Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Friday, July 20, 2012

Impressions of the Motherland

Traveling in any foreign country (yes even Canada) brings national differences into focus. That said, comparing two countries as culturally vast as the US and Russia after a ten day trip is only marginally better than rating countries by number of Pogs players. In any case, I was never one to let lack of perspective get in the way of telling stories, so here I go.

When I moved to Alaska from Utah, the scale of everything (wilderness and human destruction) shocked me. Alaska is Russia's Utah. The flight from from Moscow over the Urals to Siberia was about five minutes of city and five hours of mountains, rivers, and tundra. Each uninhabited time zone we crossed seemed to take us back 10,000 years. By the time Salekhard came into view on the bank of the braided Ob river I expected to see mammoths and ground sloths.

Sergei Zimov wasn't at the conference (the famous Russian scientist working to reestablish ice-age mega mammals at his Pleistocene Park in northern Siberia) but we did see this lone mammoth gazing on the tundra.

One enduring impression of Russia was that there were lots of rules and very little enforcement. The rules were there out of convention and seemed to fill only a customary role. This principle applied to everything from traffic laws in Moscow to conference instructions. When we landed in Salekhard we were told, "It is impossible to participate in the conference without registration. You must surrender a digital copy of your presentation at time of registration." We didn't realize that this severe pronouncement was intended just to reassure us that everything was under control and that we could get back to doing whatever we wanted (indeed we were never asked about registration and I submitted my presentation five minutes before giving it). Even at national landmarks like Red Square the large number of guards couldn't outweigh the impression that they were all about to look the other way. This made for a simultaneously more authoritarian and libertarian atmosphere than in the States. 
Russia is the real land of the free where you can hop out of the tour bus and then climb giant Soviet helicopters (notice the mosquitoes in the foreground and Nicolas and I on the real wheel). 

Clubbers dragging themselves from place to place seeking more substances and activities to extract pleasure from their bodies could help themselves to free nitrous oxide balloons from the trunk of this green sedan outside a club called The Afterparty. Full sunlight at 3am does make for an unflattering after-Afterparty stagger home though.

Another impression from Russia was a conspicuous lack of irony. While irony doesn't translate well between cultures in general, I definitely felt that Russians were exceptionally unself-conscious in regards to ceremony, decoration, fashion, and drama. After a police escort from the airport, twelve welcome speeches during the opening ceremonies, and a troop exotic dancers greeting us at the boat launch, I started to realize that there was very little understated or subtle about this place. Several times a day I wondered, "How did no-one stop and ask themselves 'is this a little too much?'" Well, as Cody says, "If something's worth doing, it's worth overdoing."

It's hard to look this good and still not catch your heels in the cement cracks.

Pay no attention to the Bobcat.

The crest of Yamal and a monument to the Salekhard-Igarka railway (also known as the railroad of death)

I was also struck by the strong national identity and patriotism of the Russian people. I've been known to quote George Bernard Shaw who said, "Patriotism is a pernicious psychopathic form of idiocy," but in this case I actually found the patriotism to be moving. A young researcher named Olga talked about a need to recapture the great Russian vision to move into the future together as one people with no poor.
"The current government is trying to be too Western ... the goal should be to elevate the people as a whole, not to encourage individual greed and consumption," she explained as we sat in the lobby of the Yuribey hotel (an opulent symbol of consumerism). While the sheer number of monuments and memorials turned me off, the common sense of a shared present and future struck a strong ideological chord with me.

Olga was offended when I asked if she thought the election had been fair. "When you announce the results of an election in the U.S., no one questions if it was legitimate. Westerners assume everything in Russia is crooked. If you like him or not, Putin is president because 60% of the Russian people voted for him!" She mentioned the difficulty of maintaining a national identity across such a vast and varied landscape. "There is Moscow and St. Petersburg, and then there is Russia. Those cities are not Russia, they are something else."

Just a few of Salekhard's many monuments.

It's clear that Russia is still in an adolescent economic and cultural limbo between capitalism and communism, between democracy and dictatorship (though I suppose most governments, including ours, are too). Yamal in particular is interesting. It produces more than 90% of Russia's natural gas, and supplies gas to most of western Europe. As such, the Yamal government receives a huge amount of tax revenue from the megacorporation Gazprom. Dmitri, a Russian researcher currently living in the U.S., explained that Putin appoints a federal representative who oversees the dispensation of federal funds in this district. Since the representative is a presidential appointee, there is no direct accountability to the people of Yamal. So, if he decides the curbs should be made of red granite (which they were) it gets done, but if he doesn't see a need to renovate the blocks of low-income housing, they continue sinking into the permafrost.

I doubt any of them will be attending the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert

On the fourth day of the conference they trucked us up the gas-field road to look as some soil pits. The Gazprom truck's radiator was connected to a pipe that ran through the interior of the passenger compartment (a nice touch I'm sure in the winter time). 

Our lunch ration in its natural habitat. Aleksandr translated the contents for us, "Meat, meat, meat ... canned meat and soaked grains, refreshing drink powder, apple syrup, cooking stove, personal hand towel ..."

Even 14 time zones away from Toolik, the same dwarf birch, cotton grass, and cloud berry covered the ground. The most conspicuous ecological difference was the trees! Siberian Larch completely change the look and sound of the tundra. The whistle of wind in the trees gave me the shivers during the soil lectures. Larch are conifers (like spruce and pine) but they drop their needles each fall before the deep freeze sets in.

Back at the conference, several of the Russian presentations dealt with perils of permafrost degradation I had never considered. One talk in particular, with the translated title, "Thirteen Scary Stories" mentioned the millions of tons of radioactive and toxic waste dumped in near-surface permafrost throughout the former Soviet Union. When mass graves and old septic systems melt out there also is fear that currently eradicated diseases such as smallpox may be reintroduced and then transported to more populous regions. 

In case you were wondering, yes the palm tree is made of liver pate.

The final impression I couldn't help but notice as a natural scientist was the dismissal of anthropogenic climate change by many senior Russian scientists. No one implied that arctic climate wasn't changing (the warming in Yamal is obvious everywhere you look) but the opinion that the change is human-caused was treated as a floofy western idea. The question is very much alive with the Russian press as well. I was interviewed by a local news crew between sessions one day and the first question they asked me was, "So, what does your adviser think about the so-called global warming?" Andrew Slater, a prominent scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, gave one of the plenary speeches about the state of permafrost research and was mistranslated by a Moscow newspaper as saying, "Now that we've looked at the models again, we realize that there is nothing to worry about." Fun :). 

Among the Russians skepticism fell generally along age and scientific discipline lines: most of the young, ecology or biogeochemistry researchers accepted climate change science and most of the older, physical permafrost, petrochemical, and engineering researchers rejected it. The Wikipedia climate change opinion by country page puts Russia above the United States by 3% in belief that climate change is human caused, but Russia scores way below the States on the question if climate change is a serious threat. Interesting. There is a general feeling of disenfranchisement among Russian researchers who feel that western journals are not open to data or papers generated by Russian scientists. I was involved in editing the translations of Russian papers submitted to the conference proceedings and do feel like there are definite cultural differences in both research and writing style that could act as a barrier for international publishing. The Russian papers had a more declaratory tone and a tighter focus on in depth site descriptions than comparable western papers which focus on mechanisms and hypothesis testing. Our cultural background affects more than just how tight our pants are, it can change how we approach basic scientific questions.

Well, despite a chaotic and constantly changing conference schedule, more fish and reindeer meat than I would normally eat in a decade, and a harrowing ferry crash where we collided with a semi truck, the Tenth International Conference on Permafrost was an incredibly rich and valuable experience culturally, professionally, and scientifically. Thanks Rachel and Mom for watching the kids while I was off in Siberia. 

Nothing like a thick slice of Greenland to clear your thoughts and ease the transition from East to West.


  1. wow!

    love the descriptions and the pictures as well.

  2. Oh you, lack of irony? Lol, all these ceremonies and other "cultural" stuff make a lot of people laugh. Liek "wtf am i watching? it's crap". And another point is that it's soviet legacy and we got used to this, even young guiz that haven't lived in USSR bcuz they see this crap erryday. And it's funny only few first times to laugh at our own country, but when u see it everyday it's like "oh, oj shitty Rushka, is full of fuck and stupidness. i'm ok with, nothing amazing".

    1. Good point Matt,

      There were plenty of Russians there that did recognize the irony. But it wasn't the performances and regional pride that disturbed me (I think that being unselfconscious is totally rad), it was the opulence of the banquets and receptions. The variety of food and volume of alcohol seemed vulgar and wasteful--particularly when you realized it was funded directly and indirectly by Gazprom. It felt weird as a scientist to be so openly courted by an industry with blatant stake in our research. I guess that's the bad kind of unselfconsciousness.

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  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience.