadia would scold him for “forcing” me to drink, but then would suggest that we have another drink! They were all interested in America and what it is like to live there and in LA in particular. I think we hit all the topics from economics, politics, war, history culture, relationships, employment, education . . . Irina spoke English really well and I tried to only speak to her in English to give her some practice.

Work in the local archive also went really, really well. When I arrived at the State archive for the Ryazan Oblast (GARO), which is also the former archive of the Communist Party, I was greeted by a very small old woman named Elena Mikhailovna. When I showed her my letter from UCLA asking to work in the archive, she promptly read it to a friend. She was also excited about my interest in the Komsomol, as long as I told a ‘positive’ history of the organization. She was very friendly to the point that at one o’clock she would escort me to the cafeteria (it seems that every archive has a cafeteria where you can purchase a hot luck for about a buck and a half.), made sure I got my food, showed me to a place to sit, got me silverware, and then told me to return at 2 o’clock.

Elena was also very interested in the United States and asked similar questions as the Uskovs. However, she had a few, how should I say, interesting questions. My second day there she asked if I had any ‘black’ in me, that is was I full white person or were some of my relatives ‘mixed’. Now this was about the strangest question I’ve ever been asked. Especially since by American racial standards, there is no question: I am white. But I guess Russians have a different measure of whiteness. I assured her that I was indeed a ‘full’ white, if anything to put her racialism at ease.

Another interesting moment was when Elena told me that she didn’t like people from Ryazan, though she’d been living there for like 40 years. When I asked why, she said that Ryazantsy were ‘stupid’. She was from Tver where the people are ‘intelligent’. Whatever. As I discovered the week before, people have some identity issues with this intelligent thing.

But I should say a bit about Ryazan itself. The apartment I stayed was really comfortable even though the street it was on was pretty muddy from the rain. Ryazan is a pretty dirty city in the winter, though Sasha assured me in the spring and summer it was quite beautiful. I assumed that the winter, with the bare trees, mud, and stagnant water (I should say that Moscow doesn’t drain very well either), is not a good representation of Ryazan. In addition to the mud, there are about three military schools in the city, so young guys in military getups are everywhere.

To get to the archive I had to take these minivans (marshruty) which cost about 7 rubles (or $.25). According to Pavel, these were the only efficient transportation because the bus system really sucked. Let me tell you, the marshruty are not the pinnacle of auto safety. All the regular minivan seats are torn out and instead welded in their place other seats. About 15 people can fit in a marshruty. Three in the front, including the driver, and 12 in the back. But I should point out that there are only 10 seats in the back. The driver will pick to two extra people, who have to crouch/stand until someone gets off. My initial fears about riding in them (seatbelts do not exist) was dispelled about a few rides. I can’t imagine what these are like after a snow and the road is slippery.

Ryazan is also a good example of uneven capitalist development. That is, parts of it are quickly modernizing and have all the things you would find here in Moscow. At the same time, you have some building that look 100 years old. Sometimes the new buildings are right next to the old ones, as with this new hotel they were building around the corner from the archive. Ryazan is a very old city, perhaps over 600 years old. The Kremlin looks very beautiful from the outside.

All in all, I look forward to spending two months there. . .

Oh, one last thing, it the first snow in Moscow was yesterday. Yeah!

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