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May 29, 2009

The Russian trip

OK, we did it. A group of 17 Americans went to Moscow, then to Novosibirsk, and Saint Petersburg. We did have a conference, of course, and actually it worked well despite the language barrier. But for most people, it was also an adventure, an experience, and an event.

Can't speak for others, but here is my impression. It is rather interesting to see my own country through the eyes of my American friends. It does look a little different, a bit more exotic, and somewhat less explainable. The country has changed so much since I left it in 1991. Even though I have been back almost every year since 1996, it does feel like a different country. It is very familiar, and yet strange.

I just had to remind myself that every time I go to Russia, it is a holiday: I don't have to work, I see old friends and family, I get to be nostalgic. Vodka, banya, shashlyk, sightseeing – this is not real life, not everyday experience of a typical Russian. It is tempting to just come back, but I probably never will return for good. Like a transplanted tree, I have too many roots here, I like my job too much to abandon it. Our kids are here, one of them is married to an American, and neither will consider going back to Russia permanently. But it is fun to visit, and I would like to be more involved with Russian education. We do have much to learn from each other, and I hope we will. I was very happy to see how well my Russian and American friends got along with each other, considering all the cultural differences and the history of Cold War. I always believed Russians are much closer to Americans than to Asians or to Europeans, and this is just more evidence. Both cultures have a strong egalitarian streak, both value directness and openness in relationships. Both countries have revolutionary experience and can be mistrustful of governments and politicians, which they compensate by excessive believe in personal encounters. There are many profound differences, of course, about which I will write separately one day.

Just before my flight back to the States, I had some three hours to kill in Moscow, between 6 and 9 AM. I just walked the streets. Moscow is a beautiful city in the early morning. Muscovites are not early risers, and the streets were sunny and almost empty. The city is just incredibly varied – from ancient churches to Stalin's high-rises, to ultra-modern contemporary buildings. All of it is almost randomly thrown together, and yet there is some common sense to it. Anyway, it is hard to ex-plain, but I had the most wonderful walk through the city – from Belorusskiy Tran Station to Barrikadnaya Metro Station. Here is my exact rout, with some photographs which you can repeat, thanks to Google's magic. It is just hard to explain, but this was a wonderful walk.

A couple of links to our own pictures: and

May 1, 2009

What I have learned in kindergarten

Robert Fulghum wrote a book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten in 1989. It was one of the very first books I read in English some 15 years ago, and liked it very much. It taught me appreciate the uniquely Anglo-Saxon gift for simplifying complex ideas; something most European philosophers usually lack (the Germans, the Russians, and the French in particular). Here is his original list of things you really need to know. What I learned last week reminded me of this book, because it was so basic, something everyone already knows, and we just need reminders once in a while. It also occurred to me that I am fascinated with technocratic solutions to complex logistical problems. However, even more complicated human problems usually need simple, kindergarten solutions. And they work as best as it is possible. So, here is my list, which does not apply to any particular case or situation. This is simply a list of things for me to remember:

  1. If you are really mad at someone, ask, why are you so mad? If the person you're mad at is not evil, there is no reason to be that angry. If the scope of your anger does not match the offense against you, you have a problem.
  2. When you screw up, apologize, and try to be sincere. An apology goes a long way. Remember, South Africa managed to escape a horrendous civil war through the some simple acts of apology.
  3. When someone is wrong, and has offended you, do not assume you are automatically right. As Anton Chekhov said, "Чужими грехами свят не будешь"(Someone else's sins won't make you a saint). Victimhood in does not make one a better human being; the opposite is often true. So, apologize back, and try to be sincere.
  4. A conflict between two people hurts everyone else in the group; it is not a private or personal mater. We have a stake at having a decent, cohesive community, and will not tolerate on-going conflicts regardless of its cause.
  5. Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy? You cannot be both.
  6. Allow others to save face. There is no benefit in cornering someone who has done wrong to you.
  7. What you are trying to say is not important. How other people perceive your message is important. If you don't know the latter, make an effort to find out.
  8. What do you want?,- ask yourself often. You will find out very soon, that what you feel like doing is not at all what you need to be doing to achieve what you want.