A Glimpse into Jenny Holm’s Summer in Northern Russia

Thanks to a grant from the Newman Family Foundation, I was able to spend the summer in Vladimir, a not-too-large town about 120 km. east of Moscow. I went with a vague plan to volunteer at a few different social organizations I’d heard about through a contact of my professor’s, but when I got there I was informed that the orphans were away at camp until the end of July, the at-risk youth groups weren’t meeting during summer vacation, and no one knew anything about the disabled kids. I could, however, create a website for the center where my host mother worked—they’d been so happy to hear that someone who’d had experience with that kind of thing was coming to Vladimir and was willing to help them out. I’m not sure who it was they were expecting but it certainly couldn’t have been me, who’d never so much as seen a line of html code. Ever eager to please, though, I put on my best “confident” face and said I’d be happy to do what I could.

I met with Olga Iosefovna, director of the Youth Health and Education Center, several times over the next month and a half to discuss the organization’s mission, programs, goals, and difficulties, gather photographs and student artwork to decorate the site, and edit the Russian text I had written to make it sound as “po-russki” as possible. I put off figuring out how to put all these parts together into a clear, cohesive, and–most important of all—functioning bilingual website until the last two weeks of my stay in the city, when I sat in front of a computer screen daily for hours on end, taking a break only to run to the grocery store across the square to buy myself some vinigret (beet salad) and a yogurt for lunch.

Completing the project on time (barely) and completing it at all was, naturally, a real victory for me: I’d never felt particularly comfortable working with computers and had never expected to find myself in this sort of position. The biggest reward of the experience, though, lay not in the website itself but in the weeks I’d spent putting it off. It was then that I got my first taste of those rituals that are synonymous with summer in Russia—shashlyki in the forest, lazy days at the dacha, and evenings spent with friends in the city’s main square, chatting under a sun that seems like it might never set. Russians have the art of relaxation down pat, and one can’t help but cast all those “shoulds” and “woulds” (so familiar to us at Carleton) to the wind when the cheery morning light announces a day of sunbathing and berry-picking near the river. Indeed, no one—not my host family, not my professors, not even Olga Iosefovna—would have wanted me to spend any more time on the website if doing so would mean giving up even one minute of a walk in the park with my host sister or one tipsy folk song sung around the campfire. The juice and the lifeblood of any culture lie in these delicious moments of idleness, the times when people come together for no other reason than to enjoy each other’s company, and the fact that I don’t know the Russian word for “Internet service provider” makes no difference at all.