Thursday, April 17, 2014

Back to Reality

The whole ride from Bosteri to Manas airport it rained, and my taxi driver listened to the strangest music. We started with a station doing an interview of a very shy, Russian non-proficient Austrian Jazz band that spoke so quietly you couldn’t hear them at a normal volume. Latter on the music changed to a mix of English and Spanish language songs, seemingly in 1980s style. The only song I recognized was “Be my Lover,” and that made me think of a Night at the Roxbury. (To be fair, when I got back to Russia they played "What is Love," also from a Night at the Roxbury)

Kyrgyzstan is a silly place.

However, Issyk-Kul' is gorgeous and the last few days I fantasized about buying an apartment in the village we stayed in and living in it half the year, renting it out the other half. According to my Kyrgyz-Russian taxi driver (who strongly approves of my idea) it only costs $30-35,000 for a three-room apartment (+ kitchen + bath) which to me seems like a total steal. I could probably save that amount of money in two or three years of steady working… 

The gang

Squirrel acrobat


Me!







Me! Again.


In any case, I’m getting ahead of myself. I spent the last few days in Bosteri running my tail off and enjoying every minute of it. Funny how 2 weeks ago I could hardly get myself through 30 minutes of jogging in Novosibirsk, and here I run 2-3 hours a day and wish I could run more.
April 11th was my last day, and I woke up with energy at 5:30am to go charging into the mountains by myself to see how high I could climb. I climbed for 37 minutes and had to turn around to get to my taxi in time. On the way back I effortlessly flew down the hillside as I gazed across the sparkling blue lake of Issyk-Kul' to the spires of the Tian-Shan on the other bank while listening to this. It was a blast.

But such runners-high type perfect situations come at a price. Everything hurts. I’m just glad I didn’t emerge from these past two weeks with bi-lateral femoral stress fractures. We did speed work yesterday and I tested my hamstrings against 30 all out 40 meter sprints. I don’t know how I didn’t break.

I ran more in the last two weeks than I had in the previous 4 months. And as I sat in Manas airport outside of the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, I could feel the inflammation brewing at the back of my sore throat. I seemingly can’t travel without getting sick.

I spent the weekend back in (now snowless) Novosibirsk with a steady regimen of sleep, hydration and axis and allies, punctuated by reading the news about Ukraine. Returning to "normal" life in Novosibirsk, I have a sense that the world somehow is a lot less safe than it was 3 months ago...

A lot of people ask me about Ukraine, and I find myself in situations where EVERYONE in the room rolls their eyes at everything I learned in international relations classes in the US. I start talking about the international system or that some people seriously believe in spreading democracy around the world for its own sake, and I can feel the complete rejection of such ideas. I told a room full of army cadets that I thought the United States was a force for good in the world. They chuckled.

Every time I have these discussions, I think of my college friend Lisa Streshley, and how she really cares about helping people less fortunate than herself. Granted, she's more Congolese than American, but I always have her in mind when I mention that some people truly believe in international development and aid as a way to help people, and not to pursue national interests.

Then I think about my philosophy classes where we all talked ourselves into the morality of international aid. We can prevent more suffering by giving our money away to people with less money than the suffering we will incur on ourselves by giving it away (I forget if that was before or after we all sat in a circle, smoked hookah, and sang koombaya...).

These ideas evaporate at the end of my tongue in a room full of Russians.

The majority of Russians see the world through an entirely different lens. Historical narratives in Russia are completely different than in the West. Their perspectives are entirely different. They view their culture and their society as unique, special, and under siege, and many see it as incompatible with "Western" values. They see the West as hypocritical and threatening.

For an example of the differences, take the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. I chose this case because Russians always bring this up as an analogous situation to Ukraine and Crimea. I'm not an expert on the Yugoslav wars, as it happened before my political consciousness (and isn't talked about all that much in America, what with 9/11 and Afghanistan and Iraq all happening soon afterwards). I did take a class on the Politics of Eastern Europe, and we talked extensively about democracy building in Bosnia and the breakup of Yugoslavia, but so much about the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. In any case, a quick look at the Wiki pages shows some serious differences. For example, the English language page is titled "The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia" while the Russian language page is "Война НАТО против Югославии" (NATO's war against Yugoslavia). Bombing sounds more like a limited police action, whereas the Russian title implies an aggressive war. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

So while Russians have negative political and historical views of the West, they walk around in Western clothing, shop at European luxury clothing stores, and drive German cars. I see a New York Yankees hat every day; I even saw a New England Patriots jersey!! The LA Dodgers and Lakers get their love too. They constantly listen to American music, they watch American movies, they like to swear in English words.

Today was the first really warm day in Novosibirsk, and a crowd of skateboarders had turned Lenin Square into a skate park. Lenin looked on in his typical commanding pose. I wonder what he would have thought about skateboarding...

So they hate Western politics. They dislike liberal and progressive agendas. But they love Western pop-culture, style, fashion, and art. If only I could explain that all of that is connected. The West is so rich in culture, wealth, and ingenuity because it's societies are relatively free...

Oh, and did I mention everything is America's fault? I'm sure before I leave Russia someone will tell me the Chelyabinsk meteor was actually an American plan to attack Russia that brave Russian cosmonauts prevented through superior intellect and skill. 

So I guess all of this is healthy for me. It forces me to evaluate the opinions espoused by American news sources and officials. It gives me access to the Russian perspective. I try to watch and read the news that Russians watch. Sometimes it's hard. Sometimes what is broadcast to Russians about America is hateful and hurtful. When there's news about America, it's always negative. Russians say the same thing about American news. I guess I need to pay closer attention.

But what was the CIA director doing in Kiev? America says nothing, or they say that maybe America is going to share intelligence with the Ukrainians. Russian media (and therefore all Russians, it seems) claim that John Brennon is personally ordering the crackdown in Eastern Ukraine.

I suppose both are plausible. I consider the latter rather unlikely. Kind of like the whole revolution in Ukraine being an American plot to weaken Russia. I suppose that's possible too. People really think highly of the work of the CIA - it can do anything!

The bottom line is almost every discussion I have about Ukraine in Russia ends with I don't know what the hell to believe, and none of us really do, and we're all friends even if our politics are going to all hell. If I hadn't read the news, nothing in my life would have changed. No one has approached me negatively because I am an American. No one has changed their behavior towards me because I'm an American. Politics are politics, and life is life. And while Russians often watch the news and like to talk about politics, so far it hasn't effected our lives. So that's nice.

I'll leave you with one plea. If you are going to take a position on the crisis in Ukraine, please try to get your information from more than once source; please try to see all sides of the issue. Don't get your news from one source and let that news control your world view. Every source of news has bias.

All of this almost inspires me to become a journalist.

Or I could just move to Kyrgyzstan and become a hermit.


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