Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Story from Central Asia



I met Artyom in the metro last Friday night. I was on my way back from the State Electrotechnological University, where I had been speaking all day to students about Linguistics and Intercultural Communications, and I was plain exhausted. I'd given six different speeches in the past five days and was really feeling the duress of public speaking. For the first time ever, I sank onto a bench on the metro platform.
“Spasibo,” I half-whispered as an attractive young blond man scooted over to make sure I had more than enough room to relax.
“Excuse me,” the young man leaned over 30 seconds later and started to talk to me in rapid Russian, “What do you think: are people more friendly and cultured in St. Petersburg than in Moscow?”

I understood what he said, but was too tired to find the words to respond. I just looked at him, my eyes wide, flipping through my brain's Russian lexicon in search of a formulaic reply. I must have hesitated a minute too long, because he smiled and said, “Perhaps English would be better for you?” And then proceeded to reiterate the question in perfect English.
I preempted my response: “I'm really not the person you should ask; I've only spent one weekend in Moscow. But yes, I do think that people in St. Petersburg seem to be friendlier. However, I'm inclined to think that this is because they have the time to be friendly. whereas their counterparts in fast-paced, business-oriented Moscow don't seem to have the same privilege of enjoying life.”
In front of the Russian Museum
This exchange launched an interesting culture-oriented conversation, and when it came time for me to get off the metro one stop later, Artyom ended up getting off to walk me home so that we could keep talking a little bit. I agreed to meet him the next day to visit The Marble Palace, one of the branches of the State Russian Museum that I had yet to see.

Saturday was a beautiful day, and as we both enjoy walking, we decided to set out to the museum on foot. We first strolled down Nevskiy Prospect, and, as I walked this famous street for the first time at ease, without being on a schedule, I enjoyed looking around and simply appreciating the atmosphere and architecture. We ended up walking 18 km (11 miles) that day (Artyom's cell phone has a pedometer) and had a great time sharing stories from our life and travels while debating political and philosophical issues.

I love the "Apollos" holding up
this building!

Ice melting in the Fontanka Canal
Inside the Russian Museum, we came upon this painting titled
"My Friend Artyom."
So this is my friend Artyom posing with "My Friend Artyom."
View of the Admiralty (gold spire on the left) and St. Isaac's
Cathedral (gold dome on the right) from Vasilievskiy Island.
St. Petersburg School of Art - one of the most beautiful buildings in
the city, in my opinion.  The writing on the outside is all in Old Russian.
Nothing says springtime like walking along the canals on a sunny day
and watching the ice melt.  

Stairs lead from the street straight down
to the canals - easy access to your
boat!
I'd like to share a story or two from Artyom's life that illustrates the vast disparity between his frame of reference and the perspective of the average American.
One of my missions in life is to dig up and disseminate anecdotes of the human experience by way of sharing the stories of people I meet during my journeys, and this is one story that may introduce a perspective you've never been provided.  Because in my opinion, no journey is wasted.


Artyom is 30 years old. He is currently the CEO of an interior design/furniture imports company in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where he was born, raised, and started at this company as a teenager in the very lowest position they had. Through hard work, good people skills, and display of leadership skills, he worked his way up through the ranks and was appointed CEO just a few years ago.

But before all this, and before earning a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Management, he completed a degree in Artillery and then served as an officer in the Uzbek Army. Part of their training, he said, was on-the-job learning. He was taken, with the soldiers under him, to the Uzbek-Afghan border, where they gained experience in the field. They weren't exactly put on the front lines of a war, but they were expected to protect their border and do whatever exactly it is that artillery men do when there are no bad guys at which to shoot.
Their biggest concern wasn't being shot, he said. The food and water situation was much more serious. This area where they were sent is a desert and there was no potable water to be had. I interrupted him at this point, suggesting that surely they had the water purification tablets to toss into their canteens.
"No, no," he replied, "it's a much more simple solution than that."  Instead, they would boil a certain type of reed grass that holds water and drink the juice. The grass will give you a bad rash if you touch it, and the taste of the juice is pretty bad, but it suppresses thirst like nothing else, Artyom said. The main cause of ailment was bad quality food. The Uzbek government had a budget for feeding soldiers, but due to corruption this money was pocketed by someone (or multiple someones) in the distribution chain and instead, he said, he and his men were fed 35-year-old meat that arrived in packaging complete with the original Soviet stamps on them. These were delivered in huge freezer trucks kept at -20 C (-4 F).
You've got to be kidding me,” I laughed, thinking that he was joking with me. But when I turned to look at him his face showed no sign of comedic effort.
No,” he replied, “I'm serious. I always told my men not to eat it. They should eat beans, bread, grass and anything else. But not the meat. It was completely yellow, even in the packaging, even though it had been frozen for over 30 years. The biggest problems were with dysentery and jaundice. Almost everyone had it. And absolutely everyone suffered from diarrhea the whole time they were out there. Most of my men did okay because I really didn't allow them to eat the meat. But a few did and they were inevitably sick every time.”
I didn't really know what to say. It seems incredulous. Who keeps meat for 35 years, anyways? I wouldn't feed something like that to my dog, let alone another human.

I have another story that may have even more shock value than this one, but I'll save it for another day.  

1 comments:

  1. Your friend, Artyom, is a very interesting man. My goodness, 35 year old meat. YUCK. I LOVE the pictures with the melting ice and the interesting architecture. A friend of mine, retired LA Deputy, has been to Uzbekistan to train police officeers there. Good blog! xo

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