Moscow’s lesson: Don’t be a cynic.

A miniature of St. Basil’s Cathedral in an abandoned corner of Izmailovo Market, Moscow. 

Before going to Moscow, I had a wonderfully naïve, holier-than-thou attitude towards Russia. Russia was a corrupt and backwards country, and I—the diligent young journalist—was going to uncover all its problems from a lofty bed and breakfast. In case my flippant self-deprecation didn’t give it away already: I had the wrong attitude.

I spent six weeks studying Russian culture and politics through the PIIRS Moscow Global Seminar program, hoping that it would help inform a career in journalism. I learned a lot: Russians love the circus; when it comes to the International Space Station, the U.S. and Russia are on relatively good terms; and Moscow mules taste no different in Moscow than they do in the U.S.

Most importantly, however, I learned that Russia is a democracy on paper, that laws alone don’t guarantee freedoms and that Russia’s problems aren’t exclusive to Russia.

During one of the first classes, Peyton Cunningham ‘20 brought out a stack of nearly 50 sheets for a five-page reading.

“Yup” said Peyton, reading my confused face, “the printer divided up the pages.”

Sure enough, the pages were all nearly blank with a small piece of the text pasted in the middle. The hotel, it turned out, had charged by the page and had taken the time to divide the reading neatly across 10 times more pages than necessary.

We were all swindled once or twice over the six weeks, but we kept a good sense of humor about it. Were Muscovites taking advantage of us because we were foreigners? Probably. Nevertheless, we got the impression that trust is not the cornerstone of Russian society.

As we soon discovered, a Muscovite never asks the police for directions. Always have a friend take a picture of your taxi driver’s license plate. Drivers don’t pull over for an ambulance. The reasoning? The ambulance driver is simply late for work.

“People here in Russia don’t follow the law, and then they complain there is no law,” a guest lecturer explained to us with a smile.

Moscow helped me understand how much people—not police—help enforce the laws. Without public trust, Moscow suffers. Either as a cause or effect, this lack of trust feeds into Russian political cynicism.

Sometimes it was faster to walk the half hour to class than to take a bus or a taxi. Taxi drivers grumble under their breath about the traffic, caused by construction work. Moscow’s prolific—and seemingly arbitrary—construction raises suspicions that the city’s infrastructure projects offer an opportunity for officials to skim budgets. Citizens’ complaints, however, often begin and end as mumbles behind the wheel.

Either disillusioned or intimidated, few Russians seem to feel like they can change anything; and some don’t even want change. Dissent is frightening to the average Russian. The fall of the Soviet Union destabilized Russia; death rates spiked in the 90s; and many Russians simply want to live out their lives in peace. Putin, despite his dubious record, has stellar approval ratings. When asked why they approve of the authoritarian leader, most Russians parrot the same thing: He provides stability.

Yes, there are legal obstacles, but cynicism has made political change in Russia especially difficult. Unfortunately, a similar attitude faces the Russian press.

“Thank God that Russia doesn’t have any censorship,” one Russian official told us. I can attest to the fact that dropping your jaw is a reflex. In hindsight, the statement is true. On paper, there is no formal censorship in Russia. Instead, intimidation inspires self-censorship.

The Global Seminar introduced us to both Russian and Western journalists whose dedication to the truth was inspiring, especially when one considers how often journalists are attacked. When we were in Moscow, someone had thrown foul-smelling chemicals into the house of Yulia Latynina, a prominent journalist and critic of the Kremlin. In September, she fled Russia; her car was set on fire.

Russia’s constitution guarantees the freedom of press.

If Russia and the Global Seminar program taught me anything, it is that laws aren’t enough. Securing freedom requires constant work, participation and a genuine hope for the future. Russia is flawed of course, but over my six weeks in Moscow, I began to care deeply about its people and culture. I appreciated their love for opera. I went skiing for the first time. I met some incredible people—who didn’t laugh too hard when I fell skiing.

Naturally, these experiences make me more disappointed to see Russians content with a broken government and society; and coming back home, I’ve come to recognize the responsibilities that I have to my own country. In Moscow—not Princeton—the words “in the nation’s service, and the service of all humanity” took on a deeper, personal, and more immediate meaning.

I Have Hardly Heard Silence

I have the tendency to fill silences. When there is a pause in class, I speak; I sing when I’m cooking or taking a walk. Perhaps because this is how I understand myself, this is also how I understand Greece. For my experience has been that Greece too, fills silences. I mean ‘Greece’ in a few ways: the soundscapes I’ve encountered while living here and the sounds of Greek Theater.

First in Athens and then in Epidaurus, I noticed and listened to what we might call the ‘background’ a lot: compelling sounds, difficult to tune out. Athens, like any city, was full of people and vehicles, but for me it had its own particulars: people shouting prices in Greek in our neighborhood outdoor food market; students in Martha Frintzila’s acting school chatting as they smoked, singing, chanting, debating; the soft drone of cars and the rumble of motorcycles each night as I fell asleep. I had never been able to fall asleep easily in a loud city before. I guess it must have helped that I was always exhausted by the time I slept, around midnight. Strangely, for all the incredible things we did there, when I think of Athens the first thing I think of is drifting to sleep cradled in its night noises.

In Epidaurus, in the country, night is the quietest time. It’s when the cicadas quiet their buzzing, which goes on relentlessly all day. I can hear them even behind the walls of our apartment, as if nature wants to bring its revelry indoors. For the first few mornings, in my sleepy haze I mistook their buzzing for my roommate, Feyisola, taking a shower. Also among the sounds of Epidaurus are the bees buzzing at breakfast and the waves gently breaking on the shore. A few days ago when the weather changed to cool and windy, the bugs quieted down. It’s amazing how the whole quality of the environment changed from pulsating garden to whispering shore.

I have hardly heard silence this summer in Greece, not only because of the background noises of the outside but also because of the clamor of Ancient Greek Theater. Simon Goldhill says in his book, How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today, that Greek Tragedy is particularly wordy (and to be clear, he doesn’t mean that in a bad way). By the time I read this, I knew it was true from seeing, reading, and performing the Ancient Greek plays.

The first play we saw was Amalia Moutousis’ one-woman performance of Euripides’ Hippolytus. For much of the play, she spat, coughed, and breathed out words like she was possessed by them. Later, we saw a play, Metropolis, that was made up of messenger speeches from several of the ancient tragedies; I experienced the same melodious deluge of Greek. Then last night, we heard Martha (our acting teacher) and her band sing the choral odes of Euripides’ The Bacchae. I never wished to understand Greek more desperately than during that performance, even though I was moved by the sound of the music alone. I think it is telling that the silent or mostly silent works we saw were not directly based on any one Greek play. How could you stage one of the ancient plays without their words? Those words, the few texts have survived, are precious. (Disclosure: I’m an English major who loves words.)

In the last two weeks of our program, memorizing a scene, monologue, and chorus has given me the kind of close encounter with the plays that I wanted when I was reading them too quickly. The monologue I’m performing, Clytemnestra’s speech after she has killed her husband (from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon), begins, “Words, endless words.” How fitting. I love having the words I’ve memorized echoing in my head all day– as I cook, walk, sit in the car. One day, during an excursion to town, my scene partner Julia and I recited our dialogue over and over with as many accents and moods as we could think of. We drove everyone crazy. Here, there has been time to think about the possible meanings of each phrase and to experiment with their expression. It amazes me how the way I perform the snippets of these plays has evolved and is still evolving.

All I can think to say for an ending is that in addition to returning home bearing a few gifts and a lot of dirty laundry, I will also be filled with sounds…motorcycles…bugs…endless words…



7/13 Skeleton Coast: Nothing to Everything

Today we are exploring the skeleton coast of Namibia.

Life seemed impossible to the colonists when they first arrived at Cape Cross.

From the sand to the water, animals and people negotiate with the vast landscape to survive – a prime example of environmental infrastructure.

Seals at Cape Cross

Deserted land next to water

Portrait of a seal

7/5-7/6 Visiting Queen of Oukwanyama and King Taapopi

“It’s living history,” said Professor Kreike. We started traveling around Namibia this week, and on the past few days, we had a chance to meet Ohamba Mwadinomho, the queen of Oukwanyama, and King Taapopi at their homestead.

I’m a rising junior pursuing a certificate in visual art, and this trip has provided numerous opportunities for me to practice and reflect on photography. Understanding the historical context gives me a lens to look at the world, and select the particular moments to release the shutter. What have the culture and people in Namibia presented, performed, shown, and lived for us outsiders to see, watch, look and observe?

Portrait of King Taapopi


Group photo with King Taapopi and the Queen (I managed to set a timer so I can also be in the group picture for the first time)

Group photo of us in traditional clothes with the Queen of Oukwanyama (I’m not in the photo)

As part of the class, we took Oshiwambo for two weeks. We performed two songs that we learned in Oshiwambo classes for the Queen in our traditional clothes.

Portrait of the Queen of Oukwanyama

7/3: Cheetahs

July 3rd marks the first day of our trip to northern Namibia.

Our first stop is the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

Because of the wifi limitation, I’ve compressed the photos into smaller size files.

We also went inside the fence and watched the cheetah running the next day, but I didn’t bring my camera.

The organization also helps local farmers with dog trainings.

There were 9 rooms in the camp. We did not have any electricity at night.

Group photo around the campfire at sunset.


The professor held a flashlight to spot the animals in bushes.

We toured around the reserve after sunset because the wild animals come out at night.

Athens, Week One

The hardest part of my trip here was the last leg: dragging my suitcase through the national gardens. My body thought it was 5 am and here were the hot, damp gardens of midday Athens.

We saw Amalia Moutousis’ Hippolytus; she played every character and it was all in Greek. I had copied the chronology of the play into my notebook ahead of time, to help me follow what was going on, but it wasn’t much help. Sometimes the characters’ names were projected onto the wall in Greek; I had fun puzzling over the new alphabet and I was mesmerized by Moutousis’ concentration, her rapid fire interplay of different voices, her cryptic gestures…

We saw Dimitris Papaioannou’s The Great Tamer– yesterday’s obsession with language replaced by movement and dance. The stage was covered in giant black magnetic strips, full of strange holes. The dancers were often nude and moved slowly (to a slowed down Blue Danube waltz.) Scenes bled into each other, dreamlike; people came in and out of the earth; grotesque bodies made up of multiple dancers assembled, collapsed, reassembled. It had the quality of Greek myth; it made me think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Roman, I know, but perhaps apt since it too is a reimagining of Greek myth). Afterward in my apartment I wrote down what I could remember from the show feverishly.

Our first day of re-staging the Greeks was in fact about staging the Greeks. How did the Greeks do it? Professor Cadden described it vividly: Masks, large gestures, competition, song and dance, outside.

6/12 – 6/15
I decided I would read all the extant Greek plays. This was Aeschylus’ week: a week for the old master, the father of tragedy. I read the Eumenides in the park above the Olympic Stadium, having veered off the street during a walk around the neighborhood. I found a quiet dark grove, and while I was reading there it hit me viscerally for the first time: Ancient Greek theater was performed outside. Not those darkened indoor theaters; this terrain, this air, this light.

Martha took us to one of her favorite tavernas before seeing a show, Metropolis, in the Gazi neighborhood. It’s easy to be a vegetarian in Greece; I love the appetizers– fava, cheeses, vegetables, decadent salads. I ate enough to be drowsy in the hot, smoky theater after dinner; in Greek again, but the geometric set, always shifting, was enough to keep me awake. During the talk back after the show I said that I liked the sound effects accompanying the scraping and pounding of long metal rods on the stage; it reminded me of the clamor of battle. The director said that the abstraction of the rods was essential to imagining something like that. A few of the actors, slightly languorous, smoked enough to fill the upper atmosphere of the theater with ghostly fumes.

We were taken on a tour of the Athenian Acropolis and Agora by the extremely talented, knowledgeable, and commanding Sophia Theona. Climbing the Acropolis was the only thing I’d imagined before coming to Greece. At the bottom, I stood in disbelief in the Theater of Dionysus. Every play we read was first performed here, Professor Cadden said. Staggering in the heat, I tried to digest it. I’d already read about 8 plays. All done here. The Acropolis was crowded; not one for crowds, I tried to tell myself that this was like experiencing the festival for Athena that Sophia had just told us about. Then, there was the Parthenon, that seat of Athena, that marvel of creation, which I looked on with eyes aching from the bright midday sunshine. Divine power hurts, I thought.

Later that day I followed Drake, Professor Cadden’s husband, and a few other people to a wine place, where I had deliciously bright white wine and a variety of cheeses from different parts of Greece.

With a fresh uncharted Saturday in front of me I set off for Lycabettus Hill (–well, only after getting my daily coffee). The big hill had been nagging me almost since I arrived. It took me a long time to find the entrance to the upward trail, but I got to see a new residential neighborhood in my confusion. Finally I stumbled on a wooded park with steps leading up. It was 11 am, a wholly inappropriate time for a climb. Heart pounding, out of breath, sweaty, I climbed resolutely, and then was ecstatic as I first saw the city: white, beige, pink, shimmering and flickering in that same midday sun that blinded me the day before on the Acropolis.

In my somewhat delirious ecstasy I thought I finally understood why they brought us to Greece to study and perform Greek theater– something I’d known in theory but could never articulate. This is the land, the terrain, the air; this is what your body feels like here; if you want to act in and understand an Ancient Greek play your body needs to know what Greece feels like. (I should note that our acting classes had been focusing a lot on the body: how it moves, feels, looks, communicates, etc.)

All I could think about was climbing more hills, so I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to climb the Hill of the Muses before sunrise. I wasn’t prepared for the clammy chill of the night air, but I didn’t mind the sensation after experiencing so much heat in the past few days. Predictably, the city was almost empty, and so was the hill, except for one couple sitting on a bench at the bottom. I sat down on some rocks at the edge of the hill and under the purple sky. This is what it takes to be alone here, I thought, eating cherries out of a plastic bag and taking in the spread of the city. I was a bit afraid of being bitten by a bat, but luckily they were flying around a different part of the hill. I watched the city emerge out of that purple darkness, watched the lights go out in big blocks, and watched the arrival of the cloudiest dawn I’d ever seen. I thought about the Prologue of Antigone (the play I’d been assigned to specially study and act) and the choral Parodos: night to dawn in Thebes. Did Sophocles imagine a brooding dawn like this one?

Afterward, as I walked home, I saw a new city. Someone said kalimera to me; police drank coffee near my apartment; I stumbled into bed in my bright room.




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The Metro is Moscow

Without looking up from his cell phone, the twenty-something silently stood up from his seat, giving it to an old woman. Similarly, the old woman never looked up from the floor, but muttered what I assume was a thank you.  The subway car was entirely silent except for the beating of metal wheels pushing the car forward. A few were on their phones, but the rest stared at the floor or out the car’s dark windows.  The Metro patrons’ patient silence was surprising to a boisterous American visiting Moscow for the first time, but this was—by far—the least surprising part of Moscow’s subway system.

Peer to St. Basil’s Cathedral or the Bolshoi Theater, the Moscow Metro is one of the city’s most beautiful features. Not only is it one of the largest metro systems in the world, but it also contains incredible art and architecture: Kiyevsskaya station features gilded historical mosaics, Arbatskaya station touts stunning white marble, and Novoslobodskaya station hosts stained glass murals.  I’d be happy to show photos from the inside; however, photography in the Metro is illegal.  Assuming that the University doesn’t want to get in a legal battle with some transportation branch of the Russian Federation, I’ll leave the visuals to a quick Google search.

Regardless, these stations are a great way for our Global Seminar to get to know the city, not only because the lines cover every corner of Moscow, but also because directions are in Russian and English (I’ve never been so relieved to see an alphabet I recognize).  There’s one line circling the city, and then the circle is crossed by a dozen or so intersecting, color-coded lines.  After I mentioned how easy the Metro was to navigate, one Moscovite described the subway system as “a work of genius, that can be navigated by an idiot.” I decided not to take the comment personally.

Stations are open from 5:30am to 1:00am; trains arrive every two minutes; each ride (from entering to exiting the entire Metro) typically costs around 30 rubles, or about 50 cents. Comparably safe.  Clean.  It wouldn’t make sense to get around Moscow any another way.

Despite its beauty, however, the Metro’s history is paired with Russian history; behind each fresco or mosaic, sculpture or name, is a story that helps tell Russia’s not-too-perfect brush with the twentieth century. The Metro was built under Stalin as a kind of “underground palace of the people” and symbol of Soviet success.  It opened in 1935, and its art and architecture helped our class discover the USSR’s political culture.

The aforementioned Novoslobodskaya station’s stained glass murals tells a less innocent story than its Instagram-able appearance would suggest. Under Stalin, the communist regime was atheistic and considered religion a threat. Churches were demolished.  Church officials were sent to camps, imprisoned, or otherwise persecuted. Novoslobodskaya station’s design was an attempt to secularize stained glass.

Okhotny Ryad, meaning “Hunter’s Row,” is located near Red Square and has been renamed four times.  Apart from being Okhotny Ryad, the station was also named after politician Lazar Kaganovich (from 1955 to 1957) and Karl Marx (from 1961 to 1990).  In 1957, Kaganovich helped stage an unsuccessful coup; and in 1990, Perestroika made Marx irrelevant. The USSR did not hesitate to erase names that were politically inconvenient.

Each of us researched one station, and these subtleties and hidden narratives were found everywhere. Especially as the class comes to contextualize the recent protests and the Russian government’s handling of the October Revolution’s hundredth anniversary, understanding the USSR’s flexible relationship with its own history has come in handy.

Coming back and forth from class, my rides on the Metro have made me more pensive about how this history has affected the subway’s role in shaping Moscow today.  A few days ago on the circle line, after finishing the last scene of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov (one of our assigned readings), I joined the rest of the subway car in patient silence.  An old woman entered, and I promptly stood up, avoiding eye contact.  She sat down and muttered what I assume was a thank you.  I let the silence speak for me, hearing only the beat of metal wheels push the car forward.