Over the next few weeks I will take you along on my journey to Ulan Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, which is located about an hour east of Lake Baikal, in Siberia, where I am serving as a Fulbright senior specialist the East Siberian Academy of Culture.
I flew from Albany to Washington, DC, where I caught a direct flight on United to Moscow. I left my home at 11:30 a.m. last Tuesday and arrived in Moscow (Domodedovo airport) at 11 a.m. Wednesday their time (4 a.m. for you). After checking in for my evening flight to Ulan Ude, I took the airport express train into the city, made my way by metro to the Kransnopresnenskaya stop, got myself oriented and walked to the U.S. Embassy, located near the White House, the main governmental building for the City of Moscow. This site is especially known as where Yeltsin, standing on top of a T51 tank dramatically put down a revolt against the rule of Gorbachov, and in so doing, propelled himself into to position of being elected as the first president of Russia following the fall of the Soviet government.
Directly across the Moscow River stands one of the Seven Sisters, seven castle-like buildings built in Stalinist classicism style, to celebrate communist ideals, dominated by a large red star on top of their highest central tower. When I stayed there in 1989 it was called the Ukraina Hotel. Now it is one of the most opulent and elite Radisson hotels in the world. Where heretofore a kiosk stood in the lobby selling vodka, lapel pins, newspapers, matreshka dolls and black market caviar, you can now purchase a Rolls Royce and have the caviar delivered to your room on a silver tray.
At the embassy I met with Cynthia Ehrlich, director of Academic Exchanges to discuss opportunities for bringing academy arts faculty to the U.S. to learn how to establish arts therapy programs, and afterwards met with Marina Bialik, who is back in her native country trying to establish a palliative care program for terminally ill children. Then I returned to Domodedovo by train to catch the overnight S7 flight to Ulan Ude. We departed about 10 p.m. and arrived five hours later (now 8 a.m. Wednesday or 7 p.m. Tuesday EST). Since they served a full dinner and breakfast (both better offerings than received on United, which is not a reason to fly a S7) getting time to sleep over the past 36 hours of travel continued to be modest and fitful at best.
The temperature was minis 14 C (or 7 F) when I staggered off the plane to be met by Olga Kutnetsova, academic dean of the Academy, and Yanzhima Vasilieva, head of the Khambo Lama Intigliov Institute and her husband Nickoli. Yanzhima told me we would have a banya the evening of the 7th, and then sped off to meet a delegation of visiting scientists, while Olga showed me all the changes to the cityscape that took place over the past six years. I barely got a chance to check into my room and take a quick shower before the head of the international department was over to collect my passport and give me a copy of the rather intense teaching and lecture schedule that the Academy put together.
Rather than give in to sleep, I decided to take the tram into the city then walk home to help keep me awake to try to adjust to the 13-hour time difference as fast as possible.
On Friday, the National Day of Reconciliation and Agreement, in Soviet times the day they celebrated the October Revolution, I spent the morning working on a presentation on color therapy. In the afternoon I went by tram to Ayuna Gurueva’s to have a late lunch with her mother, sister and daughter. Her mother is a legendary dramaturge and coach, sister an art teacher, daughter an aspiring ballerina, self a curator at the Buryat Museum and father for many years the head of the Buryat Theatre. Lunch was a mini feast that included poseys, a favorite Buryat dish of spiced meatballs wrapped with dough, steamed and served with soy or mustard sauce, accompanied by sliced sausage and cheese, beet salad, fish salad, cider salad, cake and a few other things — all washed down with vodka.
For decades, the October Revolution and May Day celebrations were the two main holidays of the Soviet Union. So happens I witnessed the last October Revolution celebration held in Red Square by the Soviet leadership complete with Gorbachev saluting from atop Lenin’s Tomb. I was in Moscow helping to organize the culture program for a forthcoming conference and had been out late at night with several artists. My hotel, the Rossia, was located on the edge of Red Square, ground zero for the festivities. Getting there required driving at dawn through and around streets jammed with tanks, missile launchers and troop carriers lining up for the forthcoming parade, and a whole lot of police, a detail my hosts had forgotten when offering to drive me home. Hmmm, how to explain the American in the back seat?
After leaving Ayuna’s I went over to Olga’s (the Academy Dean) for a Russian version, yes another feast. The great treat was meeting her father Zorikto Nicolaevich Munkoev dressed, in what we would call his Sunday best, proudly wearing his Soviet Order of Labor of the Red Banner medal, a national recognition for 30 years of service keeping the railroad running on time, no small feat in a country twice our size. The day ended with night sky lit up with fireworks as I trundled home with a sense of forbidding as the next day would be the National Celebration of Men, a gender not known for restraint on such a holiday in Russia.