Saturday, March 20, 2010

Siberian Utopia

Miss Russia 2010 beauty contest

When I tell people I have started a blog on modern Russian history, they inevitably ask: “Are you Russian? “ When I say no, they ask: “Well, have you been to Russia?” The answer to both questions is no. I have no natural or biological connection to Russia or any of the countries that made up the Soviet Union. I don’t even speak a word of the language. It’s an arbitrary fixation which, to my mind, is the best kind of obsession. In fact, I am not always sure I actually desire to go to Russia. How could the actual location live up to the “Coast of Utopia,” to borrow a phrase from Tom Stoppard? And of course I’d be better off not going if the cost of a ticket alone is $2000 or so. When it comes to travel, Mexico fits my budget.

Men s volleyball super league match Stars of Russia 2-3 World Stars

This is how I used to think before Russia came to me. That’s right, this author filled out a simple three-page form a couple of months ago (and did so last year as well) and I’ve just now been informed that I will likely be heading to Russia in May 2011. I’m stunned. More shockingly, a Russian visitor may be staying with my family as early as October 2010. This is not a drill: if all goes well, I may be schlepping a Russian faculty member or administrator around Chicago in the fairly near future.

Yekaterinburg theatre performs King Lear in Moscow

And how strange to find myself on the way to Russia only a few months after electing to create a blog to track my deepening interest in Russian history? But odder than the fact that I may be headed for Russia (the program still has to find a match in this specific country before I can be more definite), is that I’m not headed to Moscow or St. Petersburg but rather to the heart of Russia and indeed the entire Eurasian landmass apparently, Yekaterinburg.

In the next several days I hope to post something about Yekaterinburg. When I applied, I knew nothing other than the fact that Yekaterinburg was in Siberia and that the czar and his family had been murdered there during the Revolution. It’s not a pleasant association. Since then, I’ve just briefly Googled the place, and it seems that Yekaterinburg is a large city, the third largest in Russia in fact. It’s odd to think that I selected this Siberian city over similar opportunities in Switzerland, Holland, Finland, and England, where the population at large will be much more likely to speak English. After all, who willingly puts himself on a place for 24 hours? And what is there to visit in Yekaterinburg outside of the city itself?

Alexis Tsarevich

But when else would I ever in my life have the opportunity to visit the heart of Russia? I’m struck dumb with gratitude to my college for sponsoring the journey and looking forward to tracking everything in this blog. But never fear dear reader, if it turns out that they can’t find a match in Russia, I’ll seek out Russian history in one of the other sponsoring countries. In Switzerland, I’ll look for the homes and hotels of Lenin, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, and other Russian exiles. I read Conrad’s Under Western Eyes. If in Finland, I’ll journey across the gulf to visit St. Petersburg itself. In London, I’ll spend time in the London Museum, exactly where Marx used to sit, or seek out the place where the Russian social-democrats made mischief. In Holland, I’ll have to settle for looking back a couple of centuries to Peter the Great’s famous visit to learn about the shipbuilding trade.


  1. I have but a single question for you, my dear sir. Rather, more of a protective proposal to preserve your safety while abroad. Could I offer my services as your personal body guard during your expedition to Yekaterinburg? I am sure we can both agree that my stature and strength is no match for the common Siberian goon, but if we were to encounter any trouble, I would strike up a snappy song and dance as a diversionary tactic while you make your escape. It is a long shot, but I will pack my tap shoes for such a situation.

    On a more serious note, I am envious of your potential opportunity. Please keep me updated.

    Brian Blackburn

  2. I gladly accept your offer. My question to you: Has mixed martial arts made it to Russia yet?

  3. Congratulations! Looking forward to hearing more about a place that I too only ever associated with political assassination...

  4. Ahhhhhh - wonderful question!

    Thanks to a groundbreaking new course at CLC, entitled, Introduction to MMA, I can provide you a response to your inquiry. (ahhh yes, the inevitable sarcasm)

    Mixed Martial Arts actually has taken on a new life in Russia - thanks to the biomechanical calculations of former Red Army soldiers. They have deemed their savage art: Sambo, and over the past decade, they have competed in an organization called M3 - (indigenous only to Russia)

    Sambo is a fight system composed of many MMA components possessing similar submissions and striking techniques. However, the Soviet version is far more fierce because it is fortified with strong Russian work ethics and the indomitable spirt demonstrated by the USSR soldiers throughout WW2. Needless to say, they are rather large and frightening men.

    Sambo fighters are as menacing to foreign MMA competitors as the cold clutches of a Siberian winter are to adventurous nudist colonies.

    Brian Blackburn