Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

30 Jul 2001, 6:24 a.m.

Solovki, Part II.

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 So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it!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.

Here's the second part of my Solovki travelogue. This promises to be longish, overall, when done. Part I was here.

Thursday: We Arrive.
The next morning, I had no hangover that I could tell -- although the previous night, after about a drink and a half, I had experienced some small headache. Here are my notebook notes, slightly expanded, covering that morning's reflections on the previous night and its effects:

Thurs. Morning. Still on the train, konyeshna [of course]. "This is an epistemological problem." "If you can still say 'epistemological'..." [you're fine.] Last night, I couldn't remember, I think, the word 'experience' and the title Lord of the Flies. Question of fault: since I chose to drink, aren't I wholly responsible for all my behavior under the influence, including spilling apple juice on Carolyn?

And now, the handwriting comparison!...Yes, there seems to be a difference. But the train was moving...but that probably can't account for the whole difference. The alcohol affected the form of my writing -- but the content? How do I know whether it affected the way I think? I'm already, when sober, rather loud, clumsy, uninhibited, and rambling, right? Solutions: recording observations of the moment, and asking others' opinions (during and after), and video/audio recording.

I also compared sober-and-train-moving handwriting with Wednesday-night-train-moving handwriting. Very tough to figure out where the independent variables were.

Wednesday night/Thursday morning, I had some sort of dream in which I saw the Race For the Cure or some such marathon raising money to fight breast cancer, and I looked for Eve from

For the first time in my life, I think, I peeled an orange completely without assistance from any other person. Yes, I used my Swiss Army knife (possibly for the first time ever) to make a prelimiary cut, but from there on out, it was all me. I ate almost the whole thing. I was quite proud. (The little Russian kid in our coupe ate quite a bit. He was quite an eater. His mom, and his nation, should be proud.)

I read some more D.H. Lawrence. Lady Chatterley's Lover is a very interesting book -- didactic, erotic, very character-centered.

It was still very, very, very hot and humid on the train.

Me: We've got about an hour left.
John: Yeah, only an hour left of this crap.
Me: C'mon, we're bonding.
John: We're bonding because we're sticky!

That, of course, reminds me that John's journal of those days, July 18-22, might be of interest to those who wish a different perspective. As well, he has pictures.

We arrived at some coastal town, and took a bus to the dock, where, ti turned out, the lateness of our train meant that we would have to wait a number of hours for The Boat. (The number of hours that we'd have to wait sort of lengthened as time passed. I think we eventually ended up spending something like six hours on that rather rotty-looking pier.)

We conversed with an Ukraninan girl who spoke English with a British accent, and I discovered that I Can't Stop Using American Idioms. It seemed as though ever sentence I spoke in front of this poor non-native speaker contained some saying like "throw me into the deep end" or something. I felt pretty bad, especially since most of the Russian speakers who have had conversations with me have seemed successful in remaining idiom-free. I know I usually try to keep my speech colorful and vivid, but I felt bad that I couldn't speak clearly and simply when I wanted/needed to. OK, Mom, you're right. I should try and speak simply sometimes.

Oh, and Katy's long hair made her look a little like Venus in Botticeli's painting. And there was a moment when Rasa very kindly and very gently and diplomatically asked me to shut up. (pout) Yes, yes, I talk a lot. It's not as bad as it used to be, okay?

The four-hour boat ride was a relief, post-train. I read more D.H. Lawrence and slept a bit.

We got to the main island on Thursday evening. Immediately we spotted a bus -- hard to miss its plumage. I dubbed it The Beatles Bus. Its colorful paint scheme, in addition to the quickly-apparent engine problems, led me to analogize it with THE GRACE OF GOD from Cryptonomicon.

We drove through the island to the tourist complex. The islands have been a monastery and a Stalinist gulag. But that didn't seem to make much difference to the kids playing soccer under a gorgeous sky, to the forests and lakes and rivers, to the small-town denizens who sat on stoops under street name signs that are faded and unreadable and have been redone with different names at least twice. No one much cares -- they know where everything is. Do they care about the things the tourists come to see? Why did we come here?

My philosophizing didn't stop at dinner. After choosing roomies -- John got stuck with Jon Stone, our Fearless Leader (Resident Director) and putting stuff in our cottages (where Katy and I laughed and laughed and laughed at the pitcher that said "MILK" on one side and had a picture of a cow's teats spraying, presumably, lines of milk on the other), we ate dinner in The Restaurant in the Tourist Complex. The two vegetarians sat together -- that is, me and Anatolik, the helper for our guide (excursavod), Sergei. Not only was dinner surprisingly good, but Anatolik and I conversed -- almost all in Russian! He's been to India, it turns out, and Gets It regarding the spiritual atmosphere that completely suffuses some parts of it.

And then, that night, I discovered a chance and took it, as did many other people in our group. The tourist complex had an authentic, functioning banya, or Russian bathhouse. We went that night. I made a crack about Dyada Banya, punning Chekhov's title Dyada Vanya (Uncle Vanya), but, as usual, most ignored me.

The banya was really quite fun. I prefer for people not to be uptight and Victorian about nudity and so on. (I wonder sometimes, in that respect and others, about the real, fundamental differences between Russia and the US, or "Tennessee v. Solovki.") I now have very vivid memories of the following:

  • Sergei massaging/beating Jon Stone with a vyenik (traditional Russian birch-leaves bundle). I was sitting on the next bench, and bits of birch flew towards me and stuck to my sweaty skin. Sergei was very vigorous. If you've ever met Sergei, this will come as no surprise.
    "I should make a video."
    "No, no!"
    "I'm actually making one right now. These breasts? Actually cameras."
    "And two of them, for that 3-D effect."
    (names omitted to protect some modicum of privacy)
  • Being beaten by Liudmila. It felt great. Yes, I asked her if she was tired, but only because I was surprised that she wasn't beating me as hard as Sergi had beaten Jon.
    "Jon, I only brought exact change. Is it twenty-five extra rubles for the beating?"
    "No, the beating is included. The beating is gratis."
  • Everyone's complexion becoming beautiful. "Casey, your skin is so supple!"
  • Katy shivering on the dock. After the sauna, you're supposed to take a dip in the nearest body of water, cutting open the ice to do so if it's winter. Everyone jumped in except me (I can't swim, so I just climbed down the ladder, ducked myself, and climbed out). When Katy jumped in, something cut her foot. Everyone came out of the lake once they found out. Sergei ripped up a sheet to immediately bandage the wound. I covered her with my sheet -- I don't know how much good that did her against the cold, since it was wet. I remember the spilled blood on the water-wet wood of the pier.

That night I used the Swiss Army knife to open a mosquito-repellent fumigator packet. Have I mentioned the mosquitoes? They're everywhere. It's The Birds in miniature -- a koshmar komarov (nightmare of mosquitoes). At some point during the weekend, I joked with John that the mosquitoes would steal his OFF! and reverse-engineer it. To his discredit, he did not make a DMCA joke. Of course, at that point we hadn't known about Dmitri Sklyarov (Free Sklyarov! Osovobodim Dmitriya!), so it might not have seemed as urgent.

I arrived back home and saw Cara, Susanne, and Erin sitting on "my" bed and being companionable with Katy, who had her foot elevated. Also that night, I remember looking through the first aid kit with Katy, trying to figure out what was what. ("Is this morphine? No, probably not.") Very little English there, so we had to look a lot of stuff up. Katy wished she had brought her more weighty dictionary, and said of the one that she had brought, "This dictionary is completely useless for Russian pharmaceuticals!" There was something called "brilliance of green" that came in a bluish bottle. There was something with belladonna and bicarbonate. I imagined it might try to combine the emetic powers of belladonna with the stomach-settling characteristics of bicarbonate of soda. But...why not just an antacid? In a nice, English-labeled package? And where was the sterile gauze?

But my most vivid memory of that night was the storm. It began while we were banya-ing. I decided to cut my experience short, since I didn't want to risk being in the lake whilst lightning was going on. (The ladder was metal.) As I dressed and ran home, the lightning and thunder got closer, and the rain began. I was already wet from the banya -- I hadn't dried off too thoroughly there. The sky is usually light around half-past midnight at this time of year, near the Arctic Circle, but it was darker because of the storm. I hadn't brought my glasses with me to the banya. Flashes of lightning, twilight, and a little ambient light from the tourist complex lit the dirt road that rose up through the drizzle. The lake was on my left, and beyond that the dark green forest.

And then I got home, and Katy asked me if I would go back and retrieve the soap and shampoo that she had left there when she had so unexpectedly left. And I ran there and back, as the sprinkle turned into rain and then into a summer storm. I got drenched! In three days, I had been drenched three times -- once at St. Isaac's Cathedral back in St. Petersburg, once in the banya, and once in this storm, which I later heard was the worst in three years. It continued until after we fell asleep.

Originally published by Sumana Harihareswara at

The Almost-Last Weekend in Piter...

Mon Jul 30th, 2001 at 06:28:33 AM PST

I'll diarize it soon, really I will. I had some great and very interesting experiences and I need to empty out more of my notebook. So, Real Soon Now. I promise.

Originally published by Sumana Harihareswara at