Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Canned Christmas

Christmas, as we understand it in the west, isn't celebrated in Russia on December 25. They reserve that for New Years, thanks in large part to the Russian Orthodox Church and the Communist regime Russians lived under for three-quarters of a century.

The Orthodox Church never changed from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, meaning that they remained about 13 days ahead of Europe (who changed to the modern Gregorian calendar a few centuries ago). So while, technically, Christmas is celebrated on December 25 in Russia, it is in actual fact January 7.

The Communists, on the other hand, in their war on religion, set out to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church (which was a HUGE part of Russia's national make-up) and in addition to demolishing historic churches and arresting clergy, they also banished Christmas. They recognized that the people needed something to celebrate, so they moved Russia to the Gregorian calendar and made New Years the big celebration in Russia. As a result, after three generations of forced celebration on December 31st, New Years is today the big holiday in Russia.

New Years has all the trappings of Christmas, including "New Years" trees, "New Years" gifts and cards, Grandfather Frost who brings gifts to children on "New Years Eve" and everything else one would expect on Christmas, with the added tradition of drinking until one nearly dies.

Because I am from the west and December 25 is still the biggest day of the year in my mind (and soul), I decided to celebrate Christmas as best as I could. Katya and I travelled to the historic town of Suzdal, about 280 km south-west of Moscow.

We both took Friday (Christmas Eve) off work and boarded a train bound for Lake Baikal, in Siberia, for the three-hour journey. There were only second-class seats left but we felt like splurging so we forked over 500 RUB each and found our car. Two army men were sitting in our compartment (2nd class on Russian trains consists of a private compartment with 4 bunks for 4 people).

At first Katya and ignored the two soldiers, who had a dignified air about them, and we chatted away in English. On Russian trains one cannot use the toilet until the train has left city limits, so after thirty minutes, when the train had departed from Moscow and the jungle of apartment blocks and rusting factories had changed to snow-covered birch and pine forests, Katya left the compartment to find the little girls room. I sat in silence with the two soldiers.

Suddenly, one of the soldiers, a young man with a soft face and two silver stars on his shoulder boards, turned to me and in perfect English asked "Where are you from?" I was surprised and answered "Canada. And you?" He looked at me in a strange way for a moment and then began to laugh. "Russia, of course!" he answered. "I'm Anton, and this is Sergey" He motioned to the incredibly large young man sitting across from him with piercing blue eyes. Sergey must have been at least six-foot-four and was bulging with muscle, even in his baggy camouflaged army uniform.

By the time Katya returned to our compartment the three of us were swapping jokes and laughing and acting like old friends. Katya looked a little confused but sat down anyways (she later admitted she thought she had entered the wrong compartment). Anton was a lieutenant and he was taking Sergey, a private who had just finished boot camp, to his first posting in Siberia. They had a 3-day journey and then once Lt. Anton had safely delivered his young charge, he had a 3-day journey back to Moscow. Anton was a true slavophile, who told me numerous time that he "loves Russia" and held his hand on his heart every time.

When I asked about the black panther patch on their uniforms, he told me that they were internal military security forces. "In Stalin's time we were called NKVD" he informed me, and then pulled out a bottle of vodka and a sausauge and some bread, and we all began to drink. "I like Canada" Anton explained to me. "I thought you were American at first, and didn't want to talk to you." As he drank more vodka, he began to repeat "I love my country. I like Canada. I don't like America."

When the train reached the city of Vladimir, mine and Katya's point of debarkation, we gathered our things and said our goodbyes. "Wait!" Anton exclaimed, and he pulled out of his duffle bag a big box of Russian army rations. "Merry Christmas!" he said and thrust the box at me. "Umm" I stammered, not sure what to do. He was drunk and would probably miss them later, and I also had no room to carry 2kg of canned food around with me. His gift was thoughtful and he was genuinely being kind, however. "Thanks!" I replied. "Merry Christmas to you! And S Novom Godom (Happy New Year)!"

Anton smiled proudly. "Nobody will believe that I was drinking with a Canadian!" he declared.
"Nobody will believe I was drinking with NKVD!" I replied, and we both laughed. Then the kind and drunk security lieutenant gave me a big Russian bear hug, and Katya and I left the train.

With our own bags and a bulky 2kg box of powdered and canned army rations under my arm, we struggled through the snow of Vladimir until we found the bus station. There is no train station in Suzdal itself. so we had to take the train to Vladimir (another historic city and once the capital of Russia in the 15th Century) and then a 1-hour bus ride to Suzdal.

Suzdal is a Russian showpiece. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it is completely devoid of factories and highrises and highways. All the houses are little and ornately decorated in rich carvings and colours, in the traditional Russian way. More brilliantly still, there are nearly 150 bright Orthodox churches in the town and surrounding country side, so hundreds of multi-coloured, multi-shaped steeples poke up into the air from Suzdal's skyline. The roads were small and tree-lined and with a rich blanket of thick white snow, the town had a fairy-tale quality to it. Best of all, the rude and aggressive crowds of assholes that is Moscow were far behind us. The entire town was silent.

Katya and I spent two nights in Suzdal, exploring the churches and museums. On Christmas morning I awoke to find a small, luggage-sized Christmas tree with one sock under it. Katya, knowing Christmas is my favourite time of year (she calls me Clark Griswald), had packed a little tree and begun knitting me socks, but didn't have time to finish the second one. Across the small street from us was a huge convent surrounded by a big white wall. This convent is where the Tsars sent unwanted wives.

We spent Christmas Day walking through the town, and visited the Suzdal Kremlin and the Museum of Wooden Architecture (a big, open-spaced museum where wooden buildings have been reconstructed and period-actors roam about).

One problem with Suzdal is that it is pretentiously over-priced. The service is no better than in Moscow, nor is the quality of the food at restaurants, yet the prices were 20% higher. One restaurant was decent, however. Sokol, on the main street, has a nice little bar tucked into a corner of the second floor and they serve food from the restaurant upstairs. The barman is friendly and courteous, although the prices still suck.

Our hotel was wooden and the room was made of big wood logs, in the Russian tradition. We were the only guests in the hotel and the staff even went home at night, so on Christmas night, after a day walking through the town, we got drunk at the bar and sat in the lounge listening to music and playing chess, eating kalbasa and cheese on crackers.

On Boxing Day, December 26, we took the bus back to Vladimir and caught an elektrishka back to Moscow. I was hoping for another train, with it's comfortable bunks and drunk soldiers, but there were none that day, so we were stuck with a Moscow commuter train, complete with asshole babushkas and panhandlers who crowded and annoyed us for 3 1/2 hours.

On the elektrishka my stomach began to growl. We hadn't had time to eat that day, and we had just barely made the train so didn't have time to pick up food. With no prospect of sustenance for five or six hours (after arriving in Moscow we had to take another elektrishka to Shyelkova, and then a bus to Katya's home), and beginning to feel positively famished, I did the only thing I could think of. I opened the box of army rations the friendly NKVD officer had given me.

Inside were cans of preserved meat, packs of preserve jams, vacuum-sealed high-energy crackers, packets of vitamins, powdered juice and tea, and four little burners to cook food with. There was also a can of buckwheat porridge, which I immediately resolved to NEVER open.

One of the cans had a picture of a cow on it, so I picked that one out of the box and opened some sealed crackers. There was a little thumb-sized metal blad with a tiny notch in the handle which I assumed (correctly...I think) was a can-opener and so, surrounded by idiots and assholes on an uncomfortable wooden elektrishka seat, I began to saw away at the can of preserved beef.

I was surprisingly succesful, as I slowly but surely pried the lid off the can. A putrid sweet odour from the can spread throughout the elektrishka car, and people began looking over at us (especially the fat old woman sitting next to me) as I hacked and sawed. Fatty, oily juice sloshed over the sides of the can onto the floor and seat. Finally I opened the can and peeled back the tin lid.

Inside were big, disgusting chunks of brown and grey beef, with a thick layer of waxy white fat on the top. Katya looked at me in a strange way, knowing how picky I am about food. I was starving (and a little hung-over) and I had just gone through so much to open the can, so I was committed at that point to eating it. I grabbed a cracker and jammed it into the disgusting cesspool of meat and fat and oil I held in my hand, and scooped up a big, dripping piece of what I assumed was beef. And I ate it.

I ate the whole can of it, in fact. It was absolutely putrid. It ranks high on my list as one of the most disgusting things I've ever eaten, next to steamed silkworm larvae (Korea) and baked bat (Thailand). It was filling, however, and after I had eaten the can, fat and all, I threw it in a plastic bag and resolved to never eat that stuff again. Later that night my stomach revolted and I spent spent several hours running to the toilet, which begs the question "How do soldiers eat this and perform their duties"?

On Monday I returned to work, and so ended my second Christmas in Russia.

1 comment:

  1. Congrats on meeting russian prison guards and tushonka and surviving them!