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Smolensk, Russia
. . .chronicling our travels to Smolensk, Russia in the spring of 2005
to visit the boys in Shatalovo, meet their sister Alesya, and explore the villages of the oblast.

Visit Date Log | Visit Photographic Log
Last updated: 08/10/05 | Last updated: 08/10/05

Date Log

March 29, 2005: Booked the flight through Orbitz.com, using Finnair. Would've preferred a nonstop flight, but Aeroflot was sold out.
March 30, 2005: Sent in our passports and applications to obtain entry visas.
April 2, 2005: Devised a preliminary schedule:
April 3, 2005: Let Leonid and Victor know of our trip, through their English tutor, Marina. They sound excited, but can they be quite as excited as we are?! I'm not sure which emotion is winning right now: anticipation or fear.
April 12, 2005: Received our visas by FedEx today. Yesterday made the final arrangements for getting to JFK airport for our departure, and for arriving in Moscow by train when we leave Smolensk. Except for packing, all details seemed to be covered!
April 18, 2005: Left New Hampshire by car at 10:30am, crossing the Long Island Sound by ferry into Port Jefferson, NY, and to my mother's apartment by 5:30pm. This was an excellent decision - to rest overnight before the 5:55pm flight from JFK.
April 19, 2005: Took the 1:06pm train from Patchogue,NY to Jamaica Station. At Jamaica Station, we went up one platform by elevator to the AirTrain Station, which brought us into JFK. This was very convenient, and costs only $5.00. Going through security presented only one difficulty when Ryan's camping knife (about a 5-inch blade) was found in his backpack. He was throughly embarrassed, we were all shocked, and the security guard was stern, but eventually let us pass - after confiscating the knife, of course.
April 20, 2005: Arrived as scheduled - after a brief stop in Helsinki - at 2pm in Moscow. Took a little longer than necessary in Customs and Immigration (which had very short lines) only because a flight attendant had told me that I didn't need to fill out any forms if I had nothing to declare. This isn't true - fill out your Immigration Entry and Departure Cards both upon entry (on the plane is nice), and you'll be all set once on the ground.
April 20, 2005: We'd gotten repeated messages from Smolensk that the weather was in excess of 15 degrees C (near 60 F) and very pleasant. Seeing snow in Moscow was therefore disappointing, and we hadn't brought any very heavy winter coats. Elena and Sergey met us at SVO-2 airport, and drove us to Smolensk in about 5 hours, with one stop for a "picnic" on the side of the highway, consisting of canned fish, hot tea, these onion-and-potato filled bread things they eat (peroshky?) and sweets. I thought it was kind and quaint, but when I told my husband back at home he joked that I would have scoffed at such a scene back in the States.
April 20, 2005: Arrived at the Rossiya Hotel in Smolensk around 8pm. Without Elena there to assist, I don't think I would have had an easy time of it. The concierge personnel spoke only Russian. We went to our room on the 6th floor, and were introduced to the Housekeeping Services staff in one of the rooms. We were told we could get some items there for a small charge, such as tea, soap and liquor. Once settled in our room (2 twin beds and a rollaway took up all the floor space) we asked (in broken Russian) about getting a pot of hot water so we could eat some instant oatmeal as a kind of supper. When I asked if I was permitted to eat in the sitting room at the end of the corridor, the ladies protested and said/gestured that it would be better upstairs, on the 7th floor, where there was a "buffet." Up there we found a small room with 5 tables and chairs, and a little counter where one could buy apparently anything. One gentleman was in there eating a salad, some meat, bread, and drinking beer. The next morning when we missed our complimentary breakfast in the diningroom (although I'm told we really didn't miss anything!) we tried this 7th floor buffet again, but it wasn't open. The housekeeping ladies on the 6th floor were all very sweet and seemed to appreciate that we at least tried to communicate in their language.
April 21, 2005: Elena came to move us into our apartment for the duration of the trip, located just off Normandy Neman, near one of the hundreds of war memorials around Smolensk. Our first impression wasn't very kind: we felt we were being moved into the "projects" of some slum. Once you can get passed this initial horror, however, you realize all apartment buildings in Smolensk are like this, and inhabited by generally very neighborly people -- albeit curious concerning these English-speaking newcomers. Return to Date Log Menu
April 21, 2005: Almost immediately upon plopping our luggage into the apartment, we were initiated into the weird and wonderful way of life in Smolensk City. A taxi had been used to get us from the Rossiya to the apartment, costing 50 rubles, or $1.82. I thought this was reasonable enough, and when Elena suggested we see a few things and situate ourselves, I figured we would call a cab. No, no, no, said she - we used a taxi because of all the luggage. Russians don't use taxis for everyday getting about, nor do they use cars. What do they use? asked I. The answer: their feet. It must have been roughly 11:53am when we were shuffled into the apartment, and after we headed out into Smolensk proper - on foot - we didn't see that apartment again until about 9:33pm, when the sun was setting. (At Smolensk's latitude, the sun sets later and later in the spring, until it finally sets near 11pm in the summer. Probably because of this, Smolenskites eat supper close to 8pm, and have quite an active day until they can no longer see their hands in front of their faces while outside.) So what did we do and see that day? We walked the entire eastern length of the fortress wall, including every tower. We were shown every store we should frequent, every tram line whose number we should memorize, and quite a few war memorials. We popped into a Second Hand shop to get ourselves some down jackets, because snow was expected that night and the air was more crisp than my cardigan sweater and the boys' sweatshirts could handle. We visited Elena's home and used her computer to e-mail home briefly. We went to a bank only to learn that "Sorry, we have no rubles." This perplexed me as we hopped from bus to tram and tried to draw a mental map of this busy city. We stopped at Western Union, where each dollar was exchanged for 27.4 rubles. I received my first run in my knee-high stockings, and thereafter ripped at least one hole in my leggings every day. I had been warned that "footwear is key" before I traveled, and now I understood. Finally, we shopped for food to stock the apartment, and headed home. Once there, we realized we hadn't eaten a single thing the entire day. We boiled water for tea and sliced some cheese. This became a pattern over the next week - eating sliced cheese and a hunk of bread with tea at 10 or 11 pm, because we'd been too busy during the day to eat anything else.
April 22, 2005: Vita (the adoption agency's coordinator, who would be assisting us during this visit) would be busy for two days at the Safanovo Boarding School. She sent one of her drivers, Alexei, to bring us to Shatalovo. Alexei couldn't speak English, so I was feeling somewhat frightened at the prospect of having to make some requests of him before we headed to the orphanage. But with the aid of a small dictionary --and many hand gestures-- we were able to buy flowers for the director and a huge bag of oranges and tangerines for the children. We had our suitcase full of gifts to distribute, as well. I decided, in the front seat, to ignore some of the driving habits which I had noticed were commonplace here: drivers shift from their "lane" to oncoming traffic frequently, as they avoid pot-holes and other deep canyons worn into these unmaintained roads; they pass other cars (who are themselves going well over the speed limit) for the simple reason that they are in front of them, and they do so despite cars in the oncoming lane barrelling towards them at alarming rates; and --if they feel unable to pass quite yet-- they tailgate not four inches away from the car ahead, and at speeds exceeding 55 mph. But, I said to myself, I didn't see one single automobile accident during the ride from Moscow to Smolensk, nor during these trips to Shatalovo. So I surpressed my panic and tried to soak up the scenery. (I thought I might also learn the directions to get to Shatalovo myself, in the event I could use public transportation to avoid the cost of a driver, one day.)
April 22, 2005: Did I learn the directions? Yes, of course. It was easy: once on the main highway heading southwards out of Smolensk (from Krupskoy Street), one stays straight for the next 45 minutes, passing sprawling fields (being burned to make ready for the new season of planting), some clumps of wooded land, the familiar Auto Parts stores one sees in Russia every 123 feet or so, and an occasional village, where dwellers are also burning small piles of old brush and garbage. There is only one crossroad intersection, where one is given the choice to head to Monastershina in the west, or to a small town called Pochinok just east of the highway, or continue straight. We of course go straight, until we see the sign indicating we have entered the village of Shatalovo. At that point, one looks for the little cinder-block house on the right, with the wooden sticks propped up as a rustic fence and the 57 chickens scratching in the roadside sand. Here we turn left. After a very short distance, there is a military post and gate, through which one must pass to access the boarding school, a public school whose pupils are mostly from the military families, and several 3- and 4-story apartment buildings. We were told there is an actual military base further up this road, but we never ventured that way. We saw the tell-tale wooden booths that indicated a small flea market operated on this road, a "magazin" or store, a cafe, and a larger building that read -- of course -- "Auto Parts" on the outside, but which also housed a kind of small mall, containing a cafe, a drug store, a video arcade, and some other "departments," such as jewelry and home supplies. Then we spotted the orphanage: a fenced in area containing six buildings, two of which are dormitories, one a canteen, one a workshop and library, one a coal-burning furnace, and the other a school and administration building. Except for the administration building, which is painted pink, the buildings are old red brick and dismal-looking. A group of children sees us pull in -- in fact they are waiting eagerly -- and we emerge from the car to be hugged and introduced.
April 22, 2005: I recognize Leonid immediately. He is leading the group of three kids and two adults, all shy smiles and little nervous giggles. I hug him, and am immediately surprised by his height: did he shrink? Was he always so tiny? His head barely makes it up to my belly. Next to him is a boy, a young man who isn't too much taller than Mikey. I say "This must be Victor!" and hold out my arms. He immediately moves into a position to be hugged, but I don't notice any reciprocal hugging, nor do I detect a smile. I'd been told he was rather reserved, "closed" even, so this doesn't surprise me. Next, Inna bounces up for her hug, which she definitely reciprocates, her smile looking as though it might burst through her ears. I remember thinking that she looked good, her cheeks rosy, her eyes bright. I'd been worried because she had been ill a few months before when her "Mama" -- Ann -- had come from Massachusetts to visit. Next, Marina holds out her hand for an introduction, but I hug her too. She is the children's English tutor, and the means by which we have been able to communicate with Inna, Leonya and Vitya since January -- by telephone to Marina's apartment and to her e-mail account. Her smile is friendly and welcoming, and her English is comforting. She introduces me to Valya, her mother and a teacher of geography and biology (more on this later) here at the boarding school. Valya does not speak English, but it doesn't prevent her from speaking to us at length and with much enthusiasm, confident that Marina will translate shortly. As she speaks, she nods and smiles and makes gestures as if we fully understand everything she is saying, and it has a wonderfully warm effect on us. We are feeling as though we belong.

Marina says we should go inside to greet the director, and we head into the pink building. We are ushered into the director's office, where a small conference table abuts her desk so that she can look down the length of the table without leaving her planner and papers. We are introduced to Galina Alexandrovna Sokolova, and she shakes our hands and smiles. I think I was expecting a somewhat older woman, though I have always been a poor judge of age. She seems surprised that Ryan and I say "Hello" in Russian and Mikey says "Hi." She asks me if I understand Russian, and I say a well-rehearsed "I understand and speak only a little Russian. I want to study the language." Mikey offers the flowering plant we brought for her, and she motions for us to be seated.

April 22, 2005: After some general inquiries into our flight and stay in Smolensk, and whether we were enjoying Russia, Galina asks what my plans are. I explain that I would like to visit the boys frequently, that I would like to assist the orphanage, and that I will arrange to meet the boys' sister on a Saturday, and may the boys be permitted to accompany us? There is some hemming hawing, then Galina asks if Kidsave is helping me with this visit. My surprise at this question must have registered on my face, and so she could do nothing but believe my response: The only involvement Kidsave has is with the introduction of the children to various families in America. They do not offer support in adoptions or travel -- other than moral support. This was a completely private trip I was involved in on my own, to visit the boys and meet their caregivers and sister. I asked again if I would be able to see the boys outside of the orphanage. After a very long sentence in Russian, accompanied by much shuffling of papers and flipping of calendar months, I heard the translation: Galina does not want to answer you until you make it clear to her what your plans are. Again surprise must have registered on my face -- perhaps with something else mixed in (I don't know that it was "annoyance" or just "perplexity"). I remember offering a helpless (and probably lame) gesture, like shrugging my shoulders and holding my hand palm-up in a what-do-want-from-me kind of attitude. Galina was talking again before I could formulate a cohesive sentence, and this time the translation was a bit more informative: Galina wants you to know that she must be very careful in how she keeps her records. You don't have a registered dossier in Smolensk, and so officially you don't have a viable reason to be visiting particular children. Furthermore, the case of the murdered boy in America was being aired heavily in Russian media, and if something should ever happen in the future (I assume she meant with me) she wanted to be able to provide sound and inpenetrable records of how I'd arrived on a humanitarian aid mission and nothing more. If you can provide her with other more acceptable reasons for entering the orphanage, she will be more than happy to comply. You said you wanted to assist the orphanage. Does this mean you will give Galina money to use at the boarding school? As I was sitting between Galina and Marina, who was translating, I had to shift my head back and forth to watch both their faces. When I spoke, I kept my head in a neutral position somewhere between the two, so Marina could hear me, and Galina could see me. I explained that since most of the funds I brought were donated, I needed to buy the items myself, to be able to account for the money's use. She said she had a list of medicines they needed, and I said I would be happy to be able to buy those. She asked for a dollar figure I was willing to spend, and I indicated it was around $400US. She said the medicines were $200, so she would also request school supplies for about $200. I agreed, and she consulted her planner to record that on this day I'd arrived to research the orphanage's needs, that on Tuesday I would bring the medical supplies, and on Friday I would bring the school supplies. I asked again about Saturday, and she again went into a lengthy discussion. It turned out she was mentioning the murder case again, but this time she was cautioning me to keep mum about Saturday. She would allow the boys to go as long as Valya would accompany them as guardian, but it must be completely off the record. I pondered for a moment that Galina was exceedingly cautious about her records, and how she would appear in them to be an efficient guardian, but she wasn't so much displaying true concern for the children. Her career and official appearances were the only guides to her requests.

Having written our visitation schedule in stone, as it were, we were dismissed from Galina's office to receive a tour of the place.
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April 22, 2005: The kids show us their classrooms first, and although Leonya's has scattered projects around and on display, Vitya's is rather drab and sparse. (Leonid's grade level schooling takes place in one classroom, while students from Victor's level move from room to room, much like elementary and middle schools in the US.) No wonder Leonid says he enjoys school, but Vitya shrugs his shoulders and says "Not really" when asked if he likes school. I tell him he might enjoy home schooling at our house, because it isn't strict and rigid, and I often base the curriculum on individual interests. (His face brightens at the prospect, when Marina translates.) Inna is proud of her workbooks and shows them to us, but Marina translates that she says she finds it hard to sit and work for so long without talking too much. We are shown the gym, with its newly-installed floor, and some of the other classrooms used as study halls. Valya shows us her classroom, and true to form -- it is colorful and decorated with visual study aids and manipulatives. When I comment that it seems like an odd combination for a teacher (biology and geography), Valya protests that the two subjects are strongly inter-connected, and that most scientists in either field are also well-versed in the other. In Russia, the two subjects are always taught together in the same classroom.

Next we are off to the dormitory building where the three children reside. There is another dorm separated from the basic grouping of buildings, and I don't know if that one is used for much older individuals. I was told that most of the teachers and staff live in the apartment buildings just down the road a bit, and one teacher/caregiver lives in a house behind the dormitory, next to the orchard and gardens. When I see quite a few young men standing about, I assume they are caregivers or part of the staff, but I am then informed that they are boarders at the internat, who are permitted to stay until 18 (although I personally thought they looked older than 20). Inna shows us the bedroom she shares with about 12 girls. It is light and airy, and appears much as I had seen in pictures already. Besides the beds, all lined up neatly in diagonals, there are two tables with lacy cloths, curtains on the windows, and nothing else. I ask if the children sit at the tables to do writing or studying sometimes, but I'm told these are for the caregivers. There are locked built-in pantries along one wall, which contain personal belongings for the children. To reduce "disappearances" of these items, they are kept locked up and taken out upon request of the children. Outside Inna's bedroom, there is a large common area, also containing desk-like tables, plants and pantries. These pantries are not locked, and contain clothes for the groups of children to share. At first I thought this was for the girls in Inna's group only, but when Inna and Leonid posed in front of them, I recognized items for both girls and boys in the closets. Despite the rooms looking very neat, the closets were in disarray, and I imagined the children rummaging through them for their favorite outfits.

Next we saw Leonid's room, across the common area from Inna's room. It appeared much as Inna's room, with perhaps a few less frilly things hanging about. Leonya lifted the curtain from the window behind his bed and removed several wafer cookies from the sill, offering them to Mikey. We realized he had a little stash there, and frequently checked the sills of the windows behind the other boys' beds, keeping inventory, as it were. As we move out into the common area and head upstairs to Victor's room, we are told that the children have recently been moved onto only one side of the dorm building, the other side emptied for the renovation work that is to begin very shortly. I wasn't able to determine if the children normally have less co-occupants in their bedrooms. Vitya's room, despite having the beds all neatly made, appears more like a typical teenager room. It is crowded, probably because of the move, with the beds practically pushed up against one another. For some reason, I think "Oliver Twist" when I walk in. The boys have made room for a small sofa in one corner, on which Vitya flops with two of his buddies, Sasha and Vanya. They have hooked up a CD player to large speakers, and they are blasting American music...namely, Lincoln Park -- which we recognize immediately by the screaming. (It was amusing to hear Vanya say "LeenKeenParrrk" when we asked if he knew the band.) As we stand there chatting for a bit, Sasha lowers the volume. We take a photo of Vitya on his bed, and it is noteworthy to mention how we saw it sag in the middle as he sat on it. These beds are really thin pads thrown onto a metal or wood frame, like cots. As we head out again (and Sasha re-ignites the volume) we are told that the children are required to keep their rooms and beds neat, that it wasn't just for our visit that things were cleaned and neatened.

We go to the canteen, but because tea is being prepared we must wait outside for a while. They say they must keep the doors locked while they are cooking meals, or else the kitchen staff is swamped with children.
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April 23, 2005: The boys usually go to Marina and Valya Pozdnyakova's home on Saturday afternoons for English lessons. The ladies invite us to dinner, so that we may visit with Leonya and Vitya outside the orphanage. They obtain permission from the director to have the boys earlier than usual, meaning they are allowed to skip some Saturday classes. Alexei, the Russian-speaking driver, bring us to the apartment through a mild, early Spring snowstorm. I'd known that the Pozdnyakova ladies lived very close to the orphanage, but not that their apartment building literally abuts the orphanage grounds. Valya teaches at the internat, and Marina teaches at the public school across the street. As we exit Alexei's car, we see the boys waiting at the opposite end of the building with Valya and Marina.

The apartment is a "typical Russian apartment," as everyone keeps telling me, and except for the decorations and furnishings, it truly does look like the apartment we are staying in, as well as Helen's apartment, which we had visited briefly on Thursday. Called a "two-room," it consists of a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a living room. I would discover by the end of our trip that there probably doesn't exist a Russian apartment dweller who isn't also using the living room as a bedroom. The furnishings here are nice and inviting, and the beautiful new rug on the living room floor is cozy and warm, especially compared to the cold, bare, painted-plywood floor in our apartment. (ALL apartments and even new houses have this floor, and all are painted with a horrible and brilliantly shiny diarrea-brown shellac. Only the older buildings -- like the orphanage buildings -- actually have hard wood floors, though they are still painted with the same, presumably government-issued shellac.) When Marina and Valya inquire about our stay so far, I mention that the apartment is very, very cold and that I haven't been able to figure out how to turn the heat on. Marina sort of grins and explains that the heat "was turned off" a couple of weeks back, because there had been more than a certain number of warm days in a row. So I came to understand socialized heat, though I still argue with Ryan about the kind of heat. I think it's natural gas, and I think those huge, unsightly pipes that run everywhere outside (without the benefit of burial) are gas pipes. They have gaps in places, stuffed with pink and white insulation, and there is never any evidence of liquid or moisture dripping from them. Still, Ryan insists these are water pipes. I realize, however, that this apartment is warm. Marina has me touch the radiator behind the sofa; it is warm, but she says in the winter, it is so hot it cannot be touched. I explain that the radiator in my apartment is ice cold. She says sometimes the village of Shatalovo has its advantages (and I am left to infer that because of the military base being so close by, the neighborhood enjoys the fringe benefits). In the city of Smolensk, the heating season is definitely considered to be over, despite the layer of snow that would blanket the area for another day or two.

We all sit in the living room together before dinner, and I see that Victor is more relaxed here, willing to ask questions and follow the conversation. Leonid is -- as ever -- bubbling over with silliness and playing with Ryan's and Mikey's cameras. At one point, I notice Ryan admonishing his brother to behave with a stern: "Michael!" Intermittently, I hear Vitya saying just as sternly, "Лёня!" I laugh and say, "Oh boy, I can hear my house now. Michael! Лёня! Michael! Лёня!" This needs no translating, as Leonya, Vitya, Mikey and Ryan all begin to giggle, every one of them knowing what I mean. Valya gives me a beautiful gift of a Russian-designed apron and potholder set, and gives me a box of chocolates to bring home to my husband. For Mikey and Ryan, bars of the best Russian chocolate (Бабаевский). When dinner is served, Valya tells us we are to have a traditional Russian meal, and what ensues is a touching, funny, and enjoyable gathering to share food and thoughts and hearts.

Valya speaks, motioning to the table which is set with pretty china and a lace tablecloth, platters of different dishes in the center. Marina listens, then turns to me with her pretty smile and begins the tongue-in-cheek translation: "Valya visited friends in California some years ago, and she was extremely upset at the American habit of leaving out the very important first course of every meal: the soup. My mother knows a meal is not edible if it has not been started with soup, even breakfast." She then serves out the very important soup, which is a simple broth with vegetables floating in it, and angel hair pasta. We all exclaim how wonderful it is, and Valya is gratified. She will become even more gratified moments later, when Mikey begins to make faces at the rest of the food, and we must explain that he is very nearly a vegetarian, and hardly eats. At first, Valya is shocked, and I am reminded of my own Italian upbringing, with the word mangia practically yelled at any guest who eats less than fourteen times their weight in food. But when we say that Mikey has never, ever finished a bowl of soup so quickly -- and then when he asks for seconds -- Valya is radiantly glowing and pleased. Next, Valya begins another speech, her face taking on a certain serenity. Marina again grins and says: "Valya is telling you about a very old and honored Russian tradition that she has just made up. We must all have some fine Russian wine, three glasses-full each, but before each glass, she will offer some deep words of wisdom and we must recognize their worth." We are all giggling, and Valya is smiling, opening the wine. Valya offers her sage thoughts: once to family and friends, next to fine food and good health (which naturally go together), and finally to love. She does again fill our glasses and begins to make another offering in the traditional manner she just made up, but Marina protests that it has already been three times. Valya says, Yes, but there is only this much wine left...and what will I do with just this amount? Let's finish the bottle. And so we cheerfully drink to fine Russian wine.

The traditional meal consists of салат, which is finely diced cucumber, potatoes, tomatoes and cabbage, with fresh dill; wedges of bread with "fish liver spread," which tastes like tuna; another sort of pickled-cabbage-and-vegetables dish, a staple in the Russian diet, I would find; a potato salad; a plate of sliced cheese with crackers and sausages reminiscent of pepperoni; and fresh oranges, bananas and lemons arranged in slices on a platter. Although I notice Ryan is trying a little bit of everything, and Leonya never seems to stop eating, Valya begins to push all the dishes in front of me, saying "Eat -- since you are the only one who appreciates my food." Vitya touches very little, and can think of nothing when we ask his favorite food. Leonya says "fried potatoes" when we ask him, although I can't determine if he means the "french fries" he ate so much of during his visit to the U.S.

As the conversation progresses, and I learn that Valya was widowed at a young age, with two young children, and determined to bring them up to be moral and successful people, I am impressed with this energetic, positive woman. I also come to believe that her opinion of the boys' sister (whom she described as serious and modest and likeable) is a very high compliment indeed, and probably highly accurate.

After this visit, I would always picture Valya's face whenever anyone asked me what I enjoyed most about Russia, and I would answer "The people."

As we go to leave, the boys offer us a hug, especially Leonya, who wraps himself around us somehow, despite his small size. Like his nature, Vitya's hug is reserved. I cup his chin in my hand and ask: "When will you tell me all about Vitya?" He actually smiles briefly, and says "Someday I will tell you everything." Valya heads off with the boys by way of a back path, to return to the orphanage. I ask Marina to speak to the driver for me, to request that he stop somewhere of his liking, so that we may buy him a sandwich or something. He has been sitting in the car for all of the five hours we have been inside visiting and eating. Marina says that Alexei is speaking about a pizza place called Dominos, which we'd seen nearby the Rossiya, and I say that's fine. But after we arrive in Smolensk, Alexei parks at the curb outside the restaurant and tells us he'll wait. I argue, frantically flipping through my dictionary and phrase book, and suddenly the Russian language cassette tapes we'd been practicing before traveling become fresh in my head. "Вы хочите по-есть что-нибудь?" I ask. He laughs, shakes his head, and pats his jolly belly. Without fully understanding what he says, I "get" that he is not going to eat. In retrospect, the only thing I can say about Russian "pizza" is that it isn't what you're thinking, unless you have a clear picture of thick bread smothered in ketchup with sliced hot dogs and melted cheddar all over it. And the spaghetti sauce?...I find I am not yet ready to recall this, sorry. Remember, I had an Italian upbringing.
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April 24, 2005: Sunday, Helen's daughter, Yulia, calls about picking us up to go to their church at 10am. I explain that we have our own congregation within Smolensk, and that they don't meet until 2:30pm. I tell her I was just writing out how to request a taxi ride to Babushkina Street, because Helen had given me two telephone numbers that could be called within Smolensk, in order to get a ride somewhere. A short ride within the city would be about 50 rubles, or $1.82 according to my exchange rate at that time. They were odd, 3-digit telephone numbers, and the drivers would only be able to speak Russian. I knew I would be able to say the address, but I was trying to work out a polite sentence for the time of the ride. Yulia said her father, Sergei, would be able to drive us there. Helen, however, was working at a dog show that day. At 2pm, Sergei arrives in his Маршутка (a privately-owned van whose owner is given a contract to work a particular route in the city), along with Yulia to translate. They drive directly to the address, which I knew to be a factory building of some sort, in an industrial park on the east side of the city. Helen had apparently called there ahead of time, when I was still at home in America, to verify that my Christian meetings would actually be there, and she'd discovered that there was an auditorium upstairs used for the meetings. Nevertheless, when Sergei pulls up, both he and Yulia seem concerned. It says Смоленские Макароны on the building (which phonetically says "Smolensk Macaroni", but everyone kept pronouncing it "Smolensk Spaghetti"). I see two of my spiritual brothers standing outside, wearing their suits and ties, so I am not worried. Still, Yulia comes with us up the outside staircase, and she asks the brothers if this is a church. They explain that yes, Christian meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses are being held upstairs. We go inside, and up a marble staircase and arrive at another foyer outside the auditorium, in which we can see a platform or stage, a stand with a microphone, some flowers and curtains, and many rows of seats. Many more of my brothers and sisters are standing around talking, and one young sister comes to greet us. After talking for a short time, she invites us to choose some seats, but Yulia explains that she must handle her showdog at a dog show in about one hour, and I see her gesture at her T-shirt, which has a photo of her dog on it. I thank Yulia for accompanying us there, and she says Sergei will be back at 5pm (because she knows we will have two meetings back-to-back, ending at 4:30pm, and that we will want to visit for a while afterwards).

The meetings are faith-strengthening, because we can see that no matter the country, no matter the language, the Bible is always the same, and the Christian unity is evident. We already know what will be discussed and studied, because all around the world the congregation unitedly discusses and studies the same Bible texts throughout the same weeks. So we are prepared, with both English and Russian books in front of us. When it comes time to sing some songs of praise to God, Ryan whispers to me not to sing along, since we only have the English lyrics in front of us. However, when the song begins, it only feels natural and right to sing in our own tongue, as the songs used at congregation meetings also are the same around the globe, being based on various Bible texts. Ryan too sings, recognizing that none of our brothers and sisters are thinking it odd at all. Michael follows along and hums, as he always does. The orchestra used for the songs, however, is definitely Russian, with various unfamiliar instruments used. Melodies, thankfully, translate beautifully.

By the time the meetings are over, and we are having discussions with our brothers and sisters and meeting new ones, we have increased our understanding of Russian by about 40% at least. Many of the sisters are learning English, they tell us, so they are thrilled to have us there to practice on us. They keep reminding us to speak very, very slowly please...and I likewise learn to say "Говораете очень медленно, пожалуйста, чтобы Я могу понимать" -- which is requesting them to speak slowly, so that I am able to understand. Before we leave at 5pm, we are invited to go on a horse ride sometime during our stay, on a picnic that is being held on Monday May 2nd, and to accompany our sister Irina on a Bible study on Tuesday.

Sergei is outside in his van, but both Helen and Yulia (the English-speakers) are at the dog show. Somehow we understand Sergei when he says he will take us to the dog show, or to our apartment, whichever we want. We say the dog show sounds fun.

Helen's dog, Fred, is not participating in the show because of an earlier injury to his leg. Yulia's dog, Lara, is in the Junior Class finals, and we watch as Yulia handles her in three separate rounds. By the end of the day, she would have two winner's ribbons. Helen worked this show by assisting a Finnish judge, translating his English to Russian. When we leave the show grounds, it is evident Helen is exhausted. She says the constant switching between Russian and English was tiring, especially with technical terms, and she began losing her concentration. She found herself speaking English to Sergei and Russian to me. Nevertheless, her natural energy is not diminished in the least, and she inquires what we would like to do and see now. I say that I need to do some grocery shopping, and we end up seeing the "Market" for the first time. It is a large grocery store separated into departments, appearing similar to a flea market, except indoors. One pays for one's items at each department. Here, one must either speak Russian well or be accompanied by a Russian speaker, because nothing is out on a shelf -- it must all be requested, by the pound or gram or what-have-you. Very much like the Продукты stores, only large-scale.

It is nearly 10pm when we return home, having just turned dark outside. Before cuddling up with a book before bedtime, we think we might have a bite to eat, since we haven't actaully eaten anything all day besides the tea and biscuits we had for breakast. This became our pattern for the following week, too: nothing to eat all day, then a slice of cheese and some bread before bed. As far as we could determine, this was every Smolenskite's pattern as well. Helen would accept a cup of tea in our apartment --in fact it was customary to offer it and rude not to -- but the thought of going "out" for a lunch or a bite seemed so foreign to her, and possibly even extravagantly excessive. She said once that the only time she had gone to a restaurant was when an American family had visited to adopt a girl she had been fostering. The family took her and Sergei and the girl out for dinner, a total of six people, and it had cost what she earns (as a dentist) in one month: 2000 rubles, or about $75. Her expression indicated to me that she felt this was sinful, and a part of me began not only to agree, but to feel ridiculously material.
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April 26, 2005: Since the director told us to return to Shatalovo on Thursday the 28th (with medical supplies in hand), we now have a day or two to explore the region. We have an appointment at 2pm to attend a Bible study, but in the morning Helen calls to ask if she may stop by. She arrives with Irena, in whose apartment we are staying, and I make tea to drink with the little tea cakes Irena brought. Irena has also brought two portable electric heaters, because she feels terrible that we are unaccustomed to the chilly weather now that the heat has been turned off. I protest that it was unnecessary, she shouldn't have -- but she insists, and Mikey spends quite a while sitting in front of one of them in the "big room" while we ladies visit in the kitchen.

Irena tells me (through Helen's translation) that she has two boys, nearly the same age as mine. They study English in school, and she asks if they may call on my boys to "practice." We agree enthusiastically, but they never did call during our stay. We found, instead, that many children who are learning English in school are too embarrassed or shy to attempt to talk to native English speakers. But they thoroughly enjoy smiling wickedly at our attempts to speak Russian!

I ask Irena if she rents out this apartment for income. No, she says, she is saving it for her boys, for when they are older and married. And then she and Helen explain to me the apartment situation in Russia: Under the Soviets, housing (in the form of these typical 1- and 2-room apartments) was, of course, assigned to each family. When the government (and hence the economy) changed, people merely held onto their apartments. If you moved out, the apartment would become available to rent out. If you stayed, it remained your own. Somehow, Irena is able to hold onto this apartment, saving it for her children. It is possible she merely visits there frequently, so that the neighbors are unaware it is not still her primary residence. I remember curious neighbors watching us furtively, and only one older woman was finally brave enough to ask if we were guests, the day before our departure. (She very kindly slowed down her speech when I said I only understood a little Russian -- a handy phrase! -- and then I could comprehend exactly what she was saying. I was able to say "Yes, we are guests until tomorrow night." Was that relief that registered on her face?) Most often, we were the ones who greeted folks we saw in the apartment building; the people preferred to remain quietly to themselves, with their eyes downcast as we passed each other in the hallways. Once, we heard a man shouting from the apartment nearest to the front entrance, and we could make out the words "stop" and "no" and "door," so we were fairly certain he was angry at the front door slamming closed. Ryan constantly reminded Mikey to close the door gently after that.

After Irena's visit, Helen again takes us on an excursion through the city. I tell her I would like to use an ATM machine, not because I am short on cash, but because I want to confirm that it actually works. At the bank on Nickolaeva Street, just around the corner from the apartment, the machine is powered off and an employee tells us they don't know how to fix it. Helen says she believes there is another machine (called a Bankomat) in a nearby grocery store. There is a problem with this one too, and when I ask Helen which one she uses most often, she says she has never used a Bankomat ever, and she is unsure of exactly what it does. She is bringing me shopping at the Central Universal Market (Ц У М) and she says there ought to be a functioning Bankomat there. Sure enough, we find one across the street and also inside the market, which is like a huge department store where one pays for their items at each department. Although I know I have far more funds available, the machine will only permit about $70 US to be withdrawn (2 000 рублей), and I discover later that the machines are often limited in the amount of cash installed at any given time. I don't know if vandalism and theft are a problem at these machines, but I do know that Russians themselves rarely use them. Many folks don't even have bank accounts, and I must assume they are paid cash for their wages.

Once back at our apartment, Ira comes to meet us to bring us to the home of Ada and Valery. It is here that we discover yet another warm and wonderful Smolensk couple.
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Photographic Log

Our first night in Russia almost discouraged us, when we weren't too impressed with the view from the hotel room. We expected the room to just barely fit the twin beds and a rollaway. We did see, however, a chambermaid cleaning a gorgeous room, decorated in pretty pinks with a queen bed and a sitting area.
We weren't expecting to have this initial glimpse at the Fortress Wall. Helen brought us there unexpectedly. We would've enjoyed spending more time at the wall, along the many pathways that have been trodden since before the year 860.
Helen murmured bits of history for us as we passed areas where Napolean lined up with his cannon, or where Hitler's forces broke through into the city. We thought the wall and its environs should be preserved in a more historical park-like fashion, but the people of Smolensk seem to prefer their freedom to come and go as they please, and to do what they like there. They have earned that freedom, apparently, through centuries of spilled blood, as both the wall and Smolensk's many monuments testify.
A typical dirt "road" or pathway in a Smolensk village. This one is in Gnezdo, or "Nest." A "magazin" or food store in a small village. This one is fancy by village standards, having an awning and some decorative brick-work. Many of the village homes, if they're not wooden shacks, are brick like this or cinder block, with colored bricks worked into patterns along their sides for decoration.
The canteen, or "mess hall." What they refer to as "meals" occurs 5 times a day, and except for the "dinner" at noon or 1pm -- which is their largest meal with bread, vegetables, meat and sometimes soup -- they really are given only some kind of bread product, like "perushkies," and some juice or tea. Usually, the younger children are given a chance to eat before the older kids are allowed to enter. We very infrequently saw the children actually sitting and eating. They seem to prefer -- when the weather is nice anyway -- to grab and eat on the run. Their tea-time food at 5:00pm was usually a piece of bread or a yogurt dish, or sometimes some "serok" -- a kind of sweet soft cheese. All the children emerged after their 7:30pm supper with the dessert, a cup of yogurt, and ate it outside or in their rooms.
Washing up before eating. We saw no one directing the children, and only a few washed regularly. They all knew -- whether by their growling stomachs or by their watches -- when it was time to head to the canteen. Only the very youngest and most timid had caregivers walking with them and guiding them. Tea time for the youngest children. Behind us, the older kids were clamoring at the doorway to get in when finally permitted.
We were told that after official school hours (3pm for the younger children, 4pm for the older), the kids were to go to something like a "study hall" to do homework and other seat work. Once they finished, they were permitted leisure time to listen to music or hang out in their dormitory common areas, before tea at 5:00pm. Once the weather was nice (anything above freezing) they tended to be outside. Although on our first visit there seemed to be an inordinate number of children surrounding us at all times (they were very curious about the Americans), they eventually grew accustomed to us and seemed to go about their regular routines.
We were told that Americans had come to put in a new gym floor very recently. Each time we saw the gym, there were boys playing darts. Doing double backflips off the "monkey" bars was a favorite activity for these gymnastic kids.
I had to keep my arm around Mikey any time we were in the director's office, because he had an obsession with the peeling plaster on the walls. He would repeatedly ask about it and pick at it. Any areas throughout the boarding school that weren't covered with old wallpaper were pretty much peeling. This is one of the few photos we have where Victor is smiling.
The school slash administration building was the nicest of all the buildings, with hardly any peeling walls and unfinished-looking hallways. Many times, after school hours, the classroom doors were locked. We discovered this after we tried to get another tour, once we realized we'd lost all our photos from the first day's tour. This was sad, as our first day's tour was comprehensive: we had photos of nearly every classroom, almost every project on which the children collaborated, and even the out-of-the-way places one wouldn't normally see on a tour of a school.
The tour we received that first day was with Marina and Valya. After that day, we would go to Shatalovo with Vita.
Quite a few of the residents at the Shatalovo Boarding School could not rightfully be called "children." One of Vitya's classrooms: very drab and uninviting. The middle- and high-school "grades" tended to have classrooms like these, while the primary grades had colorful and interesting rooms.
A view of the mattresses on their beds...you can see how they are like thin foam pads, but many are actually feathered pads. One of Inna's roommates, on laundry day.
A meal, consisting of bread, either soup or oatmeal, tomatoes, and apple juice. The children gather for television watching in the "rec" room, which is in a building housing a workshop and library as well. Every school day that we were at the orphanage, this building was locked and unused, which means it probably is used only on weekends -- at Shatalovo, Sunday is the only weekend day.
The lovely hallways in the dormitory building.
Katya Chernikova (left) was among the group who visited MA/NH the summer of 2004, but she maintained that she didn't want to be adopted, nor did she want her brother to be adopted, as she clung to the hope of reuniting with her mother one day. This photo offers a view of the outside of the recreation building.
The kitchen staff at the Shatalovo Internat. Notice the pipes and cables running OUTSIDE the walls and along ceilings -- this is actually how plumbing was typically installed in Soviet-era buildings, and it's seen everywhere. We went to a gathering at a newly-constructed home (it wasn't actually finished yet) and MOST of their plumbing was hidden behind wallboard. They're getting the hang of it...
The "Smolensk Spaghetti" factory building, where the meetings were held. Apparently, many of the plants and buildings were equipped with auditoriums -- or "clubs" as they say -- for Soviet-era political rallies. Inside, there was dim lighting provided only by lamps on wall sconces, and as the city's heat had been turned off already, many kept their coats on during the meetings. Towards the back, brothers and sisters would sit with deaf ones and translate the entire meeting through sign language. We learned that a great deal of the population in Russia is deaf, because of poor healthcare and childhood diseases. Most members of the congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses can sign, therefore.
Irina Kuleshova became not only our sister, as it were, but also a very dear friend. She comes from the Krasnodar area by the Black Sea and comes out with wonderfully quirky English phrases, like the card she sent us reading "We Love Us!" The Scripture Text Placard reads "My Help is From Jehovah," just as it does in English, at Psalm 121:2, instead of Psalm 120:2 (The Russian translation of the Bible combines what is Psalms chapters 9 and 10 in English translations, so thereafter, the chapter numbers are one lower. Some English translations of the Bible retain God's name only in a few places, such as Psalm 83:18, otherwise using all upper-case LORD GOD wherever the name had appeared in original manuscripts.) Every congregation around the world displays the same text in their language, the Scripture changed each year.
The school supplies we brought to Shatalovo on April 25
Inna with one of the caregivers, a very sweet and dedicated lady named either Valya or Nalya. I understood the name to be Valya the whole time we were visiting, but a subsequent letter I've received from Leonid (who is also cared for by this woman) names her Nalya. She asks us many things, about our lives and our homes, and seems genuinely interested in the children's futures. She also says to me, frequently, that both Leonid and Victor look like me and my family.
After supper, we were hanging around the canteen and Victor Chernikov, from Kidsave 2004 in MA/NH, kept looking in our direction. I asked if he would pose with me. He is in Leonid's class and Valya/Nalya's group.
The streets of Smolensk, near to our apartment. The tall buildings are typical apartment houses, though these are on Nickolaeva Street and Normandy Neman, whereas many -- like the one we stayed in -- are arranged in blocks off side lanes. Smolensk folks lament that first-floor apartments on busy streets are being taken over by commercial concerns. This makes it difficult for elderly people, since these buildings don't have lifts. Notice that there aren't traffic lines painted on the roads, and cars rarely conform to them even if they are. Pedestrians frequently put their lives at risk, even when using crossing signals. Those who cross without using the signals (jay-walking) are truly despised by drivers, who seem to actually aim at those walkers, even if they're elderly. The driving also seems to be even more erratic due to the fact that drivers must swerve and perform amazing feats to avoid crater-like pot-holes and other imperfections in the poorly maintained roads