Letter from Petrozavodsk
Submitted by Carl A. Yirka
It is 8 PM on a Friday evening late in April as I type, eight hours later than home on the east coast of North America. We are 62 degrees North, and the setting sun is still noticeable, but in three weeks the White Nights will be here, and the horizon will become merely dusky. As the Russians say, you won’t be able to see a grey horse until August.
I am in Russia teaching Law and Legal System of the United States, a twenty-four hour “spetz” course to second-year law students at Petrozavodsk State University Law Faculty. The five-year law student curriculum lacks electives, with only a few special courses like mine.
As US Project Director of a State Department grant, I have been to Russia many times since 1994. This three-year grant is Vermont Law School’s second such grant: the first commenced in 1998 and ended last summer. Our partner, Petrozavodsk State University Law Faculty in the Republic of Karelia, is the premier institution in Northwest Russia outside of St Petersburg. Karelia shares the longest Russian border with a European Union country, Finland, and the strategic vision of the university rector (president) is that the university and Karelia should be the doorway through which Russia should reach out to Western Europe and vice versa.
Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia, is a city of almost 300,000 located 450 kilometers northeast of St. Petersburg. Like many Russian cities, it seems physically much smaller than a US city of equal population. The center of town seems not much bigger in area than the center of Burlington, Vermont. Unlike American towns, there are no single family homes here, and the ring of Soviet era high-rise suburbs that surrounds the center house most of the inhabitants. The city is sufficiently compact that you can get almost anywhere in town within a half hour on one of many old electric trolleybuses. I like the trolleybus. At 6 rubles (at today’s exchange rate, about 20 cents) the trolleybus is full, but mainly with school kids and retirees, both with bus passes. For 7 rubles, you can take a private van, which when I lived in New York City, were called jitney vans. Here they are called marshrootka, from the Russian word - by way, no doubt from German - for “marching route.”
I’d guess this is my fifteenth trip to Russia, but I really stopped counting after ten. Micki, my wife, jokes that I go to Russia the way our neighbors might go to Hanover, New Hampshire, the town near us in Strafford, Vermont, population 1,000. A trip to Russia is no longer a big deal. Grab the suitcase (after a torn rotator cuff, I switched from a backpack to a roll away bag) and toss in the same set of clothes as usual: a pair of shoes, three shirts and undershirts, some socks, shirts, and underwear. Wear another set of clothes and you are all set. More Woolite, less clothes, is my motto. Always bring presents for my friends and too many books. With all the plane changes, being sure that my clothes arrive with me is important, so I always try to carry on my bag.
It must be my fate to travel during American wars. I spent three months here in Petrozovodsk in 1999, almost the exact dates of the Kosovo crisis. Perhaps because I have known many of these people for years, they have been very generous to me even though they disagree with US policy on Iraq. I met an old friend for coffee recently, and she asked how the American people felt about the war. Do we support the war? How will the war effect US-Russia relations? I did my best to say that in the long term our relations would be fine. And I hope they will be, though I do hear that money for exchange programs is being cut: we have a war to pay for.
I was told to expect that my class would say something about the war. On the first day I entered the classroom and found on my podium a handwritten note: No War For Oil. On the advice of my interpreter I said nothing, and the issue was not raised again. I lectured in English to the international relations students and they did their best to engage me on the issue of Iraq, but I think they were disappointed to discover that I did not support the Iraq War.
Yesterday in my law class we started a hypothetical about Reggie, a young boy who is acting out: painting a mural on the wall of his room, breaking his crayons, almost breaking a vase and so on. We have five very short cases, with names like the Case of the Mistreated Teddy Bear, and the Case of the Chocolate Ice Cream. Students need to determine the holding of the cases and then apply the rules to Reggie’s facts.
One of the students wanted to know about the “zakon” of which the hypothetical speaks. The English language version of the text spoke of parental rules, but zakon also means statute; so at the last minute, since our upcoming topic is statutes and statutory interpretation, I decided to have the students write a statute. I divided them into a House and Senate, where they negotiated and wrote bills, voted, met in conference committee, and wrote a statute. I even took a chance and divided them into Republicans and Democrats - our parties had only one policy distinction: Democrats believing that government could play a role in bettering the lives of individuals and Republicans believing that government should not play a role in the individual lives.
The statute they wrote surprised me for many reasons, not the least of which is that I thought they might write a statute stating the things that Reggie should not do. The statute they wrote spoke both of the duties of parents toward their children as well as Reggie’s duty not to damage things. A second part of the statute, surprisingly negotiated by the Senate even though it had a majority of Republicans, required the development of commissions to assist families in legal and psychological issues. Out of the mouths of babes....
Today winter has returned to Petrozovodksk after spring had a brief tryout. I woke up early, about 6:30, having spent a night dreaming about how best to explain the holding of a case, and wondering whether we would get to statutes. We did not, but spent our two hours working through the cases, as might be done during an introductory class at a US law school. Each case was pleasantly open to many different holdings, some very broad and others very narrow. The discussion was vigorous, back and forth across the classroom.
Many classrooms in Russia, even when renovated like this one, are bad by US standards. They tend to be long and narrow, and it is difficult for me to hear even were students speaking in English. The front rows are filled mainly with young women and the back row all young men in black leather jackets. Law is an undergraduate field here, so these students are 18 or 19. A fair amount of chatter goes on in the Russian classroom, only some of it dealing with our cases. Three women in the far right and one in the far left are engaged in discussion with me, while the back benchers chat and lounge low in their seats.
My Russian is good enough to understand much of what is said, but not good enough to teach in Russian. Ilya, a young energetic full-time local advokat, and part-time artist, volunteers to be my interpreter. Yesterday we commented on attendance being down, and the occasional name on the sign-in sheet of a student who was not actually in class when called upon. Today all 80 are here.
As the discussion of holdings proceeded, I walked down the aisle to the back of the room, hoping to engage the students in the back. One of the young men moved his coat so I could sit with the back benchers. The conversation on the holdings continued, but I asked the young man who moved his coat what he thinks. Suddenly I catch myself feeling like Phil Donahue, working the crowd. “I agree with everything that’s been said,” he replied in a stage voice. Then to me, sotto voce, he promised to be prepared to talk on Monday.
Later the sign up sheet comes back to the front of the room, with one name highlighted in pink with yellow exclamation points. My back bencher? I wonder. But the class bell rang, I assigned homework, and the students left.
Today I make a point of walking home. As I usually do on Fridays I make a tour of the book stores to see what is new. I stop for a cappuccino at one of my favorite cafes, Metro. Rod Stewart sings “This Old Heart of Mine” on VH1 on the overhead tv. I seem to be known to the waitresses around town as a good tipper, so service as always is good. I write a couple of postcards, and then walk to the post office, where I practice my Russian by asking at the counter whether the ten ruble stamp is sufficient for a postcard to India. At the watch repair shop once again I practice Russian and get a new battery installed for 50 rubles. I stroll home, now in the snow. Tonight I have been invited to a late dinner with colleagues from the environmental law center and legal clinic.
As I near the end of this essay it is almost 9 PM, and I have a dinner to attend. The sun still hangs in the western sky, seemingly no lower than before. Tonight it will not set until 11PM and already I sleep with my eye shades on.
Above my desk as I write are photos. One shows an elderly Russian man with deep creases in his cheeks, a head full of grey hair, and his suit coat crowded with a full three rows of medals on the left and nine smaller pins on the right. Elsewhere on the wall are paired charcoal drawings of the same man, much younger, very handsome, only two medals on his chest. There is a second photo of him, in his thirties I would guess, wearing a black fur Cossack hat, small crossed rifles trimming the collar and epaulettes of his winter coat. Next to the photo is a charcoal of his young bride, her hair up in curls atop her head and also low on her shoulders, and another chubby and smiling many years later. Husband and wife, they are both dead now. Their son, now 60 year old, a post-Soviet unemployed professor, is my landlord. The old soldier seems to growl at me as if I should be working harder. One day, not so far gone, he and his fellow Russians sat across an Iron Curtain from us; and now I am teaching their grandchildren about US law. We’ve all come a long way.
Carl A. Yirka is Professor of Law and Library Director at Vermont Law School, Petrozavodsk Russia 25 April 2003.