Ya Heart Vladimir: A Visit to the Regions

Russia Map

(Kennan Institute – wilsoncenter.org/program/kennan-institute – September 22, 2016 – Mary Elizabeth Malinkin)

Giant, Cyrillic block letters spelling “Ya Heart Vladimir” (“I Love Vladimir”) now illuminate Cathedral Square in downtown Vladimir, Russia. The cheery, familiar slogan brought a smile to my face – da, ya lyublyu Vladimir. In early August I traveled back to the ancient city (just how ancient remains under intense debate, with estimates of its founding ranging from 990 to 1108) in Russia’s “Golden Ring[1].” I first got to know Vladimir 15 years ago, fresh out of college. After living there for two years in the early 2000s I have returned many times, but not since 2010 -before the conflict in Ukraine, the sanctions, and the deterioration in US-Russian relations. I was curious to see how the city had changed in the last six years and what the mood would be like.

Not surprisingly, I found a very complicated scene. Downtown, this new “I love Vladimir” campaign is in full effect. Vladimir’s historic center looks better than ever, its main streets draped with hanging flower baskets and beautifully manicured flowerbeds in the squares and observation sites with coin-operated binoculars over the Klyazma River. Several new statues have appeared, most notably one of “Baptizer of Rus’, Equal to the Apostles, Prince Vladimir.” This was the first time I saw mention of him in the city, as a younger Vlad – Vladimir Monomakh (11th century) – had previously seemed to be the main Vladimir in town. This is tied to the debate of the city’s founding, and deeper historical debates that deserve a longer discussion. But not to get caught up in such details, there are also fun, touristy sculptures such as a giant bicycle for passersby to climb up on and enormous cherries (which I never before realized were a Vladimir specialty) that are popular photo-ops.

While in the early 2000s I knew the dozen downtown bars and restaurants by name, the center is now packed with shiny new establishments on every street. The options for cuisine have expanded as well, with offerings of Japanese, Georgian, American, and other types of food. McDonalds, which eluded Vladimir for years, is now right downtown, as is Starbucks. Many of the Russian restaurants also have American themes, including the “SoHo Steak House Pub” on the main drag.

However, just off Bolshaya Moskovskaya, a different story is told by the now shuttered and disheveled “American Home,” a quintessential American ranch house that was built with all American materials in 1991. From 2001 to 2003 I taught at the private English-language school, which distinguished itself by employing native speakers of English from the U.S. The school operated in the house for 23 years, until the city government took the property back last year. Granted, the original contract for the American Home stated that the building and property would be given back to the city after 11 years, which clearly did not happen. There are varying theories why the city decided to suddenly enact this condition after 23 years, but whatever the reason was, the poorly written contract made it possible.

Now, the original American Home stands empty and unkempt, awaiting its next incarnation. On the plus side, the school did not cease operations and is now located in a much more spacious, modern facility, albeit farther from the main street and without a single sign on its exterior indicating that an American school resides within. More importantly, even if the city, or oblast, government failed to recognize the school’s value for the city, the staff, teachers, and students did not. Petitions were circulated and articles were written in attempts to stop the buyout, and though they were unsuccessful, the new classrooms will be full this fall. Last semester, 450 students attended the school per day, several times more than the old school could accommodate. Clearly, Vladimirites are still eager to take English lessons at the American Home, and in particular, to get to know Americans.

Nevertheless, all politics is local, and probably the biggest news story while I was there (a time period that included the 25th Anniversary of the failed August coup) was the opening of a new highway, a project that began in the 70’s.

The continued interest in American culture expressed itself in many other forms as well. A wedding I attended featured a young woman singing Frank Sinatra and a dance troupe that performed numbers based on the musical Chicago as well as boogie-woogie. The board game “Taboo” is now available in a Russian language version, making for an evening reminiscent of an American game night with friends and family. German-themed microbreweries have also come to Vladimir and the brewpub “Max Brau” is full of Vladimirites competing in the popular game show “Shto? Gde? Kogda?” on weeknights – a scene that could easily be trivia night at a bar in Columbia Heights, D.C., were it not in Russian and on Dzerzhinsky Street.

Other popular American fishki (specialties) have appeared in their Russian adaptation in Vladimir, including Yandex Taxi, Russia’s answer to Uber. I found the cheap and easy service quite useful, especially now that the “gypsy cabs” have more or less vanished from the city due to stricter enforcement of taxi regulations. There is also a new carpooling service for traveling between cities – BlaBlaCar. Also app-based, BlaBlaCar’s main distinguishing features seem to be that riders are encouraged to talk to the driver to keep him company, and he only puts on his seatbelt when his radar indicates that cops are near. A ride on Strizh (“Swift”), the new high-speed train from Vladimir to Moscow put the Acela to shame. First-class (and for US$50 why not try first-class?) provided me with a comfy chair, slippers, a movie, newspaper, and waitresses offering blini, syrniki, coffee, tea, and juice, all within an hour and a half. This was a far cry from the elektrichka (inexpensive regional train made infamous by Venedikt Yerofeyev’s Moscow-Petushki) that I rode in the early 2000s.

However, not all of Vladimir’s residents are hailing rides on their iPhones, sipping wheat beer at micropubs, or taking the express train to Moscow. Just minutes outside of the downtown area, people are struggling to get by. A pensioner told me how by the end of the month she doesn’t have enough of her $200 monthly allotment left to take an 18 ruble (approximately 25 cent) trolleybus ride to see her relatives. An experienced English-speaking accountant has been out of work for a year and is considering emigrating to Australia. The owner of a small printing company told me that his real profits have decreased three-fold in the last year, despite keeping a lot of clients.

Sadly, outside of the city center, the ground is littered with trash, and disintegrating sidewalks threaten a twisted ankle with every step. I had second thoughts about buying produce at Pyaterochka (literally little “5”), one of the cheapest and most popular grocery chains in the area, after seeing its filthy floors. A lauded motion-sensor light recently added to an apartment entrance only turns on as you are opening the door, thereby defeating its purpose of brightening the pitch-dark staircase. Schoolgirls playing in their home courtyard unsuccessfully searched for a beloved lost necklace, difficult to find among all the trash on the ground. A bit farther outside of Vladimir, the village Luneva still does not have running water. What’s more, the electricity was out for hours while I was there. But in the inexplicable Russian way, these impediments did not prevent a big, filling lunch, complete with moonshine and champanskaya, from being laid out for my arrival.

As the September Duma elections were approaching, some billboards around town touted local politicians, in particular Grigorii Anikeev, a current Duma representative with Edinaya Rossiya. A few Vladimirites expressed approval for him, noting a brand-new social services center he had built for elderly, pregnant women, and children. In general, however, there was little sign of the upcoming elections in Vladimir. People seemed more interested in asking who I was voting for in the U.S. presidential elections – sometimes before I had even put on my tapochki (slippers) after entering an apartment. And I don’t blame them. After seeing that all the local political party headquarters are in the same building in downtown Vladimir, what would be the point?

Nevertheless, all politics is local, and probably the biggest news story while I was there (a time period that included the 25th Anniversary of the failed August coup) was the opening of a new highway, a project that began in the 70’s. Several people expressed the opinion that the close relationship between Vladimir’s relatively new oblast governor Svetlana Orlova and the Kremlin is making Vladimir known for having some of the best roads in Russia. I walked along the road the night before it opened, and while it did look nice, the black-and-white safety lines on poles along the curves were already peeling off before the morning’s opening ceremony. Still, the new road is a good improvement for Vladimir and locals hope there will be more such projects that improve the life of the average citizen.

This is a place where I have been confronted in my dorm room by the dean of the university for giving an interview to a local journalist; interrogated by the Federal Migration Service about the “true” purposes of my research; and accused by the local TV station of conducting espionage. And yet, it’s a place I can’t stop going back to. It is full of hardworking, interesting, inspiring people, trying to make a good life for themselves just like people anywhere else. Like the locals, my expectations of the municipal and federal government may be low, but I will never stop believing in the big hearts and creativity of the people of Vladimir.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

[1] A ring of ancient towns, northeast of Moscow.