Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

01 Jul 2001, 9:59 a.m.


Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Or perhaps, given the foci of my Russian classes lately: Verbs of Motion II: They're Back, and They're Going to Tell You How They Got Here!

I went to the Hermitage for the first time (having been in St. Petersburg for two weeks), I had various multilingual experiences, I saw Tomb Raider dubbed in Russian, and I thought a heck of a lot while doing it all.

Sakura. I think that's the name of a character in Puzzlefighter, which I used to love back freshman year in the Freeborn dorm. But it's also a rather good if touristy Japanese restaurant near the Nyevskii Prospekt metro station.

We were American tourists, speaking English and a bit of Russian, in Russia, in a Japanese restaurant with (I'm guessing) Chinese-Russian wait staff, and the menus were in Russian and English with, in addition, English transliterations of Japanese names. And the instructions on the chopsticks were French, and don't even ask how many countries supplied this place with alcohol.

What is the proper procedure for importing a word into Russian? "Kafe" should be, by all rights, neuter, since it ends in "e," but grammarians (I think) say that it should be treated as masculine, since it's not a native term. "Tempura?" Should one say, "Ya hochu tempura," or "Ya hochu tempuru"? Should I have declined it in the accusative there?

The Hermitage. Students get in free, which is quite a relief, since it's a few hundred rubles for foreigners. I had second thoughts about leaving my camera in the cloakroom, not because I wanted to take photos (although I eventually did), but because the attendant looked shady. I changed sections so as to find some babushki attendants instead.

My Rough Guide (Official Mediator of the Sumana-in-St.-Pete Experience 2001) said not to wander, but to concentrate on my interests, since the Hermitage is so huge. Well, I don't know my interests (and I thought a lot about Leonard's opinions on arts v. crafts), so I half-wandered and half-looked at the famous, tourist-attractor stuff. Renoir, Degas, Monet, Titian, Breughel, Gaugin, Rembrandt, Manet, Rubens. (The room with French impressionists had the NO PHOTO NO VIDEO signs everywhere. And a babushka in every room. A lot of the paintings -- well, to quote Ross, "No temperature controls, no glass, no alarms, just a system of babushki, defending the priceless art." I wanted to take pictures of the babushki, or of the NO PHOTO NO VIDEO signs, or of the captions that had Russian, French, and English on them. But it was forbidden.)

Some of the stuff I saw was really, really old -- 600 years or more -- which just heightened my sense of absurdity regarding being there for only a few hours. I mean, it's an embarrassment of riches, art-wise, there at the Hermitage. (Don't forget the WWII spoils-of-war treasure.) It reminded me, after a while, of Arlington. There, one couldn't help but turn her back on some of the graves. Here, it's impossible to pay respectful attention to every work of art.

I saw a Breughel that reminded my of a W.H. Auden poem -- Musee des Beaux Arts. It was called something like "Robbers Stealing from Peasants," and one of the robbers had this beatific look on his face. It was kinda cool that I got to see the brushstrokes on the painting, since there was no glass between it and me. I was Close to The Machine, er, Art. But that also worried me, since I had heard about, and later actually saw, Rembrandt's Danae, which a visitor slashed and splashed with acid years back. Glass has its virtues.

There was more Russian spoken around me, and less English, than you might think, seeing as this is pretty much The Tourist Spot here in Leningrad. Lots of Russian, some English, some German, a bit of Japanese, some French, was what I heard.


I sometimes forget that, for a really huge part of human existence, works of art were mainly about the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman mythologies and histories. All these religious themes, and all these white people being portrayed. But I'll get to the White Male gaze later, in the Tomb Raider section.

I wandered, while looking for the exit, into a display on trumpets. Dan plays/ed the trumpet. In fact, the last time I was out of the country, in India, I bought a little toy trumpet (not to be confused with the piece "Toy Trumpet," as played by the Canadian Brass, which Dan also enjoys/ed), which I gave to him. I also played the trumpet once, for approximately three months, in fourth grade. But I never settled down to an instrument -- the piano I gave up at an even younger age. I kinda wish I had. Certainly thought-provoking.

I have to write more sometime to articulate my feelings on What It Is to Be a Tourist, and whether I'm getting better at spotting the national origins of tour groups -- distinguishing USA from Germany and so on.

Maybe the Hermitage isn't for me. Or maybe I should, next time I come by, try to sit a while with some stuff that interests me. And I'm sure that there's gotta be something. And, if all else fails, I can look at the interactions among babushki, tourists, Russians, foreigners, and the priceless art.

On my way out, I saw crates and crates and crates marked "FRAGILE" and "THIS WAY UP" and so on. I can only conclude that it's all art, but -- on its way out, or in? (One main way the Russian Museum makes cash is by loaning out its collection to museums in the west. Hence, my group's expedition to its 20th century collection in a few weeks may or may not be worth it at all. Sad.)

I bought some calendars.

Tomb Raider. Saw it last night with Katya, who is terrific, in some theater on Nyevskii. It was rather passable in Russian, seeing as we could rather tell what was about to happen sans audio comprehension. "She just said 'fifteen years.' What happens in fifteen years?...Oh. There's a picture of an old-ish man, and there's a gravesite. Oh, he turned up missing fifteen years ago. Think she'll see him later on in the film? Yeah."

Aha! I knew that I hadn't heard that bit of banter from the trailer!

The Male Gaze was rather prominent in this film, what with all the unnecessary and rather counterproductive PG nudity and nudity suggestions focusing on Ms. Jolie. And every main character was white, and there was lots of exotic-nonwhite-natives-of-foreign-lands cultural imperialism. Rather annoying. My previous exposure to lots of White Male Gaze stuff in the Hermitage probably primed me for this to annoy me.

The theater's concession stand was very comprehensive. Alcohol, popcorn, slices of cake, probably pirozhki. This is something could stand more of in the States -- real food, and not horribly priced, at movie theaters.

On our way there, Katya and I saw -- in the underground passageway/street crossing -- a Russian band covering lots and lots of Tom Waits songs. Katya says they were terrific. We gave them some rubles. Around $3.50 total. They were pretty neat.

We. I finished it. More later.

Note to Alex, Susanne's friend. Cryptonomicon is a book by Neal Stephenson, who also wrote Snow Crash, Zodiac, The Diamond Age, and other sort of cyberpunky sci-fi books, as well as the long essay In the Beginning Was the Command Line. Cryptonomicon is very long and incredibly geeky at times, and covers a wide swath of ... lots of topics. I tend to find opportunities to quote Stephenson often. Once my sister forbade me from quoting or referring to Stephenson, Seth Schoen, or Leonard Richardson for a day's worth of conversation with her. It was pretty tough.

Things that kind of remind me of home. Hare Krishnas, Scientologists, rollerbladers. Oh, and Young Communists. And weird variants of franchises and corporate foods that we have in the US. Example: Pringles, flavored Paprika or Cheese & Onion.

Salon. I think sometimes that Salon is just trying to be the exact opposite of Reader's Digest.

Bluesville, Tennessee. Is there one? There should be.

First published by Sumana Harihareswara at