Voting for Marriage Equality in Russia

Well, actually I’ve voted against a discriminatory definition of marriage for Minnesota, while I happen to be sitting in Russia… And this utilization of my U.S. constitutional right to vote, possible due to the overseas absentee voter process, is pretty awesome.

Back this summer, I used the Overseas Vote Foundation website to register myself to vote from abroad. I printed a few forms, filled them out, signed them, scanned them and emailed them in. A day or two later I received a confirmation of my registration. Then, about a week ago (6 weeks before Election Day, November 6), I received my ballot and instructions for submission.

The next day at work, I giddily printed the materials, which included the ballot, a template for the ballot envelop, the certificate of eligibility, a template for a U.S. postage paid mailing envelope, and the general instructions. A couple of my Russian colleagues were curious to see the ballot, so I showed it to them (before I had made any markings, of course, as the instructions clearly state all markings must be made in secret). They were interested that we vote on so many different things at once, and some of the things we vote on in general, like judges or school boards, or soil and water conservation district supervisor, especially when many of these candidates run unopposed. I told them it’s weird for us too, since we have no idea what many of the positions are actually about, or who the candidates are. But that’s democracy; we have a right and responsibility to elect these people.

2012 election ballot materials

My 2012 election materials.

After I filled out my ballot and enclosed it in its secret envelope, I filled out my certificate of eligibility. Minnesota does not currently have a voter ID law (that’s another constitutional amendment on my ballot this year), and these were my instructions: “Print your passport number, Minnesota driver’s license number, Minnesota ID card number, or the last four digits of your Social Security Number. If you do not have access to any of these documents, leave this space blank.” Of course, to even be living abroad, I must have a U.S. passport number, and on my registration paperwork (from this summer) I was asked for either my Minnesota driver’s license number or my passport number. So, there are some identification/anti-fraud measures in place, but the emphasis is definitely on making the voting process as accessible to me (as a registered, eligible voter), as possible.

Me with my overseas absentee ballot materials.

I voted!

With everything completed, I put together my pre-addressed, U.S. postage paid envelope and tucked everything inside. Not completely trusting the Russian postal services with this special delivery, I asked a contact at the U.S. Consulate here if I could send the ballot via diplomatic pouch (an option listed in my instructions) and she said that wouldn’t be a problem. So, 40 days before the 2012 election I handed my voting materials to a U.S. diplomat at a reception celebrating the 20 year anniversary of the U.S. Consulate operating in Vladivostok.

diplomat takes my overseas absentee voter ballot

The diplomat who is helping serve as my ballot box for this election.

So, “I VOTED,” even though I won’t get a nifty sticker to prove it this year. And if I can vote in my local elections from over 7,000 miles away, I greatly hope all eligible voters I know in the U.S. do their civic duty and make it to the polls on November 6, or get their absentee ballots in on time.

Posted in law, Minnesota, politics, russia, travel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The constant calculations of living abroad

Last year, results of a study crediting bilingualism with delaying the onset of diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s were published in several prominent newspapers. Learning and speaking multiple languages, the results suggest, improves cognitive skills and boosts brain performance. Switching between languages reportedly stimulates the brain and builds up a cognitive reserve.

So, this should be good news for me. Even when my head is jumbled between speaking Russian with colleagues in the office and writing emails in English to partner institutions and translating legal contracts and health care policies going back and forth in the languages, I’m supposedly building up my cognitive reserve.

Unfortunately, dealing with another language is only a small part of the translations/conversions/calculations I find myself doing daily while living in Russia, and sometimes they can be completely overwhelming. Here’s a list of the most persistent issues:

1). Time. Vladivostok’s time zone (VLAST) is GMT/UTC +11. We have no daylight saving time/summer time/what have you. Most of my personal contacts live in the United States, so to calculate their current time, I add 5-9 hours (dependent on where they are in the U.S. and whether they’re on daylight saving time or not) and then subtract a day. My professional contacts are all over the world, so I find myself subtracting 3 hours, or 7 hours, or 11 hours, to determine when someone is available for a skype meeting etc. However, most frequently I find myself subtracting 12, because military time means NOTHING to me, and it is used rather frequently here. And don’t get me wrong, I can easily interpret 16:25 or 19:50, but I’m always going to instantly convert those to 4:25 p.m. or 7:50 p.m. My mind simply thinks in 12 hour time.

2). Measurements. I do understand that it would be completely economically unfeasible to switch the U.S. to the metric system, but when Americans go abroad we are at a serious disadvantage. I have linear metric measurements somewhat in hand at this point, and can appreciate the length of a kilometer or my own height in centimeters, but weights and cooking measurements still throw me. And baby stats! Tell me how many pounds, ounces and inches a baby is and I can comprehend you… but I have no frame of reference when I hear how many grams and centimeters a newborn is.

joke about metric vs english measurements

Didn’t stop us from completing a beautiful landing on Mars though!

3). Temperature. Understanding what the weather will be like for the week is pretty important, so I’ve done a good job of adapting to Celsius in this regard. 0 C is cold -15 C is quite cold. 20 C is pretty great 30+ C is hot. But if you ask me what the temperature is like in Minnesota this time of year, I will seriously struggle to give a Celsius equivalent. “Uh, I don’t know… it’s not Celsius there, it’s Fahrenheit… it’s maybe 50-65 F?” I also struggle to know what a healthy body temperature is… I mean 98.6 F is pretty ingrained. 37 C just doesn’t have the same association.

4). Currency. At this point, a Russian ruble really has its own understanding of value in my mind. I appreciate the value of 30 rubles, 150 rubles, or even 5,000 rubles. Beyond that, which is about $160, I need to calculate the sum back into U.S. dollars, but this only comes up if I’m buying plane tickets, exchanging money etc. On occasion, a colleague will ask me how many rubles 2 U.S. cents is (about 60 kopecks, actually, not even a ruble), or tell me the ruble to Chinese Yuan exchange rate and the Yuan price of a hotel in China… and then I get completely confused and need to do a whole series of calculations.

So, are all these constant calculations (often prompted, examined and expressed in a mix of English and Russian) building my cognitive reserve or just slowly making me insane? Time will tell…

Posted in russia, travel | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Rooting for the Ruble

One of the biggest identity (and loyalty) shifts I’ve had since moving to Russia regards currency. Though many western foreigners negotiate their salaries to be pegged to the Euro or the USD, this has never been an option for me, so my salary exists within the whims of the Russian ruble. And though it is certainly interesting to have a seven figure yearly income, it can be stressful to watch the currency markets constantly in flux.

Today, 1 USD equals 31.16 rubles. When I first arrived the rate was around 29.5, and in my eight months here the rate has ranged from about 29 to 34. (I don’t totally understand the math, but this article states that the ruble had lost 12% of its value relative to the USD at this low point in May). Considering I spend most of my time in ruble-using Russia, this fluctuation doesn’t affect my daily life when buying groceries or going to see a movie. However, it does make a big difference in comparison with my single greatest expense right now: paying back my student loans in the U.S. These payments must of course be made in U.S. dollars, and aside from the actual value I lose exchanging my rubles into dollars and through wire transfer fees, the relative value of my income compared to the value of my outstanding loans is always in flux.

USD to ruble exchange rate Sept 2011 to Sept 2012

The USD to Russian Ruble exchange rate for the past 12 months.

And this challenges my American patriotism, because though I want the U.S. economy to strengthen, I whole-heartedly root for the ruble over the dollar these days. When it comes to the greater scope of currency wars the intricacies of the issues can be a little too mathematical for me, so for now I’ll stick to knowing lower USD to ruble exchange rate = good for me.

currency wars

Maybe the Russian Ruble is a nuclear submarine sneaking around somewhere below them all?

Posted in money, russia | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Putin on the Ritz

A favored Internet meme of Russophiles has forver colored the way I will think of Irving Berlin’s classic song “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” You see, when you have a stoic figurehead named Putin and such a deliciously tasty snack like Ritz crackers, it only stands to reason that silly things will happen… like this:

Though I enjoy this meme, it makes me even happier when I see how Russians have gotten in on the joke, using “Puttin’ on the Ritz” for various performances, like a flash mob in Moscow (just before the elections… although I’m sure this huge production wasn’t a campaign tactic or anything), or at a local dance school showcase I recently attended.

I’m sorry I didn’t get better quality video, but this awesomeness at the dance showcase caught me by surprise, so it was all I could do to document it at all. I was grinning like a fool by the time they were done, for the humorous song choice and for how much fun the students were clearly having.

And here’s the Moscow flash mob, including helicopter footage…

Posted in leisure, music, politics, russia, vladivostok | Tagged , | 1 Comment

“Hungry Games” Review

That’s right, though I have yet to see Lionsgate’s “The Hunger Games,” I did get a chance this weekend to see Lionsgate’s expertly dubbed “Голодные Игры” (which translates back into English as “Hungry Games”).

Russian Hunger Games movie poster

Movie poster outside of the theater where I saw "The Hunger Games"

As an early fan (June 2009) of the “Hunger Games” YA series, I was excited and nervous about the film adaptation of the first book, and have carefully followed the casting, early on-set pictures, news and reviews. When I learned I would be moving to Russia, I realized I would be seeing the movie here, in Russian. Because I have a very stubborn tendency toward word order when translating, I guessed that I would be seeing “Голодные Игры,” though my mom pointed out this would mean “Hungry Games,” and she figured it would be more accurately translated as “Игры голода” or, “Games of Hunger.” I agree with my mom, that this would be a better translation, but alas, Russia has instead been introduced to the “Hungry Games.”

And I have to say, I think the “Hungry Games” are pretty popular here. There was a midnight showing of the movie in the city, and a good-sized crowd at the Friday early evening showing I went to. Though the books aren’t outrageously popular here, the audience seemed to really follow the story and get invested in the characters. And I only heard one person answer his phone and have a conversation… which indicates impressive restraint and attention in this country.

Me at the Hunger Games in Russia

Wearing a braid and my mockingjay pin in subtle support for the film.

I greatly enjoyed the movie. I look forward to watching it in English, so I can fully experience the actors’ performances, but seeing it in Russian may have helped me appreciate some of the other aspects (cinematography, editing, effects, sound) even more. Here are my main thoughts on the film:

  • Though I still imagine Vladimir Putin as President Snow, I think all the casting worked out pretty well.
  • Katniss doesn’t make any noise when moving around in the woods; come on, sound guys…
  • The establishing shots of District 12 remind me of the “Friday Night Lights” pilot.
  • I love all the scenes in the Gamemaking Control room (or whatever it’s called).
  • I’m not as impressed by Cinna’s costumes (or rather, the flame effects) as I wanted to be… I still think my Katniss costume  (for book 2) was pretty awesome…
  • All the Rue stuff (who was called “Ruette” in Russian) was perfect.
  • Dear Russian translators: why did you need to change Peeta’s name to Pete?
  • Also, why can’t you say “girl on fire” in Russian? Why is it “fiery Katniss”?
  • I can’t wait for DVD extras and the next movie!
Posted in films, leisure, russia | 1 Comment

Capital Punishment in Russia

There are certain subjects I know to avoid in my daily conversations with Russians. Mostly because I don’t have the vocabulary to eloquently present my position, but also because our paradigms on some issues are just so different. Take marriage equality for example: a person’s right to marry a consenting adult of his or her choosing is something I strongly believe in, but in Russia homophobia is still so wide-spread that it’s hard to even convince many people that homosexuality is natural, and not a threat to Russia’s diminishing population, nevermind discussing marriage rights. So I avoid this issue, because discussing it only upsets me.

I had no idea that capital punishment was another topic I should be wary of until a few days ago. I’m not an active advocate against capital punishment, but mostly because I’ve never lived in an American state where it’s a legal punishment. In general though, I think it’s expensive to tax payers, ineffective and inhumane. It’s been banned in Russia since 1996, when Yeltsin made changes to appease the Council of Europe, and I’ve used Russia’s ban as an example of how backward the U.S. is in debates with American friends. So, when a Russian colleague said to me, “you have the death penalty in the US, right?” I quickly said “yes, in some states, but I’m really against it.” I was not expecting the inquisitive “why? I’m definitely for it.” I received in response.

It turns out, according to a 2009 survery at least, that about two-thirds of Russians would like to lift the ban on capital punishment in Russia, because they think it would lower crime rates. Most likely Russia’s political leaders have continued (and reinforced) the ban for international political reasons, but I have to say, I completely agree with бывший/будущий президент (former/future president) Vladimir V. Putin when he firmly stands against capital punishment and says it is not the answer to solving high crime rates.

Today, I happened upon this article about a kind of entertainment industry around capital punishment in China. Interesting stuff.

Posted in crime, law, politics, russia | Leave a comment

Russian Presidential Election 2012

There’s going to be a presidential election here on March 4th! Here’s what you may need to know going into the election (with as little commentary as possible)…

This article in Russia Beyond the Headlines gives a good summary of the candidates.

The below video is my favorite political ad in Russia right now. It’s something Stephen Colbert would be proud of, but it also has a good message, “You always have a choice!” It’s for Zyuganov, the Communist Party candidate.


All the candidates have ads of course, and they’re also running PSAs for people to vote, which is cool to see. There’s no question whether Putin will win or not, but it will be interesting to see how Putin reacts to the victory (humble or bold), the claims of voter fraud and any protests that occur after the election.

Posted in politics, russia | 1 Comment