William and Mary Law School

My first couple of days in Russia

An eruption of applause: the first sign that after a ten hour flight my plane finally landed in Domodedovo Airport (Moscow). A ritual among Russian travelers, which is not typically shared by American travelers. Next, the passengers were told to remain in their seats and await medical staff to board the plane. Not surprisingly, due to the innate need to rush to the front of any line, most people ignored this request. Next, two elderly ladies boarded the plane. It wasn't until they began pointing laser thermometers into passenger's ears that I realized all of this had to do with the swine flu (or "piglet flu", as the woman sitting next to me called it). For the first couple of minutes I was convinced that, as my luck would have it, it would be discovered that I am in fact transporting the flu and I'd spend the next weeks or months in a dilapidated Russian hospital or, at best, would have to fly back to the US. Well, I passed - luckily.

My first observation after stepping into the airport was: Man, it smells really, really bad! I realize that this is a stereotype and I should be more accepting of my birthplace. But, why are the people here incapable of using deodorant? It is accessible, cheap, and easy to use. Unfortunately, I think I'll just have to accept this as a fact of life for the next two months.

My first day of work is still four days away and so I used this time to travel to Saratov, Russia. This is where I lived between the ages of 2-9 and several family members still reside there. According to my best friend Wikipedia: "Gelonus, a legendary Scythian city and the northernmost Greek colony, may be conjectured to have been situated in the locality of present-day Saratov. Gelonus is mentioned in Book 6 of the Histories of Herodotus, according to whom in 512 B.C. the city was burnt down by the Emperor Darius I of Persia." Saratov itself was built in 1590, which makes it 420 years old. It's present population is estimated to be a little over a million people. Saratov was a major military aircraft manufacturing site and until 1991 it was completely closed to foreigners.

I was greeted at the Saratov airport by my uncle (Sergei), aunt (Vera), and cousin (Zhenya). They arrived by a private chauffer and I had to remind myself that this was not so strange considering the family car had to be left at a private parking lot because the probability of theft, if the car were to be left by their apartment building, is very high. The last time I visited them was two years ago, and most of my days were spent catching up on all of the new developments in our lives, my year abroad in Argentina, stories about my first year in law school, their recent travels, brand new apartment, etc. I am, however, quickly reminded just how different our mindsets are. We argued about ethical treatment of animals (their attitude being: food is food), cheating (they were shocked to hear that William and Mary enforces the Honor Code, claiming that it is naive to believe students will abide by it), and whether or not the fact that typically Russians own the fanciest cars, largest boats, and wear the most expensive clothes is actually something to be proud of. Strangely, having spent only a few days in Russia, I am slowly persuaded by them.

The Saturday before my first work week, I took the night train back to Moscow. I stayed in the female car, designated as such for safety reasons and not for any religious considerations. My room (or "kupe") sleeps two, but I got lucky and ended up alone. The train took me past many villages ("derevni") where the houses are primarily made of wood, residents are working in their vegetable gardens, and couples can be seen walking along the dirt road on their evening dates. Once the sun set, I finished a chapter of my book on the Russian legal system (a little light reading in the evening) and decided in the future to do a blog entry on its major differences from the US system. Then, it was lights out and I let the soothing sounds of the train lull me to sleep. Next stop: Moscow!