Monday, May 22, 2006

On Animals and Language: My Multi-lingual Canary

Dogs by the hundred dwell in the high-rise, Communist-era apartment buildings that line Pyshkinskaya, the pedestrian boulevard which bisects our city. I live on Pyshkinskaya myself and enjoy observing the poodles, chihuahuas, dachshunds, German shepherds, rottweilers and bull dogs out with their owners taking care of personal business in the mornings. In the evenings, the dog crowd shares the boulevard with the baby buggy brigade as folks parade until dusk with their little ones, both the four-footed and two-legged varieties.

I notice that the dogs understand Russian. The owner says “syest” and the dog sits.

“Sta-YAT” and the dog stays.

“Ko mne” and the dog goes to the owner. On a good day, anyway.

That got me thinking about animals and their understanding human language. By the way, the average dog understands 165 words, a quick Google search showed. But I’m wondering if the owner were to give a Russian-trained dog the commands in English if the animal would understand. I’m wondering, is it the word itself that the dog comes to understand? Or does the dog understand the word in combination with intonation, particular gestures or the situation?

* * * * *

Actually, I’m more interested in my own pets, Sunny the canary and Kesha the cockatiel. I like to think that they are multi-lingual. I base that on some quasi-scientific experiments I’ve conducted with Sunny.

I say “Good morning,” and he chirps a greeting.

“DO-broy OOT-rah,” and he responds to the Russian.

Today I added Greek to the mix. “KAL-i MER-a,” and he answered.

I like to think he understands. I have yet to test his response to Turkish or perhaps Mandarin Chinese. Furthermore, I have yet to test his response to “Today you will be fed to a cat” in any language. (Perish the thought!)

Languages and animals: Maybe someday we’ll understand each other perfectly. In the meantime, there’s some sort of understanding.

“Sunny, heel!"

Monday, May 15, 2006

Tea on the Train.Served in glass-holders worthy of a czar.

Vendor at train stop selling cakes.

Clever vendor at train stop. Carrying hard-boiled eggs like a necklace.

From St Petersburg into Spring

We finished boarding the St Petersburg-to-Adler train, which runs along the western corridor of Russia from north to south, and were settling into our assigned compartments. I sized up the young man with whom I would be sharing space for the next 33 hours and determined that for once, I would not be the first to introduce myself. He was all business, not looking to initiate conversation and I had grown weary of introducing myself to strangers. I had just finished back-to-back conferences in Moscow and St Petersburg and spoken Russian non-stop for 12 days. My quota of extroversion was depleted and I was ready to crawl back into my shell.

Other passengers were subdued as well. Most likely they were recovering from the endless toasts of the previous day, The Day of Victory, the 9th of May, when the nation celebrates the end of Nazi occupation.

The train eased out of the station at 9:40 pm sharp and my travel companion busied himself with a crossword puzzle, taking up more than his share of the fold-down table between us. Our compartment had four berths, two on each side of the window and table. The bottom berths were ours and the top ones vacant. A sliding door separated our compartment from the long corridor.

My mood for silence didn’t dampen my curiosity about my fellow traveler, however, and I began ever so casually to gather clues. He was clean cut and his attire business casual. His jacket was perfectly tailored from wool gabardine. He wasn’t thirty yet and his thick neck, wide shoulders and square hands hinted that he had been a weight lifter or boxer some ten years and 30 pounds ago. His choice of luggage and cell phone indicated that he was of the intelligentsia and I guessed that he was into computers, perhaps a business owner.

The train was picking up speed now, heading past the Stalin-era apartment buildings that towered like unblinking sentinels over the urban sprawl. We sped through the industrial clutter into the suburbs packed with single-family dwellings, past the dachas with their weekend gardens until at last we reached the stretches of coniferous forest and groves of birch trees just starting to leaf. We could see it zoom past our window in the prolonged twilight of the far north.

It was getting late and I was plenty tired but I had misgivings about sharing sleeping quarters with this stranger. Unpleasant scenarios played in my imagination and then it dawned on me: I had packed my weapon of choice, a small New Testament. I deliberately laid the “sword of the spirit” on the table between our births, offered a polite “peaceful night,” rolled over and tried to sleep.

By noon of the next day, after we crossed the Volga and during our 25-minute stop in the village of Elets, my vow of non-communication began to dissolve.

Clamoring off the train, we were greeted by Russian grandmothers, “BAB-yshk-ee.”

“GAR-ee-ach-ee peer-OZH-kee! Hot pastries!”

“SEM-eech-kee! SEM-eech-kee! Sunflower seeds!”

The babyshkas hurried the length of the 12-car train, looking to make a few extra rubles from the traveling throng. I ended up purchasing a vast assortment of food, more than I could possibly devour, but a small price for the photos I managed to get of this slice of Russian life.

These goings-on of mine were observed with amusement by my travel companion and his new smoking buddy, a passenger I had met earlier in the corridor, who had heard my accent earlier and started speaking with me in halting English. Now he was smoking and chatting with my travel companion out on the train platform.

Back in our compartment, Smoking Buddy got promoted to Drinking Buddy. After a swig of vodka, my companion introduced himself as Aleksay and our guest, Ruslan. Aleksay offered that he could speak a bit of English.

“What is your name?” he asked, emphasizing the “what." "Who is your kompany kommander?” he asked, reddening a bit at his efforts.

Care to hazard a guess at his line of work?

“I thought you were a businessman.”

He was taken aback, as though his being military would have been obvious. Ruslan added that he also was military, an instructor at an academy of rocketry. The two of them began a routine that would continue through the afternoon. They would pour their vodka, have a short philosophical discussion while gazing wistfully out the window, make a toast on that theme, gulp the liquid fire and then disappear for a five-minute smoke.

I phased in and out of all that, toasting with bottled water and talking but mostly I was jotting down observations. I had realized earlier that the trip would be fodder for writing and scribbled non-stop about the two of them, their conversation and Russian train travel in general. But I asked questions to look less suspicious with my note taking.

“What is the Russian word for dandelion?" and “They say it’s 1,800 kilometers from St Petersburg to Rostov. So how many miles would that be?” Ruslan calculated it on his cell phone.

As the afternoon passed and vodka flowed, Aleksay continued to soften. He proposed a toast to world peace, another to the blue sky with its white clouds and another to going fishing. Into the second bottle of vodka, Ruslan started looking a bit green around the gills and he headed back to his own compartment.

“Obviously Ruslan is not a real officer.” Aleksay observed.

“PRAV-da? Really?”

“Of course. He’s only an instructor at an academy. A real officer would be able to handle his alcohol.”

That settled, we continued our trip into springtime. The vast countryside whizzed by. Gently rolling hills were draped in soft green. Clusters of homes with corrugated metal roofs were attended by fruit trees in pastel bloom. In the distance on the right was an Orthodox church, its golden cupola sparkling in the late afternoon sun. Near the tracks on the left was a babyshka squatting on her haunches, watching a few goats, a scarf knotted behind her head.

That evening Aleksay started looking out for me. At stops he would ask vendors for Cola Light, my favorite. Later he fashioned a vase from a plastic bottle for the bouquet of lilacs I had found and by the time our train pulled into our destination just before dawn, he proceeded to haul my 22-kilogram suitcase down the steps.

What a gentleman, I thought as he hurried off to jeep awaiting him.

After getting home, I noticed that the tag was missing off my luggage. I always label each piece, inside and out, with my name and the church address and telephone number. I had not taken that tag off but it was gone. I wondered if Aleksay had snipped it off when I had stepped out of the compartment. But I smiled realizing that the worst thing that could happen would be Aleksay Vladimirovich’s showing up at our church building out of curiosity. And perhaps he would be interested in learning more. That wouldn’t be the first time in history that an unlikely character had been interested in the Good News. After all, one of the first converts in the first century was Cornelius. And he was an army officer, too.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Veterans March: They went off to war too young.

Day of Victory: The 9th of May

Veterans March: They went off to war much too young.

Today, the 9th of May is the 61st anniversary of the Day of Victory, celebrating victory over the Nazi occupation of Russia from 1941 to 1945. As I write these words, the first rumbles of the “sal-OOT,” the eveningfireworks have started.

Hundreds of silver-haired veterans marched through the city this morning, the street lined with cheering crowds. It was a scene duplicated in cities spanning the nation’s 11 (or so) time zones: By-standers rushed out into the parade to hand red tulips and lilacs to the marchers. The veterans proudly sported their uniforms encrusted with war medals.

Each of the veterans alive today represents 40 other soldiers who went to the war, according to my number-crunching. The Red Army managed to stop Hitler’s advance across Russia but victory came with a steep price. Only ten of 40 Russian soldiers survived the war and of those ten, only one solder lives to this day, 61 years later. (Another comparison, 62 Russians were killed for each American casualty.)

Victory Day is a sacred holiday, a tearful holiday even decades later. Many attend as families, especially those honoring a grandparent, and haul out special-occasion clothing for the day.

"(Congratulations) with the Holiday!"

Think of the typical Memorial Day celebration in the US, ratchet that up about 25 times, and you have the magnitude of Victory Day in Russia. And, as we say in greeting on such a day, “S PRASD-nee-kom,” that is, “(Congratulations) with the holiday celebration!”

Somebody's Beloved Grandpa. Stopping the parade for a quick photo.

Lots more photos in my photo albums.

Sources: Washington Post, CDI Russia Weekly, Moscow Times – English language on-line edition, Russian television – Channel One, The City Newspaper of Rostov (Russian language newspaper).

Somebody's Beloved Grandpa. Stopping the parade for a quick photo.

"(Congratulations) with the Holiday!"

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"How Many Rubles For an 'A'?"

“University students buy their grades here. Did you know that?”

It was 6:30 last Tuesday morning, the sun had just risen, and air was crisp. I was walking along Pyshkinskaya Boulevard, the pedestrian-only thoroughfare that bisects the center of town, and chatting with a young lady whom I’d met minutes earlier thanks to a stray German shepherd. The stupid mutt had attacked both of us, biting me on the leg and then chasing her, barking and snapping until she tripped and sprawled out on the pavement. As I helped her up, I might have said something in English because the young lady hopped to her feet and began speaking in English.

We continued walking west, talking about my work, about her university studies and about life in Russia. And then she commented about university students’ paying for grades. I asked her to tell me more.

“It’s true,” she nodded. “It’s not uncommon for students to buy their grades here.”

“How much is an A?”

“An A can run between 3,000 and 8,000 rubles.” (That’s US$105 to $280.) “But the good students, the professors know who they are and won’t give them any problems.”

I had more questions but she needed to get home.

* * * * *

The conversation slipped my mind until Sunday after church when walking to lunch with dear friend, Julia.

“How’s Anton?” I inquired. Her son is a freshman at the university. A marginal student in high school, his acceptance into university was a great relief. It was either that or two years in the army.

“Anton’s okay. But he’s not doing very well with his studies,” Julia frowned. “He’s not the best student they have. Anton gets frustrated because he sees others who aren’t studying but they’re making good grades.”

“They don’t study but they make good grades?”

“Right. You know, it’s common here for students to bribe their professors for grades.”

“I had heard that. Is it really true?”

“Yes, absolutely. An A or a passing grade might cost $100. (That’s half a month’s salary for the average wage earner.) Not all will accept bribes. But everybody pays off everybody else here. Students pay their professors and parents pay to keep their sons in school and out of the army.”

“Looks as though the professors make more money. The students get good grades and everybody is happy.”

“Right. Except, of course, for those of us who can’t afford to pay.” Julia was upset. A single mother, she works several jobs to keep going. Her budget doesn’t include a slush fund for bribes. More importantly, she distains corruption. Julia was distressed at how the whole thing was affecting Anton and his studies.

* * * * *

Out of curiosity, I did a Google search on this issue and found lots of information. Russia has a long history of bribe taking. A study that monitors corruption shows that today Russians spend 10 times more in bribes than they did four years ago. Prime victims are business owners who pay large sums for “protection fees” and such, the average being $135,000. (Radio Free Europe. July 2005).

The typical Russian also frequently pays bribes to institutions that are meant to be free of charge including hospitals, police and the army. Higher education now tops the list of bribe-accepting institutions. Students use bribes to get good grades or to get accepted into prestigious universities. (Radio Free Europe. July 2005).

Only half of high school seniors are accepted into a university without resorting to bribes, according to another poll. The average amount of such bribes is US$1,200. (Novaya Gazeta, July 2004) Further, in the first six months of 2004, 5000 Russian families spent over 400 million dollars in bribes for their students to be accepted into university, to pass an exam or to have their grades raised. (Novaya Gazeta, August 2004).

* * * * *

So bribery goes on. But as I see it, that’s only part of the picture. There are many people here with the highest of ethics who find bribery disgusting. There are professionals who operate with the highest of standards. That includes the trauma clinic physician who updated my tetanus shots last week after the dog bite I mentioned. He could have charged me quite a sum and slipped it in his pocket. I was prepared to pay something but he shrugged his shoulders and declined payment.

My guess is that the 50% of students who do get into university without bribery are the top-notch students who are motivated to study. They have no need to bribe and are serious about preparing for a career. The 50% who do resort to bribery are the students out on the academic fringes who would flunk out elsewhere. I need to consult several more of my “local sources” on this topic of bribery. More to come. (And it won't even cost you!)