Ulan-Ude’s “Moscow Night”

A billboard just outside of Turka along the shores of Lake Baikal.

All over Ulan-Ude there are billboards with this guy’s face in the foreground, beside an open road with green hills and the rising sun. The billboards rise up from parking lots and along highways. We even encountered him out in the woods of Lake Baikal, a lone billboard standing above the pines beside the road. “Alexey Tsydenov”, the billboards proclaim proudly, followed by two words in Russian that we cannot understand, but translate in Google to “The time of change”. When we returned to Ulan-Ude after our hike, we asked our favorite hostel staff about it. “Oh, our new governor,” she tells us. “You had an election recently?” I ask in return. “No,” she laughs, “but we know he will be governor because last month Putin came to meet with him. And they have a rally for him tomorrow night, sort of. You should go.”

Setting up the stage for the big night.

The rally our host spoke of turned out to be “Moscow Night in Buryatia”, billed as a summer music festival with live bands, contests, and sing-alongs. We watched crews assemble a huge stage in the central square and hang up banners displaying Buryatia’s flag in the afternoon, and hung around to watch people gather for the rally. Though I think of elections with a known outcome as symbolic of a forged democracy, our host last night saw it differently. “No, it’s not fake. If the election was fake and the government could just choose someone as governor, they wouldn’t have this rally,” she scoffs, “Why waste the money to have this show if they could just rig the election?” That’s a hefty but true dose of Russian cynicism.

People milling around, waiting for the show to begin.
Two little babushkis who were sitting in front of us.

As the sun sank lower, the crowd in the square swelled to over a thousand people, all chatting and jostling and waiting with excitement. This event seems like a cultural event, a gift from the capital that lies 2,700 miles to the west. The lights of the stage suddenly flashed on and a man with a microphone walked out. It was time for the show to begin.

The opening salvo, about how Buryatia needs Moscow and vice versa.

For anyone who has studied influence, this show was a master-class demonstration of it, meant to build nationalism among the Buryati people. First came the speech, in which the man onstage enumerated the ways that Moscow needs Buryatia and Buryatia needs Moscow, with a lot more emphasis on the latter. After fifteen minutes, we had heard “Buryatia” about ten times. We had heard “Moscow” more than thirty. Following this was the awards ceremony, in which children of Buryatia who had written the best essays about Moscow and Russia were brought onstage, given a gift, and invited to Moscow with all expenses paid.

More speechmaking.
Announcing the winners of the essay contest.

Third came Alexey Tsydenov, the soon-to-be-governor of Buryatia, with a speech for his people about what he hoped to do. And last but not least came the Buryat Choir from Moscow, singing impassioned renditions of popular songs from the last fifty years, as footage of Russian soldiers battling and being heroes played in the background. Soon everyone was singing along with them. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, they dragged Alexey onstage with a microphone and got him singing as well. He didn’t look entirely comfortable up there, but he put on a brave face and sang anyway.

The performance and sing-along, with the backdrop of soldiers on the battlefield.
Audience members, singing along.
Then they got Alexei himself up there to sing with them.

Alexey escaped the stage again shortly afterward, but the show continued for hours, through more fan favorite songs for sing-along, jokes, and laughter. We couldn’t last to the end and found ourselves heading back to the hostel through crowds of people still coming to see the show. In retrospect, this event didn’t seem all that different from the rallies of America, of musicians headlining political rallies, of cheering crowds and overt nationalism. It’s just that in our case, we’ve got two choices, and no one is ever totally certain of the election’s outcome until it occurs.

Eventgoers crowded underneath the statue of Lenin’s head.
Women taking photos and video.

Maybe the rally will help Alexey win the election he’s already been preordained to win, but from talking with our host he doesn’t need the help. He’s a Buryatia-born man who’s worked in Moscow for the better part of a decade, so Moscow wants him because he’s vetted and won’t rock the boat. But the people of Buryatia also find this appealing–his story narrative is one of the prodigal son returning home to give his people a better life. “The old governor is kind of useless now, he hasn’t done much in years,” our host tells us, “Tsydenov knows the politicians in Moscow. He can work with them and get more for us from the capital.” So in that sense, Moscow’s choice for the next governor may also be Buryatia’s preference.

Another billboard of Alexei, this time in Ulan-Ude. I wonder how he feels about all of this.

Buryat Dance Festival “Ekhor Night”

IMG_8602 Want to experience Ekhor Night and learn to dance Yohor for yourself? The 2018 festival will be July 14-15 at the Ulan-Ude Ethnographic Museum.

Our first week in Russia I caught the flu. We meant to leave for Lake Baikal a few days ago, but I won’t be strong enough for another day or two. In the meantime, one of our hosts at the hostel tells us about an upcoming Buryati Dance Festival at Ulan-Ude’s Ethnographic Museum. “You should go! It will be fun,” she tells us cheerfully. She helps us find the bus schedule to the place, and the day of the festival we find ourselves catching jam-packed minivan that serves the museum bus route. IMG_7842

The atmosphere is festive when we arrive at the museum grounds, where we pay 200 rubles per person (~4 USD) for entry. People are lined up to get food and kvas, to play games, or to take turns in bouncy houses.

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A small crowd sits in front of the stage, where performers dressed in traditional attire sing and dance. We watch for a few sets, though we don’t understand jokes when they’re made or the song lyrics—everything is in Buryat, not Russian. But it looks so much to me like what I’ve heard and seen at the University for Minorities in Chengdu, where students gather nightly to practice the dances of their ancestors, gathering in a circle and going through the steps, skips, and hand motions.

IMG_7895 As the sun sinks lower, we peel away from the stage to walk through the museum grounds, which are covered in dense pine forest and dotted with exemplary buildings from the nomadic tribes, the early peasants, and the first European settlers in Siberia. Four-sided wooden buildings lie within steps of rounded yurts. An Orthodox Chapel sits on the museum grounds, while in the forest you can find granite stones inscribed with teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a mix of east meets west, of fur skins wrapped around yurts for insulation and four-post brass bedframes with mattresses and sheets. IMG_7850

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After sunset, we return to the stage and find it surrounded by a huge crowd waiting for the real show to begin. The last of the performers complete their acts, followed by a hurried transition. Two young people take the stage, and they address the crowd in Russian and Buryat. They thank us for coming and admire how much the festival has grown in the few years it has been alive. They talk about the festival’s origins and its goal to keep the Buryati culture alive. Then they tell us all to spread out: it’s time for the real festival to begin. We’re going to learn Buryati dance.

IMG_8372 IMG_8446 The crowd ambles away from the stage, arranging itself in huge uneven circles and ellipses in the field. Stoytcho and I remain together, a miracle considering I can’t understand anything being said from the stage. But I don’t need to. Our two onstage hosts demonstrate every dance step along with the Russian- and Buryat-language instructions, and I watch them and the people around me for dance cues. Three steps, point right foot out and stomp, pull back, three more steps, repeat. Switch directions. Repeat. We kick up dust as we move, people shuffling and stumbling over the steps for a minute. IMG_8482 Then our hosts announce it’s time for the dance. We link pinkies with the people beside us and have at it, step step step stomp step step mistake correction catchup repeat. Our hosts pause us and add a new step: a run. We’re now a thread of people stepping, skipping, stomping, running mostly evenly and sometimes unevenly around our circle, mostly linked by our pinkies but occasionally losing connection, kicking up dust that floats up to fill our shoes and clothes and the air. IMG_8565 IMG_8523 We continue as a whirling flock of humans, practicing several different dances that start with simple steps and become more elaborate performances. Stoytcho and I gain some proficiency, able to time our movements with the crowd, though we’re exhausted and can feel grittiness in each breath. Our hosts on stage call a stop to our last dance and ask us to make concentric rings around piles of wood arranged nearby. A man with a torch enters our ring and touches it to the woodpile, creating a plume of fire as it lights and illuminates our faces. Dance volunteers take their position around the circle to guide us, waiting for the signal. This is the true test of our dance mettle. IMG_8613

Our hosts shout something and we’re off, starting, stepping, stomping, skipping, sprinting, and stopping, following the volunteers’ lead with linked arms and laughter.

Ulan-Ude: This is different

The Molodaya Buryatia monument at a traffic circle in Ulan-Ude.

Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, is situated just east of Lake Baikal. Though it is built at the meeting point of the Uda and Selenga Rivers, the streets are dry and dusty with fine yellowed sand. It lends a wild-west feel to the city, especially in the suburbs. Here, old wooden buildings with immaculate carvings and battered windows squat side-by-side along broken pavement and hardpack dirt. It is a world away from the skyscrapers of Moscow. IMG_7656 IMG_8826 The other side of that town is a glimpse of that world-away through the same dust-yellow filter. Spreading from the town’s main square are the dense, multi-story apartment complexes and shopping malls, where people can find everything from bread to fashionable clothes to some fine international chocolate. Multiple theaters line the central square and candy-colored sidewalk boards around it advertise new restaurants, bakeries, and the ever-popular kvas vendor. Things are developing quickly in this part of Ulan-Ude, all beneath the watchful eyes of a ten-foot statue of Lenin’s head.

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The people of Ulan-Ude are equally as strange for how similar and different I find them. As we people-watch at a fountain in the central square, I spot the typical Slavic-looking Russians, with slightly tanned skin and blonde hair—“White-looking” people that look like my mom’s family. But the other half of people I spot are pale to dark, with rounder faces and jet-black hair—“Asian-looking” people that could be part of my dad’s family. Regardless of appearance, there seems to be no racial tension as couples pose by the fountain and kids play together. That’s nice, given what I’ve been hearing about the troubles in the U.S. IMG_8889 IMG_8967

Then there are the handful of people who are clearly mixed, and it’s weirdly like looking into a mirror. Beyond Hawaii and California, this is the only other place where I’ve encountered people who look like me. I want to talk to them and ask what it’s like, if there’s any discrimination, or if it’s considered a bonus. But I’m still learning to sound out Russian Cyrillic, and my vocabulary is limited to “Thank you”, “Hello”, “Exit”, “road”, “I want cake”, and “No smoking”. I am not equipped for any conversation. But that doesn’t stop one woman who mistakes me for a local and rapid-fires a string of Russian at me. I catch “Gdei…”, so I know is she’s looking for something. But I’m lost as to what, and can only give an embarrassed smile and lift my hands in an “I don’t understand” shrug. The lady, abruptly taken aback, returns the embarrassed smile and a string of Russian words that I assume are “Oh sorry, nevermind.” The weirdness now goes both ways.

The plaque on this local monument reads “In memory of the martyrs for Communism” in Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

Our hostel is across from the train station, and we can hear the rumble of the trains throughout the night. During the day, we sometimes make our way across the pedestrian walkway over the tracks, pausing at the middle to stare down at the lines of endless train cars. Some are passenger trains, but an overwhelming majority of them are carrying goods: massive tree trunks, wood planks, tumbled gray gravel, black-stained tanks of oil, and piles of jet-colored coal. And it’s not just one car carrying these natural resources, or ten of them, but hundreds of rail cars, stretching past visibility into the horizon. These never-ending trains in Ulan-Ude’s trainyard and slowly jerk to life with the creaking and screeching of metal-on-metal, bound for elsewhere, usually southward toward China, toward the bottomless demand for resources. IMG_7721


IMG_7749 It looks like Ulan-Ude sees little of the wealth that this Siberian bounty fetches for Russia, and we find ourselves wondering why Buryatia remains part of Russia. We ask an employee at our hostel, a sharp, no-nonsense woman fluent in English, Russian, and Chinese, why Buryatia isn’t its own country. “You guys know that you’re basically propping up the economy for Moscow and the rest of Russia, right? Like, why don’t you demand more investment from the capital or break away to sell the resources yourself.” She scoffs at me and replies, “Oh, that is always what the Americans would want, what they tried to do.” I had no idea that the U.S. tried to convince Siberia to break away from Russia, but I wouldn’t be surprised. She continues with an answer “What would we do if we broke away? We have no way to develop these resources on our own. And we are all different groups. If we broke away, all we would do is fight each other and we would have nothing. Russia gives us an identity, unity.” Russia is the message that all of these people, regardless of race or geographical location or social status, rally around. IMG_8638