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ON THE SCENE: Siberia, week three

December 9, 2011
NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

My third week in Russia began lying in a hot spring near the shores of Lake Baikal, a lake the contains 20 percent of the world's fresh water, an amount equivalent to the amount of water in the Great Lakes and Champlain combined. The surface area isn't as large, not even close, but it is a far, far deeper lake and contains 3,000 life forms unique to it, including fresh water seals.

When I was there the surface had not yet frozen, indeed it is hard to imagine such a large lake freezing but it does, black ice meters thick in some spots. In the winter Russians regularly drive across cutting out hundreds of miles of the route around the edge. I came down with my friend Alexsay Yurjevitch, his wife Ludma and with two of their children. The eldest Olga, 18, is a first year student in electrical engineering at a university in Prague, the only girl in her class and a year younger than her classmates.

The previous morning Alexsey, a doctor known for combining Eastern and Western medicine, took me to a swimming center where I was first checked out by a doctor to see if she felt I was fit enough to swim for an hour and did not have athlete's foot. At exactly 10 a.m. we were allowed to go upstairs, scrub ourselves thoroughly in the showers (men and women in separate areas) and then at exactly 10:30 let into the pool where we swam for the next hour. About 20 minutes into the swim the doctor came to check to see if I was still alive I suppose. Then at 10:28 a bell rang, we got out, let the new wave of swimmers in, took and other shower and were done.

Another highlight of this week is that the temperature headed downhill passing minus 10 degrees. Tuesday morning and with it out came the Russian women wearing their fur coats. Unusual was the lack of snow, which normally pounds out of the sky starting in mid October. The area around Baikal had plenty of snow and the ski resorts are open as a result of lake-effect conditions, but just a trace in Ulan Ude 100 kilometers east.

My surprise of the week was my visit to the police station, or more accurately to the headquarters of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Buryatia, the equivalent of being taken to the headquarters of the New York State Police and having them not only be responsible for policing the state highways, but every city, village and hamlet, and serving as the Border Patrol, Homeland Security, FBI and having their own Special Forces unit.

I was there to help the East Siberian Academy of Culture make the case for an expanded relationship with the police. The previous week the academy partnered with the Ministry to organize the National Recognition of Police Day ceremony in Ulan Ude wherein commendations and promotions for outstanding service were handed out. The Academy turned it into an entertaining artistic extravaganza better than any Academy Awards presentation and, as part of a program to use dance to reduce stress and showcase the police in a different light, taught a group of men and women officers how to do 18th and 19th century formal dance, a presentation aired nationally by the media.

We assumed that we would be meeting with 4 to 6, or at the most maybe 8, department heads, but instead I found myself addressing well over 200 leaders within the Ministry, remarks all documented on film by their information services. I had spent the weekend researching the emotional challenges of the 24-7 reality of being a policeman or policewoman in the United States that can result in high divorce rates, alcoholism, PTSD, domestic violence and other outcomes of a very stressful job for people who often have to address all manner of challenges and differing situations, often at a moments notice and require remaining in control in at times highly charged and emotional situations.

I discussed similar challenges faced by servicemen and women, a group that I have been working with over the past four years, and a wide array of options that the Academy could provide ranging from assisting them create a museum to educate people about the history of policing, what it means to walk in a policeman's shoes, and house a memorial to those who lost their life in service, to a wide array of activities to reduce stress and strengthen families, to community collaborations, like CYC of Lake Placid-Wilmington, where the police are a partner in the effort to change community norms that will lead to a reduced use of tobacco, alcohol and others drugs by teens.

Our presentation was well received, and we have been invited back for further discussions and to identify some potential pilot projects. Meanwhile, dramatic and unusual though that experience was, I feel I would be remiss if I left out some of those small details that both separate and unite our cultures.

Here at least, greens are cucumbers and cabbage. That's it. Forget leafy salads, beans and broccoli. Salads are chopped carrots, chopped beets, or a combination of them combined with chopped or slivered meat or fish, canned corn, cheese and onions with a mayonnaise or sunflower seed oil as a binder. Soups are excellent. Meat, fish or chicken is served with just about any meal and often two or all three. The Buryats drink tea with milk, the ethnic Russians drink it black, usually with lemon, and together they drink more tea per capital than the British. Their dark bread really is great.

As for the temperature, on Friday it hit 32 C (-26 F.). My translator Masha, checking the report for the weekend, said, "Dress warm, it is suppose to get cold this weekend."

"Minus 32 isn't cold?" I said.

"Minus 32 is normal," she said.



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