I glanced up on the metro earlier, accidentally making eye contact with an elderly Russian man, and was suddenly overwhelmed with the impression that this guy had eaten people.  Being Russia, and being that he was an old man, this is not entirely unlikely, but I don’t know what gave me the impression – he looked haggard and disturbed, sure, but cannibalism..?

I’ve mentioned before the huge losses Russia suffered in World War 2, and the fact that during the Siege of Leningrad, people ate wood and leather.  What I didn’t mention was that they also ate people.  I should give you fair warning here – there is a graphic image and very graphic descriptions below.

Yesterday (27 January) was the 69th anniversary of the lifting of the German siege on the city.  It started 8 September 1941, and lasted for 872 days.  During that time, around one million people if not more (figures are disputed) perished.  This represents approximately a third of the officially listed pre-blockade population.  In reality, the numbers in both cases should probably be dramatically increased, given the influx of refugees to the city at the time.  Either way, the city was a devastated ghost town when the siege finally ended.

As I’m writing this, I’m reading more and more about the Blockade and corresponding conditions, and am more and more horrified and overwhelmed.  By the winter of 1941-2, reports of cannibalism started pouring in:

“New findings from the Communist Party archives that were opened in 1992 confirm…that murderous gangs roamed wartime Leningrad’s streets, killing for ration cards or human meat.

Paintings, drawings and diaries…show that cannibalism was so much a fact of everyday life that parents feared their children would be eaten if allowed out after dark.” (Source)

“Rumours of cannibalism abounded. Amputated limbs disappeared from hospital theatres.  Police records released years later showed that 2,000 people were arrested for cannibalism; 586 of them were executed for murdering their victims. Most people arrested however were women.  Mothers smothered very young children to feed their older ones.” (Source)


“‘28 December 1941 – Zhenya died. 25 January 1942 – Granny died. 17 March – Lyoka died. 13 April – Uncle Vasya died. 10 May – Uncle Lyosha died. 13 May at 7.30am – Mama died. The Savichevs are dead, everyone is dead. Only Tanya is left.’ Tanya was 12.” (Ibid)

“The official daily ration was 125 grams of bread, about the weight of a bar of soap. Leningraders supplemented it with anything they could: as historians Ales Adamovich and Daniil Granin wrote in their account of the siege–“with everything from the birdseed to the canary itself.”

They scraped wallpaper down and ate the paste, which was supposedly made from potatoes. They extracted the same paste from bookbindings, or drank it straight from the glue jar. They boiled leather belts and briefcases to make an edible jelly, and plucked and pickled grasses and weeds.

They ate cats and dogs, petroleum jelly and lipstick, spices and medicines, fur coats and leather caps. Some made face-powder pancakes; others munched grimy crystallized sugar, dug out from under the sugar warehouses leveled by German firebombs.” (Source)

Note that a lot of people also died of the cold.  I mentioned before that the temperature dropped to -50 during the siege as per my students, though perhaps this was a ‘feels-like’ temperature – either way, it was in the vicinity of -35.  With no heating and not enough food, eating clothing must have felt like being between a rock and a hard place—in the grimmest possible way.

I was going to write about the psychological effect of cannibalism, but after reading the articles listed below, I just don’t have the heart for it.  There are few blokadniki (Blockade survivors) left now, and they would have to be in their 80s or 90s to remember anything – a very, very old age in Russia, where the life expectancy is 68.8 years and where people have been through alternately tumultuous and devastating periods.  Russia is changing so very quickly – I wonder how long the motto of the blokadniki will be remembered:  “Troy fell, Rome fall, Leningrad did not fall.”


For more on the Blockade, see:
Now and then – pictures from the time of the siege, superimposed over modern photos of the same locations.  It’s a crazy look into the past.
Seventy Years On – a critical account of Soviet treatment of history in the post-blockade error
Archival records confirm cannibalism – I highly recommend reading this if nothing else – but it is horrible.
Wiki (as always) – the siege and its effects
Book – The 900 Days at the Book Depository


An intermittent clock

A few months ago, I was walking to Naz’s flat on Vasiliy Ostrov, when I turned to her and asked with my typical eloquence, “what the ** is that ticking noise?!”.  She pointed to some loud-speakers mounted on a nearby building, and said that the noise was coming from there.  I hadn’t noticed the noise before, or the loud-speakers for that matter, and I asked what it was all about.  Apparently it’s a remnant of the Cold War – the loud-speakers would keep ticking as long as everything was okay.  I haven’t been able to fact-check, as weirdly, typing ‘st petersburg ticking noise’ into google doesn’t come up with much.  Naz said that the speakers are still mounted everywhere, as if they stopped the older generations would likely freak out thinking that attack was imminent.

[Update 26/01: it’s actually to commemorate its being 70 years since the Siege of Leningrad / the Blockade, and has nothing to do with the Cold War.  The metronome noise was broadcast between radio programmes to reassure people that it was still there and working.  See here.]

In the intervening time, I hadn’t noticed any further loud-speakers, until I was walking through the  unusually quiet city a couple of days ago.  It was the first time I’d walked through the city when it was almost empty of traffic.  For the first time I noticed that I was almost never out of earshot of a ticking loud-speaker, and now I see them everywhere.  When the city’s quiet like that, pretty much the only time you don’t hear the ticking is when you’re standing directly under the speaker.  The noise itself is distinctly reminiscent of building works being carried out – maybe someone bashing on a pole with a hammer – and I guess I used to write it off as that.

It seems to be the thing to do at the moment for Australians to post a screen-shot of the current temperature on their facebooks.  It’s been in the high 40’s there, meaning it’s more than 70 degrees colder here.  Mind-boggling!  That’s right, temperatures have once again swooped downward, and it was apparently due to be -26 today.  I don’t usually check the forecast any more, and put on all my winter gear irrespective, but I did feel it was significantly colder.  At -10 I need my winter, rather than my autumn coat; at -15 I feel the cold in the area just above my knees, and at around -18 to -20 the inside of my nostrils freezes.  Perhaps I should copyright the ‘Laura Skillen temperature gauge’??

On Wednesday night as I was walking on the dark, tree-lined paths from work to the metro, things were starting to freeze up again after the recent thaws.  The ground was lined with snow, and parts of it had frozen to minute crystals that glittered in the night like stars.  It felt for all the world like I was walking through a fresh universe – in a non-literal sense of course.  It was simply stunning!

Just in time for it to snow again, they’ve finally cleared the driveway to the apartment.  The work-crews have a lot to do though: just before New Years’ and after the warmer temperatures, there was a massive thaw followed by a snap-freeze.  The city was literally and liberally covered with sheet ice.  It was absolutely horrible.  It normally takes me about 15 minutes to walk to the metro, but on this particular occasion it took more like 40.  I first noticed how icy it was when I got stuck in a driveway, shaped a little like a bowl.  I slid down into it and couldn’t get out of it again – I had to wait until a man reached down from less precarious ground to pull me out.  After that I became more aware, and had a look around – the whole way up the street, around every 10-15 metres, there was someone who’d fallen over on the ice.  I went for a massive spill myself – think, a cartoon character slipping on a banana peel – and showed up at work in the worst possible mood (and refused to leave the apartment for the next couple of days until it was possible to walk on the footpaths again).

Of course, I often arrive at work in a terrible mood, as every time I walk in I’m frustrated anew by the lack of resources, of space, of courtesy, and of organisation.  It’s not unusual for us to have neither printer nor photocopier, smart-boards not working (and you can’t write on the boards unless they’re working), and the things we need for lessons just entirely absent.  Then of course, you’ll have people asking you a million irrelevant questions and approaching you with admin tasks while you’re trying to weave your way to the one working computer to print the things you’ve prepared at home.  Last night I stayed up til 1 or 2 putting some worksheets and poems together for today’s life-clubs, and was immensely frustrated when I got to work and realised that all of the things I’d been told to use had just vanished.  Rant, rant, rant.

On the organisational upside, I’ve recently discovered a fabulous program for the obsessively organised – evernote.  I’ve already started using it for just everything, including notes for the latest course I’ve decided to do: a Grad Dip in Geography and Environment, through LSE again.  I was thinking about what I was going to do post-Russia, and reflecting on what I’d enjoyed most about my job at the law firm: it was indubitably the environmental project work I did, and I’d like to try and get work in that area.  Unlike human rights law, it’s unsaturated, and a growth area.  So yay for that!

On Tuesday I went to pick up a new native speaker (read: victim) from the airport.  I offered to do it, telling the Director of Studies for that school that it’d probably be nice for her to be met by a native speaker who she’s already familiar with, and who isn’t her supervisor.  That was all fine, and we caught a taxi to her would-be apartment, where we met with supervisors from her school and a real-estate agent.  I then played guard-dog in the apartment while they just ‘popped upstairs’ to sign the lease.  Over an hour later, I was getting kind of over it, but didn’t have the option to leave, as the apartment wasn’t locked.  In Russia, no-one respects your time.

After the new staffy’s eventual return, I introduced her to lunch at chainaya lozhka then took her to a store to pick up some essentials.  I don’t think the local staff realise how difficult it would be to live here without speaking Russian, and for that reason I’m glad I went to the shop to help.  Things like differentiating shampoo and conditioner, not to mention what things in the supermarket actually are, are very difficult if you don’t speak the language.

Happily, I am getting much better at Russian, so maybe it’s ok that we’re now starting the Upper Intermediate (B2) course at uni after all.  I was trying to figure out yesterday whether I’m thinking in Russian or not, and I really have no idea.  I know what people are saying to me when they talk, but I don’t know how exactly: am I thinking in Russian, or just really fast at processing into English?  I just know what they mean.  I once tried to explain to Naz that I try to feel what people are saying, rather than listening to the words, and it works for me.  It brought me back to thinking about the ticking loud-speakers, and how it’s not really the sound people are listening to, it’s the safety the sound represents.  I guess that’s what language is after all: it’s not the sounds, it’s the meaning.

-22 and Sunny

“Why do you need so much reassurance?” I asked my students.  “You need me to always tell you I love you, instead of just accepting it.”  S: “Well of course we do: after home and after school, here is our third home.  And you are our third mother!”  Me: “Oh my god.  I have a lot of children!!”  S: “Well, I think that’s your problem.”  Me: “I think it might be a little bit your problem, too.”

I’ve taught some very peculiar things in class lately.  These include how to spell ‘borscht’ in English, how to pronounce ‘Communism’, and how to spell the Russian alphabet (Cyrillic) in English letters (translit).  So I’m an Australian in Russia, teaching Russians how to be Russian in English ?!?  I’ve also been including things like touch-typing, analysing text and writing essays as part of my students’ work, as these are things they’re not taught in school here.  Essays as taught in school are called ‘compositions’, and closer to book reviews than to any kind of analysis.

I’ve also had a fairly hilarious time teaching students the correct pronunciation of the word “can’t”.  I explained that what it sounds like they’re saying is the most offensive word in English.  Actually, now that they know, it’s even funnier when they say “I can’t”.

I recently asked my teenage students to do some writing on the ‘generational gap’ in Russia, and they said that they were like teenagers anywhere, having been raised on tv, mobile phones and freedoms.  They said that the older generation were poor, hated the government, and listened to boring music.  I’d ask my new adult students what they thought of this characterisation, but they’re A2 level, so still very much beginners.  There are definitely different attitudes in the classroom, and more ‘no-go’ areas with the adults.  In saying that, I don’t think I can generalise (since when!?!?) as all of my students are those people who are able to afford a private English school.  For most Russians, it’s simply out of their reach.

My new adult students, unfortunately, asked me yesterday what Australians learn about the Second World War, and more specifically Russia’s role.  I absolutely cringed.  While I’m very open with my teenage groups, all of these adults’ parents lived through WW2, and so it’s much more personal to them.  It’s horrible to think of what scars the blockade of St Petersburg has left: people literally ate leather and wood to survive, and temperatures plummeted to below -50.  Anyway, I told the students what i’d learned of Russia’s role in ‘America’s War’ at school.  The result was a peculiar mix of aghast and despair, and I segued as quickly as I could. has recently updated their ‘Introduction to Russia‘, and it’s completely worth reiterating here:

Russia is truly polysingular. One moment you’re feel like you’re in a scene from Blade Runner, another moment you find yourself inside a beautiful fairytale, next moment you’re lost in chaos, and then before you know it you’re walking through the orderly airport passageways on your way home. And the most interesting thing is that each moment you really truly believe that this is the only way possible, even though you know everything could change at any moment.

To say that Russia is the country of contrasts is an understatement. It is the place that realizes itself through extremes. It’s a country that has so many influences clashing with one another every day, every moment, that you feel like you’re in a constant warzone between different epochs, mentalities, ideologies, religions, styles, and ways of being.

A student once said to me that ‘it’s hard for foreigners here in Russia.  We know when we wake up that things will be hard, so before we go out we [mimes putting on armour].  You don’t think things should be so hard, and actually things don’t always make sense here.’  Warzone indeed.

Marshmallow Man (2)
A rough interpretation of how I look when going outside in the Russian winter.

I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks, because I haven’t had much to write about.  I’m not sure whether the winter and lack of tourists had made situations less weird, whether I’ve been in some kind of coma, or whether I’ve just adapted to life here.  Either way, things don’t seem that strange to me anymore (does this mean the culture shock’s over?  PLEASE LET IT BE OVER!!!).  I’m not precisely blasé, but seem to have accepted that everything’s a complete shitfight all the time.  So maybe I’ve finally put on my own armour.  Of course, my armour looks more like the chap to the right than the metal-beclad fellow in this post’s featured image.

I definitely bought a coat at the right time, and today started wearing snowboard pants with it on my way to work.  Today’s low was I think -23, and this Sunday is forecast to be -26.  Happily, at the moment it’s not windy – when it’s windy it’s dreadful.  I made the awesome life choice of wearing stockings and a skirt when heading to work yesterday, and was pretty sure my legs were going to shatter in the cold before I made it to the metro.

Whether I blog or not, people from around the world frequently send me pep-talk emails and messages.  It’s freaking amazing to think that so many people are so supportive of my latest crazy idea to try Russia, and I feel absolutely privileged that they then reach out and contact me.
I also love that they send me hilarious videos, articles and pictures about Russia, so here are some things that made me lol this week.  Enjoy!

things you risk in russia



And lastly, this video is absolutely every supermarket experience in Russia:


Bread and bears

There are some things my students would like you to know about Russia.

This all started because we were doing a mind-mapping exercise as a warm-up.  Basically, you write something in the middle of the page (in this case, ‘blue’ – which was a bit funny as it’s slang for ‘gay’ in Russian) and then write things you associate with that word around it.  I wrote blue>French flag>bread, and my students were outraged.  ‘Why France?’ they asked, ‘bread is from Russia!’.  I said that by no means did I associate bread with Russia, and they objected, saying that bread and bears are how the world sees Russia.  I said that that is absolutely not the case.

I then drew a mind-map with ‘Russia’ in the centre.  The first thing I wrote was ‘vodka’.  Then ‘tanks’, ‘Cold War’, ‘bad guys in movies’, ‘evil accent’.  Not tolerant nor educated, but they were the first stereotypes I thought of.  My students were incredibly confused.

I next sat down and explained that I had only met my first Russian eighteen months ago, and up until that point my knowledge of Russia was pretty much limited to the above.  Russia had always seemed irrelevant to me, boring, more a cliché than an actual place. It’s all like Siberia, they’d had a Communist government, they’d been the ‘other side’ in the Cold War, and, yes, they’re the bad guys in movies.  Russian guys are ‘hard’ and Russian women are mail-order brides.

Siberia??  (Photo:

Of course, since then, it’s like a world has opened up before me.  An alien world to be sure, but a world I feel the richer for starting to know.

My students then asked me at least a million questions about how Russia is perceived in Australia and the UK, the only two other countries I’ve lived in.  I told them, and they were horrified.  Not angry in their patriotism – and not even patriotism, but national pride – but sad.  They really were distraught.  All they could say was ‘but that’s so sad’.  They then almost pleaded, ‘but Laura, you’ll go back and tell everyone what Russia is really like, won’t you?’.

So, here are some of the things that my Russian students would like you to know about their country:

  • Some of history’s most important and well-known scientists are Russian.  Studied chemistry?  Mendeleev, who invented the periodic chart, was Russian.  As were the inventors/discoverers of Google’s search engine, the videotape recorder (Paris should pay royalties), oil tankers, the fields of aero- and hydrodynamics, MiG aircraft, glucose and artificial sweetener, vodka (lol), Chanel No 5, and at least a zillion more things.
  • Russia defeated Napoleon.  They play a huge and current role in containing conflicts in the Stan area from the Middle East to India.  In World War 2, for the whole war there were approx 70 million deaths.  Around 5 million of those were Jews, and people are still sensitive to the extreme about even mentioning the Holocaust.  The United States lost nearly half a million people, the UK around the same, representing 0.32% and 0.94% of their populations respectively.  Just over 40,000 Australians were killed, so around 0.57% of the population.  More than twenty-three million residents of the Soviet Union were killed, representing 13.88% of the population. And yet these are the ‘bad guys’ in movies.
  • On the topic of movies, there are some brilliant Russian films.  My students think you should check out films such as ‘12‘ by Nikita Mikhalkov, and I definitely agree!
  • Ok, so bread and bilberries are great (they insisted).
  • ‘America’s history is like a page, Russia is a whole book’.
  • Russian students study the history and geography of the whole world.  Mine today could tell me the history of the UK, of America, of Australia, and major geographical features of any country I’d care to ask about.  By comparison, at school I only studied the history of Australia and of the UK.  Granted, I work for private language schools and the students who attend are those who can afford to, but I’ve found all of my students educated, opinionated and brave.
Now, to lighten things up, here’s one of my favourite Soviet cartoons.



I really loved Sofia, and I’m still not entirely sure why.  There was the fact that signs were written in Cyrillic, of course, and that I had the opportunity to speak Russian with people.  Or the book market, where I spent hours poring over children’s books in Russian, and bought my copy of The Little Prince in that language (Маленький Принц).  There’s the fact that the city itself is quite majestic, or there’s the history: but I think my favourite thing of all was the water fountains.

The water fountains are actually  natural springs which have been built into a tap-and-fountain system.  The water bubbles up from below (at 28 degrees Celsius, from recollection) and is funneled out into taps in a series of fountains throughout the city.  Every day, sometimes several times a day, I’d join the locals to go and fill my water bottles.  The water was delicious, and renowned to have healing powers.  More to the point though, it’s a big part of the reason Sofia was founded where it was.  The springs, and the fact that it lay on the trade routes between Europe, the Med and the East, meant that it was a thriving trade town.  Under the city, you can still find the remnants of its past, such as this Roman road which was the main route into the city:

Sofia (18 of 23)

The whole area, including Bulgaria, Romania and former Yugoslavia, have this thing about lions.  They say that the area looks like a lion on the map, and currencies are named for it: thus in Romania, the currency is the leu, and in Bulgaria, the lev (лев)–each meaning ‘lion’.  I’ve just spent ten minutes staring at a map of Europe and I either see no lions, or far too many lions, but whatever.  Lions are cool.


I went on a free walking tour of Sofia with a very proud local man in his early 20s.  We learned about some hero of Bulgaria, who started a movement to free his country from Ottoman rule: Vasil Levski, or Vasil the Lion/the Leonine.  We saw one of many monuments to him, by the oldest Christian church in Sofia (pictures in the gallery below).  The walking tour was quite late at night and it was cold, so I don’t remember much from it.  So, here are the wikis for the history of Bulgaria and Vasil Levski.

Hm, I’m looking to make a broad generalisation (is there any other kind?) about Bulgarians.  It seems they’re not very good at picking sides, for a start: they aligned with Germany in WW2, and were part of the Soviet Union Советский Союз during the Cold War.  Come to think of it, I think that’s what the tour guide said.  He then went on to speak at some length about Bulgaria during WW2 before speaking about the country under communism.  He said that it’s a matter of vast national pride that none of Bulgaria’s Jews were executed: requests kept coming through from Hitler’s regime, but people would hide their friends and protect them in any way they could.  Actually, the place seems very religiously tolerant, and Sofia is filled with mosques, Orthodox and Catholic churches, and synagogues alike.  Plus one great big pagan statue in the main street, a goddess representing wisdom and justice.  She stands where дедушка Lenin’s statue used to.

Another matter of pride for the people of Sofia, continued our tour guide, was how much of its national heritage they managed to save from Soviet destruction.  Unlike Bucharest, buildings and monuments hundreds and close to a thousand years old still stand in some places.  A lot of archaeological ruins are also to be found beneath the city, and care is taken when building transport infrastructure to build around them.  The guide showed us the old Party Headquarter buildings, and told us how a great big red Star used to sit on top.  When the Communist Party was defeated, some locals (one man?) climbed the building and threw the star off, at which point it disappeared for years.  Something like that, anyway.  Tell you what, go on the tour yourself and get back to me 🙂

I’ve not a lot else to report from Sofia really.  There are lots of stray dogs, again, and lots of homeless-looking people: the weekly wage was even lower than that in Romania, at just 100 euro a week.  Like Romania, it gets a lot of EU assistance.

People seem to love or hate Sofia, but apart from the terrifying train station, I would definitely go back.  I really thought I might get kidnapped for a little while there, but (as you can see) it all worked out in the end.