August 2, 2008: On the way to Irkutsk

Happy Birthday Nan! We spent the day on the train with just a couple of brief stops. At this point of the journey, I was pretty tired. Traveling east as we were, you are going backwards against the time zones. We had been on the train for 5 days and had lost an hour a night--it catches up to you!

David Holloway gave a great lecture in the morning about current Russian politics. He told us that Putin is a star in the eyes of most Russians. The quality of life improved greatly under his rule and he brought stability to what was a chaotic situation. He basically set up an autocractic system where everyone in power is responsible to the state--not to the people. Ironically, while the Russians like Putin, they don't like the government! There is a huge problem with corruption--even in places like hospitals, everyone takes bribes. So the rich benefit, and even though they don't like the corruption either, they are sort of trapped by it--to get good products and services, you pay for them under the table, and the system just perpetuates itself. Medvedev has said that his #1 priority is the "rule of law" and ending corruption. But, he was hand-selected by Putin and has made him his prime minister. Many think that Medvedev will just be Putin's puppet. It is not at all clear how it will all play out. David is clearly not a fan of Putin, but has to admit that he has done some good things for the country. As it seems with most things Russian, it's a pretty mixed bag.

Natalia sang for us again in the afternoon, and I asked her to sing a Ukrainian song. I bought one of her CDs of Russian folk and love songs, and told her a bit about Jack. She was certain that when he heard her songs "he would recognize them in his heart." ( I tried them out on him when I got home and he thought they were "okay.") :-)

At dinner with the Holloways I asked them about the Russian people--they have spent a lot of time in Russia, and host Russians a lot at home. I am so curious about what the people are like privately, because their public face is so serious and unemotional. Every once in a while a little sparkle slips through, which makes me think that they must be masking their true selves. The Holloways validated this notion. As a people, Russians are used to hardship and persevering through difficult times. A common saying when things are hard is "that's life." They are also suspicious about outsiders (if you look at their history you can understand why!). So, they show the world a tough, austere face and show their warmth and humor only to those close to them. I just wish we could see it sometimes! I have managed to get our cabin attendant Yuriy to laugh once or twice, though his counterpart Nikolay is impossible. But I'm not giving up on him yet.

And a few photos from the train:

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