Getting settled in St. Petersburg

Friday, June 11, 2010

Well, it’s been a pretty wild ten days. I’m in St. Petersburg now, but only a week and a half ago I was still in Montana. Since that time I’ve been in Ann Arbor, Castle Park, Amsterdam and Istanbul. For now, however, I’m staying put for a month, and my bags are unpacked and out of sight.

On June 1 I flew from Bozeman to Michigan, where I met up with friends and family. My parents are out on Lake Michigan, so last Friday I rented a car and drove out to see them. Sunday morning started in Castle Park—as the place on Lake Michigan where I grew up spending my summers is called—and then I drove back to Ann Arbor before heading to Detroit to catch my flight to Amsterdam.

I hadn’t planned on spending time in the Netherlands, it just worked out that way. Since I generally like to wait until the last minute to buy plane tickets (I have commitment issues), the only one I could get at a decent price involved an eight-hour layover in Amsterdam.  But since I’m a big fan of Amsterdam anyway, I was happy to get the chance to walk around one of my favorite cities in the world for five hours on a beautiful Monday afternoon.

Even though I hadn’t slept on the plane (I hardly ever can), I was up for Amsterdam. I hadn’t drunk much alcohol during the flight, so at the very least I felt relatively fresh-minded when I arrived.

Having already visited Amsterdam maybe ten times or so (including a number of quick overnight stays in recent years as I’ve traveled between the US and Turkey/former USSR), I’ve seen most of the city’s famous sites a number of times. This time I was carrying a fairly heavy carry-on bag from my flight, and so resolved to not walk (or bike) around too much, but rather just take things easy. I got a haircut, dispensing with my stringy, long, dirty locks and getting the sort of cut that seemed better suited for summer archive work in Russia—something short and a bit more ‘professional’ looking. The haircut was miserable—I later went to my local barber in Istanbul and had it fixed—but getting a shampoo after the long trip from Michigan had alone made the expense worthwhile.

I arrived in Istanbul at two o’clock Tuesday morning, taking a taxi to the research center in Arnavutkoy where I usually stay. I’ve posted lots of shots of Arnavutkoy—which is located right at the foot of the Bosphorus—in previous posts. In my opinion, Arnavutkoy is one of the most beautiful sections of Istanbul. For two full days, I chilled out, ate a lot of fish, and met up with friends.

My last night in town I went out to dinner with a friend, eating fish and sharing a bottle of raki at a restaurant in Arnavutkoy. Afterwards, we headed up the Bosphorus to Bebek, where we each drank a couple of mojitos at a bar. By the time I had to go to the airport (my plane was at 2 am, so I planned on getting to the airport by midnight), I was fairly plastered. I managed to make it to the airport and get on my plane, but I don’t remember much of this journey—which I think is just as well, given the time of night I was departing. Fortunately, my condition helped induce sleep, and for the first time ever I was able to sleep soundly on a flight from beginning to end.

I awoke at around seven when our plane landed in Moscow. Getting through passport control is now infinitely easier than it used to be, at least at a major airport like Sheremetovo. In the old days, I often waited 2-3 hours in line to get my passport stamped, but this time (as was the case two summers ago, when I also flew into Moscow), the process took just a few minutes. Someone in line even lent me a pen when I needed to fill out a form. The trip was very easy, as was the flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg one hour later.

In St. Petersburg I took a taxi to my apartment, where the mother of the woman who is renting the apartment to me was waiting for me. The apartment is exactly like several I’ve rented in the former USSR. It’s a “two-bedroom” place, which in the vernacular of the former USSR means there is a fold-up bed in the living room plus a bedroom. The bedroom is off limits to me, since this is where the family renting the place to me has stored all of their stuff, so I sleep in the living room. I’ve got a little balcony that looks out over a small courtyard that is filled with trees. All in all, it’s very pleasant and quiet.

I’m living in a part of town known as ‘Petrograd,’ which is located across the river from the Winter Palace and is very close to the Peter and Paul Fortress. I’ve always liked this part of town, which has a great vibe with lots of things to do without being in the dead-center of town (which is on the other side of the river). I’m very close to a metro station and I’ve bought a 30-day transportation pass, so I’m pretty well connected to everything.

That's my building to the left

Around the corner from my place is a small Azeri-owned grocery store. As was often the case when I lived in Baku in 2004 and 2005, the people at the shop thought that, due to my accent, I was Turkish (Turkish and Azeri are grammatically very similar, but the accent and intonations are really different). When I was ordering my produce (in some shops in Russia you still have to order things that are behind a counter) in Azeri, the girl corrected me. I had asked for two domates (“tomatoes” in Turkish), but this was the wrong word. “In Azeri,” the girl brightly said, the word for domates is pomidor. Pomidor is actually a Russian word with no Turkic or Arabic connection, but of course she’s right. 
A square near my building

Yesterday I registered at the archive. My first experience at this archive (known as RGIA, or the Russian State Historical Archives) was back in 2002, and was a somewhat traumatic one. Back then, the archive was located in a beautiful old building in the center of town, and the archive administration was planning a move to new facilities. It was summertime, and the archive was filled with foreign researchers, while the archive administration had meanwhile enacted a new rule whereby only twenty people were allowed in the reading room at a time. People would show up an hour before the archive opened, standing in line to make sure they got a spot. I had never worked in an archive before, and my Russian was still pretty bad. I got relatively little accomplished, and ultimately gave up altogether, opting instead to work with the excellent scholarly resources that are available in St. Petersburg’s National Library.

In 2004, I returned to St. Petersburg, this time in the winter. The archive was far less crowded this time, and there were no rules restricting the number of researchers. I got a lot done, but was still pretty much at the beginning of my project (I had taken my prelim exams at Brown in April of the previous year). Shortly after this second three-month research stint in St. Petersburg, the archive closed in preparation for their move, and didn’t re-open again until recently.

In some ways, it was a blessing not being able to work at this archive, since it forced me to spend more time in the provinces. Most of the recent books on Muslim communities in Russia are researched primarily in St. Petersburg, and they often show a fairly strong bias towards the political center. Working in places like Kazan, Ufa, Simferopol, Baku, and Tbilisi, I was not only able to access a large portion of the documents that were located in RGIA (there’s a huge amount of overlap between the holdings of the national archive and the provincial archives), but I was also able to find a lot of material that I’d never find in St. Petersburg. I started looking more carefully at regional differences in tsarist administration, and noticed a lot of gaps between what tsarist policymakers in St. Petersburg thought was happening in the empire and what was actually taking place on the ground in the regions.

Nevertheless, now that RGIA is up and running again and I am lucky enough to be employed at an institution that supports the ongoing research of young professors (thanks, MSU!), I thought it would be a good idea to get back here and work more closely with the documents produced at the center. The new and improved RGIA is impressive—it was very easy getting registered, and the new facilities are light-years ahead of the old ones. A particularly nice change is that the opisi—catalogues which provide brief summaries of the documents you can order and read—have been scanned and are available at monitors located in the archive. There’s also a good canteen in the archive, where I had lunch yesterday.

This weekend there’s a holiday in Russia—“Russia Day,” so I plan on relaxing a bit and maybe doing some writing. I’ll also probably walk around town, since I haven’t been in St. Petersburg since 2004. If possible, I’ll try to put up some photos.

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