Babushki sing The Beatles

Today I picked up a copy of Russian “Rolling Stone”, which I must say is a more interesting read in Russian. Of course the bulk of the magazine is composed of the same articles found in the English version translated into Russian (this month’s cover article – Robby Williams’ comeback), but there are also a few articles written specifically for the Russian version about Russian artists.

This month’s issue provided a short article about a Russian folk ensemble from the Udmurtia Republic near the Ural Mountains. The group, called Бурановские Бабушки (Buranovskiye Grandmothers), sing covers of popular Russian and Western songs in their native Udmurt language, which is a language spoken by 500,000 people and belongs to the same language family as Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian.

Because none of the singers knows English they all learned the songs already translated into Udmurt, and “find their own meanings” in the translated texts. “Now we think that this is our native song”, one of the grandmothers says about their version of Russian rock legend Viktor Tsoi’s “A Star Called the Sun”. Apparently they will be traveling to France, Germany, and Estonia to perform in the future. Check out the links below for some videos of the ladies.

Russian News Feature:

The Babushki singing that “Venus” song (This should be on MTV, look how those ladies dance!)

The Wall, Medvedev, & Europe


the infamous kiss between Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev and Erich Honecker, leader of the East German Communist Party

So twenty years ago the Berlin Wall came down and communism began its retreat out of Eastern Europe. As people around the world took time yesterday to reflect on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in Eastern Europe there was at least one person who was feeling a bit left out in the celebration. Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, who arrived in Berlin yesterday, used the occasion to bemoan his nation’s outsider position in the schema of contemporary Europe.

At times sounding a bit bitter, he expressed disappointment at Europe’s ostracism of Russia during an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel. “We believed that, as a result of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a somewhat different place would be set for Russia in Europe,” he said.. “We hoped that the termination of the Warsaw Treaty will be followed by a different level of integration of Russia into the pan-European area.”

Instead of being included into the newly unified Europe, however, Russia got singled out as an enemy. The position of NATO “as a military alliance that possesses missiles aimed at Russia” and 2008’s war with Georgia stand as testaments, according to Medvedev, to Europe’s unsympathetic attitude toward Russia.

He went on to claim that the levels of democracy and human rights in Russia were commensurate with those in European countries. This, coming in the midst of criticism by the international human rights community of the Russian government’s nonchalant handling of multiple criminal cases involving the murder of prominent journalists and human rights activists as well as accusations of violations during regional elections this October.

“The only difference between us and them is that Russia is a big, very big country with its own nuclear potential”, he said, in this way articulating Russia’s exclusion as unfair treatment at the hands of a Europe intimidated by the nation’s military might, rather than a result Russia’s own shortcomings.

“We share the same values which are recognized in the West,” he said. “It would, therefore, be utterly wrong to state that there is some monolithic Europe with fully accomplished democracy versus a primeval, ignorant Russia which is not yet ready to be invited to join Europe.”

Some Musings on Work and Travel

For the majority of Russians living outside of Moscow and Petersburg, the United States and it’s denizens are shrouded in a decent amount of Hollywood-distorted mystery. All the same, teaching English at a major Russian university one meets many students who have spent time in the United States. Almost every single one of these students visited the U.S. as a participant of the same “exchange” program – Work and Travel USA. Through this program, which is run by a number of different tourist/exchange agencies, students get a J-1 work visa for up to four months during the summer. Many of my friends, acquaintances, and students here in Vladivostok have participated in this program. Most of them spent their summers in the U.S. working at fast food restaurants in eastern cities and rented apartments with other Russian work and travel participants.

It’s cool to have friends who have spent some time in the States and have some idea of what life is like over there. Even cooler is having friends who know what it’s like living in a totally unfamiliar country, to live with a language barrier, to get completely lost in a strange city and have no idea how to get home, to be completely embarrassed because the waitress doesn’t understand you when you ask what you thought was a very simple and correctly phrased question. It’s great to hear their stories of the difficulties of life in the country where I grew up and where things make sense to me. It’s like these experiences are exact mirror images of mine because it’s the same things that they don’t understand, or that are surprising for them in the U.S., that are strange or surprising for me here. Like my friend who was dismayed by the lack of fizzy-water consumption in the U.S. and the difficulties of its procurement, while I still forget that here I have to specify that I want normal water when I’m at the store.

But the difficulties that they face in their time abroad are much worse than those I struggle with. In my living abroad experience I am very lucky to have the support, both financial and otherwise, of a very legitimate, well-run, well-respected organization. I am lucky to have an interesting job, all kinds of great opportunities, and sufficient funds. The typical Work and Travel experience, on the other hand is usually lacking in most of these departments. The role of the agencies which organize the program in the experiences of the participants basically ends once the student receives their passport. Calling it an “exchange program” is actually quite misleading. The participants are really on their own once they arrive in the U.S. They usually arrive with nothing more than their visa and the name of the manager at whichever establishment has provided them with their job offer.

The job offer is one of the documents required in order to get a J-1 visa. They can be acquired through the agency in Russia for a fee, or an individual can try to find one on their own online. However, many participants buy falsified job offers which they use to get their visa and then find jobs on their own once arriving in the U.S. These fake offers are popular because of the unreliability of the real job offers bought through the agencies. Many participants who buy job offers through one of the agencies discover upon arriving in their city that either the employer has already filled the job, or that the job duties are much different than those originally promised.

Exacerbating the difficulties of finding a job and a place to live in an unfamiliar country is the fact that many of the program’s participants have a fairly low level of English, despite the fact that all applicants must pass an interview in English with a State Department Officer at one of the American Consulates. Sure, the first time I traveled to Russia to study my Russian was awful. But I was a participant of an exchange program where everything was structured and monitored. I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if I had had to find an apartment and job on my own!

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Work and Travel program is that every year thousands of Russians who participate in the program never return to Russia. All of my friends in Vladivostok know people who have gone to the U.S. on W&T and stayed. Many of them stay illegally. Some get married. A small number pass the TOEFL exam, save enough money to pay tuition, and apply for student visas. I’m not sure what the number of those who stay illegally is, but I’ve seen in my web browsing that the total number of W&Ters who don’t return every year is somewhere around 15%.

This means that there is a significant number of Russian students who prefer to live and work in the U.S. illegally rather than return to Russia to finish university.

This year I have been much more aware of a feeling of dissatisfaction among younger Russians toward life and the conditions of living in Russia. There seems to be a very common feeling that not only is the quality of life in Russia much worse than in other European countries and the U.S., but that there’s little hope of changing this. Last year, as I recall, most of my acquaintances addressed the shortcomings of life in Russia in the sort of “well what are you gonna do, this is how we live” kinda way, whereas this year I am noticing more people who aren’t content with that answer. They want the chance to live a “normal” (as they would call it) life. For most of them this means living abroad. Perhaps I’ve simply been socializing with those people who are most disillusioned about life in Russia, or maybe it has something to do specifically with people in Vladivostok…

Videos from Russia

Attention viewers!

Now you can enjoy the adventures of my life in the Russian Far East in living, moving color by checking out my videos on Vimeo!

Hot off the press this week are two riveting clips displaying the unparalleled musical talents of the senior citizens of the village of Cheguevka. These fine ladies will soon be heading out on their first world tour following the cult success of this fall’s indie release “Russia – it’s cold”. Check ’em out in a city near YOU!

“Russian Ladies Singing to their Vegetables ”   –

“Traditional Russian Sing Along”   –

In addition, due to the wonders of modern technology, all of my videos are also available in breathtaking 3D! Just order your 3D glasses here and you’re ready to rock out in style!


Did ‘the mash’. Not sure it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

My earliest halloween memory takes place in the Sierra Mountains of California, before my family moved to Oklahoma. I must have been somewhere between 5-7 years old. My family was out for a night of good, clean, christian trick-or-treating. Approaching one of the houses preparing to collect the booty which was rightfully due to us, a man in a hockey mask leaped from the shadows brandishing a shining, screeching chainsaw while emitting the kind of vocal utterance that such an action inevitably requires. The effect of this halloween trick had a stronger effect on me than the Jason impersonator was most likely hoping for, unless his goal was to force parents to scramble after their children as they ran down the street, sobbing and expelling urine on their jeans (the children, not the parents).

This year there was no trick or treating, nor problems with bladder control, at least one of which I think I’ve grown out of by now (although I’ll leave it up to you to guess which).

This year’s all hallow’s eve was marked instead by a meteorological misunderstanding of blizzardly proportions as about 18 inches got dumped on Vladivostok. This, despite all the assurances that it very rarely snows here. Pretty sure last year there wasn’t even snow in Novosibirsk at this time.

So yeah, this year I spent the evening imbibing rather than expelling semi-toxic fluids in a poorly strategerized combination which resulted in a rip-roaring hangover the following day. The evening began by warming myself against the cold with whiskey and coffee at a cafe with Robin.  Then, after disposing of a couple of bottles of wine at my apartment, we went a monster mashin over to a local club to watch our friends/rock-stars play a Frankenstein-themed concert and celebrate in very lamely un-costumed fashion. After a couple of beers and some zombie dancin we headed to a less crowded establishment where we were soon joined by two members of previously-mentioned-Mary-Shelley-influenced-rock-group. Here the beverage of choice was vodka, which added the final touch to the night’s deadly digestive elixir. The night was quite fun, as evidenced by the photos below, but would stand later as a stark reminder of why people warn against mixing of different alcoholic beverages.

My youtube debut

Hey y’all, check me out droppin some knowledge at the Embassy in Moscow:


Attention! Friends, family, and misguided web-surfers! This blog and the words, phrases, and thoughts contained within are those of one, Matthew Brian Nelson. They do not in any way represent the ideas, theories, policies, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or ontological philosophy of the Fulbright Foundation!


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