Borsht and Bureaucracy

I made borsht this week. I’ll be honest with you: when you live alone and cook alone and eat alone, it’s very easy to get lazy. Just buy some frozen pelmeny or cook some pasta or toast. So making soup is a tremendous culinary achievement for me. It turned out okay, but it’s definitely missing that special something that gives borsht its special borshty taste—I’ve narrowed it down to Smetana or time (I became impatient and started eating it before it was “done”). So maybe it’s not quite borsht, but it’s still decent soup. I rate the difficulty of dishes on a scale of how many ingredients they have and how much time they take—and borsht is mighty difficult and mighty delicious.

And now I need to tell you a little something about Russian bureaucracy. This weekend I am attending a conference in Irkutsk (stay tuned!). I made all my preparations a couple weeks ago and thought I was all ready to go. I had asked my people at the Academy if I could go, and they were fine with it. But on Monday, the woman in charge of the conference in Irkutsk informed me that I had to bring a komandirovochnoe udostoverenie (“business trip certificate”) in order to be provided with housing. Ok. I casually mentioned this to my people, so we could take care of it. And so began my adventure with the Russian Bureaucracy.

Apparently, a “business trip certificate” isn’t simply a matter of having your department chair sign a note for you and sending you on your way. This isn’t America, where verbal agreement counts as permission and a signature makes things formal. This is Russia, where everything needs a stamp.

The process is especially complicated since I’m not really an employee of the Academy, so the department head can’t take care of it for me—I needed the Rector to intervene on my behalf. First, I had to write to Irkutsk and request a formal, official invitation to the conference (with a stamp, of course). When that arrived, I had to write a formal letter to the Academy’s Rector requesting permission to go on this business trip and obtain a “business trip certificate” (looks like all those business letters I’ve been learning to write in my Russian classes are paying off!). Then I had to take it to the vice rector to have him sign it before I could give it to “common business” people to generate the necessary documents with a stamp and whatnot. But that’s not all. The next day, I had to go pick up the documents and take them to the Rector to sign. Except he was absent from the Academy for two days in a row—so I ended up taking it back to the Vice Rector. His secretary ran around asking for instructions, brought it to the Vice Rector for his signature. Then I took it back to “common business” for two stamps and another signature. Then I took it to “Bookkeeping” for another signature.

But wait—there’s more! I must present this certificate and all of its wonderful stamps and signatures to the people in Irkutsk when I arrive (along with my stacks and stacks of other required documents), so they can stamp it—and again when I leave, one more stamp for good measure. Then I have to bring it back to “common business” and “Bookkeeping,” presumably for another stamp or two.

Russia really likes stamps.

Seriously, though, as an American (coming from a place where anyone can just go anywhere they want and do whatever any time), you never really understand what “FREEDOM” means until you try to go on a business trip in Russia.

This week was “Zachet” week at the Academy. I’m still not entirely sure what “zachet” means in real life, but I’ll tell you what it means to me. It started with streams of random students traipsing through our office and asking who their English teacher was and what they had to do to get zachet (yes, the semester’s ending: time to find out whose classes you were supposed to be attending and how to pass the class you never attended!). Then I was given a zachet form for my two translator classes. I had to write “zachet” and give them a grade from 0 to 100 and sign it ten times.

I think zachet is the scariest part of being a teacher. When it comes to attendance, where do I draw the threshold? When I look at a list of 17 students and see that only 8 of them have made zachet, I start wondering if an expectation of at least 50% attendance is outrageously high. Maybe in Russia it’s acceptable to only attend three or four classes out of ten and do only one assignment and still pass the class? What’s the norm?

I was starting to feel like Gandalf.

Furthermore, my fourth year course assaulted me with “zachet booklets,” and I had no idea what to do with them. Apparently, these are official student documents (with stamps and everything!), and I’m supposed to write “zachet” or “no zachet” in them, while staring at their picture-ID faces and their anxious and expectant real-life faces at the same time. This makes grading way too personal for me, and I panicked a little bit. I found out afterward that I wasn’t supposed to have to deal with the zachet booklet assault.

Speaking of zachet, I had my translators fill out teacher evaluations—which I described to them as zachet for the teacher. Their answers will help me to learn which aspects of my courses are effective or ineffective, what my strengths and weaknesses are as a teacher, and what I can do to improve my teaching next semester. I was delighted to see that my students believe their English is improving and they all find my class very interesting. Most of them found everything both interesting and useful, and they think I’m a good teacher—very creative and friendly and good at explaining things in simple English.

I was not surprised to learn that my weaknesses include shyness and a lack of confidence.

I was, however, both surprised and amused to see a widespread agreement among my students that one of my greatest weaknesses is “Too much kindness.” I’m not kidding. They all told me I need to be stricter and more demanding of Russian students… Only in Russia is kindness considered a weakness. Duly noted.

My new Teacher Identity


About Arielle

I am a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Ulan-Ude at the Buryat State Agricultural Academy.
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4 Responses to Borsht and Bureaucracy

  1. Victoria Tarmaeva says:

    “Вorsch”, not “borsht” 🙂

  2. Victoria Tarmaeva says:

    “Borsch”, instead of “borsht” 🙂

  3. Natalya says:

    Arielle, I wonder if you’d like to make a cartoon.

    Something like that…

    for instance “Open Buryatia with Arielle” …
    By the way, what do think about? Do you share their ideas?

    Your heartfelt and ironical writing style is so attractive…

    • Arielle says:

      Thank you, Natalya! I’m sure by the time I leave, I will have more than enough material for such a cartoon (or even a book maybe). It is a very interesting cartoon, very funny because a lot of it does seem true– at least some of the time. I like how they used a matreshka because Russia is such a complex country, has many layers and different parts to discover. 🙂

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