Thursday, May 20, 2010

Reading up on Russia

Ah the sufferings of a public school education. I lament the fact that my US and World history knowledge is so painfully weak. I don’t recall making it past the US Civil War in high school, so anything after that that I didn’t experience myself is basically a black hole. Same can be said for world history. I know bits and pieces about Roman civilization but that’s it. Most of what I know now about the world I learned by traveling and preparing to do that traveling.

See, I have this thing for books. Browsing for book, buying books, waiting for books to be delivered, arranging books on bookshelves. And yes, actually reading books. Anyone who knows me well knows that I do border on obsessive compulsive about everything, including reading and including preparing for trips. I know more about Irish, Scottish and Italian history than most Americans you know, all because I read obsessively for my many trips there. I’m pretty good with English history and Spanish history too. But with the trip to Russia creeping up on me (nearly 100 days now!) I find that Russian history is a cavernous black hole for me. Embarrassingly so.

I mean, we all know (or should know) about Hitler’s systematic elimination of Jews and other of his “classifications” of people and we all know (or should know) about the concentration camps throughout Germany and eastern Europe during World War II. Well, embarrassingly enough for me, in my sophomore year in college, I “learned” for the first time that there were interment camps on the west coast of the US. When my Constitutional Law history professor mentioned that we’d be covering the constitutionality of them during the first class that semester, I literally laughed out loud. We wouldn’t do that. Would we. Really. wow. I felt small. And stupid. So that's partially why today I'm reading David Remnick's "Lenin’s Tomb" which is an analysis of how Russia rebuilt itself after Stalin and Lenin died, because I don't want to feel small and stupid again anywhere. Oddly enough, this morning reading it, I scratched my head yet again, because I had no idea whatsoever that Stalin and Lenin also committed systematic eliminations (or "purges") of hundreds of thousands of Russians. Good lord. Thank god my parents didn’t pay for my education. I’d be asking for my money back. But, this sort of clarifies for me why Stalin and Lenin are vilified today and why stories like this are significant to modern Russia today. But imagine my visiting Russia and not knowing this? How potentially embarrassing could that become, and what would I miss out on when visiting certain cities or sights?

On the other hand, I find it interesting how history tends to repeat itself. Renaissance Florence had Savonarola and its foaming-at-the-mouth religious nutcase; Russia had Rasputin. Hmmm.

My "to do" booklist for this trip is extensive and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed at what is left and the time I have to get through it. I’m hoping to at least have a working understanding of all of Russian history, so here’s what’s left:
--> Lenin's Tomb by David Remnick
--> Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
--> Among the Russians by Colin Thubron
--> Russia: a Concise History by Ronald Hingley
--> Catherine the Great: A Short History by Isabella de Madariaga
--> Ten Days that Shook the World by John Reed
--> City of Thieves by David Benioff (fiction, but I'm thinking good for plane reading)

And I still have 1100 pages in War and Peace. I think reading time will increase with beach/pool season, but still...time's running short. That said, I still welcome any additional recommendations!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

That "oh sh*t" moment

I've been blissfully going about life lately, not really focussing too much on the trip. Sure, it's in the back of my mind and I think about how far away it still is, but then I realize, it was almost nine months away when I booked it, and now it's only four months away. Yes, I've managed to waste away four months of preparation time. Yes, I've browsed the guidebooks and listened to some podcasts, but I haven't really devoted chunks of time to getting ready.

So I bought a couple more Russian books (as in learn to speak and read Russian) and that's when it really hit me. Oh sh*t. I'm going to Russia. And I can't read or speak this language to save my life. Literally. I can't say "Help" or "Call the Police" or "Fire". I can ask where the toilet is and if borscht is served here. Priorities, I guess.

The alphabet continues to confound me. I think I have the letters figured out, like their "P" sounds like "R". And I think I have the non-letter letters figured out too. And I feel pretty confident if I'm given a list of words and I take my time and sound them out.

But then at the end of the chapter I'm studying, there's a dialogue. Line and lines of text (ok, maybe ten lines, but still, multiple lines). And I get all flustered. I don't recognize a thing, and I'm back to sounding out the words, letter by letter, or if I'm really lucky, syllable by syllable. It's like Hooked On Phonics: Russian style.

Maybe I'm being hard on myself, but I pick languages up much more quickly than this, so I'm discouraged. Back on the train tomorrow, back to hitting the "Learn to Read Russian" book with a vengenance. I still have four months, after all.