Saturday, March 31, 2007

Back in the Former USSR

Hi there.

So, a few words of introduction and explanation are in order. I’ve decided to start blogging for a couple of reasons: 1) it seems a good way to let people in my life know what I’m up to without sending out annoying mass e-mails; and 2) I might as well start getting into the habit of recording my ethnographic impressions of and reactions to Moscow before I need to keep formal research notes. I plan to begin this blog with some very informal ramblings and sprawling notes to myself. But even though this is only a blog, in the interests of protecting my career, I’ll be changing names and obscuring the details of my research.

The title of this blog, “The Moscow Diaries,” is a tip of my cap to Walter Benjamin. Unfortunately, “The Moscow Diary” was already taken by someone in a position that resembles mine uncannily: a visiting scholar living at Moscow State University (MGU) and logging onto the internet at “CafeMax,” a 24-hour cafĂ© with banks of computer terminals, a new wi-fi system, and seriously overpriced food.

I arrived in Moscow on Thursday afternoon, and so far the trip has gone very smoothly. In my first three hours in Moscow I accomplished more than I had in the first three weeks of my last visit to Russia in 2005. I bought a new SIM card for my cellphone, set myself up with a wireless internet account at CafeMax, and made contact with a visiting American professor and my former roommate from my first stay in the MGU dormitories.

In the nearly two years since my last trip to Moscow, I’ve only noticed minor changes, most of them for the better. Moscow’s subway system now uses convenient “touch” farecards; CafeMax has installed a wi-fi system and has begun selling cheap and somewhat drinkable “student coffee” (i.e. a cup of hot water with a little packet of powdered Nescafe) for only 15 rubles; and the hackers in the MGU dormitories have refined greatly their informal, grey-market internet service. The system works like this: you call the head hacker and ask to get internet access in your dorm room. The hacker will ask you if there’s an Ethernet cable in your room or not. If there isn’t one, then a pair of hackers will be dispatched to fling a cable out from the window of the nearest hub room and in through your window. Looking up at the dormitory, you can see a loose webbing of Ethernet cables connecting students to the local file sharing networks (for free) and to the internet (for paying subscibers). I’m told that I can buy handy “pay as you go” cards at one of the stores in the university’s main building.

I’m now working up the courage to call the head hacker and arrange for an appointment so I can get online this week. I’m more than a little nervous about my linguistic competence at this point. Actually, the word “competence” seems inappropriate. We’re talking about simple brute force utility for now. In the last two years, I haven’t taken Russian classes at my university in the United States, and I’ve only read and talked in Russian sporadically. I’ve been working with a basic survival vocabulary, and I have disregarded my usual concern about using proper grammar. My sentences are short, simple, and blunt.

Surprisingly, this seems to make me a more effective speaker of Russian. In previous trips, I would try to say, “Excuse me, but if you have bliny with ham and cheese, I would very much like one” only to be met with puzzled looks and angry shouts. Now I say, “Bliny with ham and cheese,” and seconds later I have lunch. Getting my cellphone’s SIM card took an hour when I tried two years ago. This time I said something like, “Hi. I want a MegaFon SIM card. How much?” and five minutes later I was taking calls and sending text messages.

I mentioned this to another American student today over lunch, and she replied that in Russia, brevity is the soul of more than just wit: it’s how people prefer to talk in general. She offered an example: “I was dating a Russian guy for a little while, but before long I realized it wasn’t going to work out. In English I would have had to have spent a while telling him that it wasn’t his fault and that we were different people at different stages in our lives and that we each had to follow our own paths or something stupid like that. In Russian I could just say, ‘I don’t really want to be with you anymore’ and it saved a lot of time.”

Anyway, there is much more to say, but in my attempt to adapt to local customs, perhaps I should just keep this entry short and sweet…