My trip to Russia

In the spring of 2008, I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation from the Russian government through the US Agency for International Development’s Farmer-to-Farmer program to come to Russia and help improve the quality and quantity of bread produced in the Cooperatives.

My assignment was to work with ACDI/VOCA in Russia for this project. On Saturday, May 10, 2008, I left Manchester, NH to fly to Atlanta, GA and then for the long flight to Moscow. There were other specialists going on different assignments through ACDI/VOCA. At the airport I met Myron Stone who is a dairy specialist from South Dakota, Michael Ray from Virginia who has made numerous trips through the program to work with credit unions, and Paul Christ from Minnesota who is a farming specialist.

Since I was traveling alone and didn’t speak Russian, it was great to meet up with ‘the guys’ who took great care of me. Our drivers met us at the airport and took us to the Hotel Bega where we spent the night. The hotel backed up to a race track and it was so pleasant to see and hear the horses running around the track.

It was a gorgeous day in Moscow and I was excited to see all I could in the short time while I was there. Paul and Myron opted to take a nap and meet everyone for supper. Michael volunteered to show me around Moscow. He took me to lunch and then we took off for the center city.

We went to the Kremlin, Red Square and to a cathedral. We missed the swearing in of the new president and the holiday festivities where the tanks and military review went through Red Square. Just seeing the Square was impressive and I could just imagine what it would have been like with all of the military presence.

There were flowers everywhere for their soldiers who have died in combat. I cannot ever remember seeing so many flowers. The cathedral was built by the Russian government and is rented for church services. When we went in, we were screened is if we were taking a flight somewhere – metal detectors, our purses were checked, and a few people were patted down. I thought it interesting that I was asked to remove my sunglasses from the top of my head – I usually slide them up when I go into a building after being out in the sun. The guard said it was disrespectful.

The cathedral itself was beautiful. There were paintings that looked like stone carvings. Also, there was nowhere to sit and I was told that people stood through the services, but got on their knees to crawl to the altar. It was definitely a different experience from visiting European cathedrals.

Michael and I returned about an hour before we were to meet the others for dinner. Thank goodness Michael is a young single guy that has gone out often in his previous seven trips through the program and knew a bit about the restaurant scene. He took us to a Georgian Restaurant where the food was wonderful, and there were dancers that performed for us. It was a great way to set the mood for the rest of our trip.

On Monday morning just after breakfast we met our driver Yuri who took us to the ACDI/VOCA office for a briefing with Irina Paisova and Peter Yashin before we all set out for our individual assignments. Yuri took me to the Paveletsky train station for my 17-hour train ride to Volgograd (used to be Stalingrad). It was a very long ride and they’ve planted trees along both sides of the tracks so I couldn’t see the countryside.

The person sharing my train compartment spoke no English, but chattered away in Russian for hours. Finally she brought out her phone – I think everyone in Russia has a cell phone – and started showing me pictures of her home and family. I had my trusty laptop with me and when she finished I shared my pictures with her. When they came around to see what I wanted for dinner, I couldn’t understand them so she called her sister in Moscow on her cell phone who speaks English to translate for me.

They came in and made our beds and we went to sleep. My internal clock went off in the middle of the night and I didn’t want to wake my compartment mate so I just lay there being lulled by the train. She woke up for a drink of water and saw me awake and turned my reading light on and went back to sleep. It made it much easier for me to have something to do.

I arrived in Volgograd about 9:15 am and was met by my interpreter Tatyana Galochkina (Tanya) and Elvira Valentinovna Porkhun who was my contact at the Volgograd Cooperative Institute where I was to work the first week. My interpreter and I were served lunch and were then given a complete tour of the facility.

After lunch I met with with Galina Nickolayevna Dudukalova, director of the Institute. Three of the people I was going to work with the most were also present – Elvira, Alexi, and Igor. We discussed what they would like for me to accomplish while at the Institute and later on visits to the Volgograd Oblast Consumer Cooperative (Oblpotrebsoyuz).

After the meeting we adjourned for tea – a large meal according to my standards – where I learned I was in Cossack country and that the Cossack tradition consisted of 13 toasts. The Russian people do love their vodka and I must admit that I loved it too. In America the rules state vodka must be odorless and colorless which means that it also has very little if no taste. Russian vodka is lovely and the only thing it shares with the American version is that it is colorless. It has a lovely subtle flavor.

The first glass for the toast is offered by the host and the glass must be filled and emptied in one swallow. Various people offer toasts as the mood strikes them, but no matter what, the fourth toast is always to love. Each time the glass must be emptied, but I learned my first really helpful Russian word – toottoot! It means just a little so you can empty the glass without overdoing.

After tea, which wasn’t over until 6:30, I went to my hotel and my interpreter went home for the night. Between the vodka and being very tired, I slept through the night with no jet lag waking me up in the wee hours.

Wednesday morning I was picked up at the hotel at 10 am by my driver and interpreter and taken to the institute where I met many of the department heads. Each described how their section fit into the degrees offered by the Institute. After lunch I met with a group of students to tell about myself and life in America then taught my first Master Class. Many of the students helped with the dough and shaping techniques that I showed in class.

While the breads rose and baked there was a lively discussion of the culinary industry and baking in general plus the American education system, and how it differs from the Russian system. I really had wondered why they needed me to help with bread baking since I’ve always loved Russian breads.

After the fall of communism, the people were truly confused. They had been told what to do and when to do it for all of their lives and now they have to do it themselves. They’ve lived in a system where everyone did a little part and no one knew what the other was doing. They were lost and need help coordinating everything. They’ve come a long way, but still have so far to come.

Thursday I met with the students of the commerce-technological facility for a discussion of irradiated foods, additives in food, and whether I thought taking vitamins will overcome healthy eating in America. I found it amazing how the media has distorted things which affect the way people think about Americans. There was also a good discussion on the problems causing obesity in America’s young people.

We then discussed the baking industry in America and what I felt they needed to know to run a smooth bakery operation. One of my biggest assignments was to educate the young people who would in turn educate the people in the remote cooperatives.

After lunch I met with the faculty members of the commerce-technological section and we discussed some of the questions the students had plus questions that faculty members had about food in America. We covered the highlights of what I’d told the students in their class.

I was invited to join one of the English classes for a question and answer period on my personal career and any questions about America that they wished to know. They wanted to hear English spoken. They learn it from a book and the only times they hear it spoken is by a Russian teacher who doesn’t necessarily pronounce the words correctly. They all wanted to learn to speak at least one American phrase from my part of the country so if you ever meet a Russian that says ‘now y’all come back now you hear!’ ask them if they know Betsy!

On Friday I taught my next Master Class. The government regulates what goes into bread dough in Russia and basically you can only add grain, water, salt and yeast. They could add things such as cinnamon and sugar or cheese as long as it didn’t go into the dough itself. We were able to spread the dough with butter and sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar the roll it to make cinnamon rolls. We did the same thing with shredded cheese. They were concerned with the added cost of these ingredients, but we discussed how sales would rise with the addition of the ingredients which would more than cover these costs. After the class we did an assessment of the products made and had a roundtable discussion on the results of the master class and how to train employees on a regular basis to keep up standards.

I was supposed to have my afternoon free, but two more classes of English students met me in the hall and asked if I’d please come spend my afternoon speaking English to them that they loved to listen to me. Well, flattery will get you everywhere so of course I went with them. After all, talking is what I do best.

On Saturday morning two of the English teachers from the Institute, Svetlana and Natasha knocked on my hotel door and asked if they could take me on a tour of Volgograd. They wanted to speak English and show off their wonderful city. We joined up with my interpreter and had a delightful day. During the war Volgograd was completely leveled. The only two things left standing were a street light and a tree. They are still there as a monument.

We went to Mamaey Hill which is a huge monument and park on a high hill overlooking Volgograd. There is a tremendous statue of Mother Russia that can be seen for miles around. The art and sculptures throughout the park are breath-taking and the meanings that go with each are very moving. We took a boat ride on the Volga River which gave an entirely different perspective of the city. We had wanted to go to the Cyclorama, but there were millions of little school kids there and the noise and activity level was a bit much for all of us. Children are definitely the same all over the world.

We opted instead to walk around the historic downtown area and we did a little shopping buying souvenirs from the street vendors. It’s very difficult to haggle when you don’t speak the language so Svetlana, Natasha, and Tanya all started in on the poor woman at once. I felt I got an especially good deal and the woman would probably would have given us the things to get rid of us! It was a wonderful day and the two girls left us to go home to their families.

Tanya and I found a lovely little sidewalk restaurant where we had a delightful lunch and did a lot of people watching. The Russian people are beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many really skinny females in tight pants with such naturally big boobs. They women are all extremely tall with the average height being close to 5′ 10″. There were three women on the subway that had to duck to get on and were about 6′ 10″ tall.

The women dress beautifully and in bright colors. I think in some way I’d expected them to be shorter and to wear more basic colors – too much television I guess. The young men are very good looking and they too are tall and thin. Most have very short almost military-looking haircuts. Occasionally you’d see a ponytail, but not often.

Sunday was a very special day. I was picked up around 10 am by Elvira, my contact at the university, and her daughter Ali. Ali’s husband Sergey drove us to pick up Tatyana and we rode around the city visiting the Planetarium and other interesting areas that we missed on Saturday. We then went to Elvira’s home and had a wonderful typical dinner in a Russian home. I did so enjoy seeing the inside of a home or flat as they call it. Most of the homes are still assigned according to need. Since it is just Elvira and her husband they have a flat consisting of a livingroom, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom/laundry room combination. Ali and Sergey have a two bedroom flat since they have a son.

Monday, I was picked up at my hotel around for a meeting at the Volgograd ‘Oblpotrebsoyuz – the Volgograd Cooperative Association where I was given more history on the Cooperative Association and met the director. This was a very powerful meeting and the director’s office was as large as Elvira’s flat had been with lots of beautiful wood and marble.

We went to the Institute for lunch, and then I held a seminar for the faculty members of the institute on training students to manage employees of the cooperatives especially in the bakery and prepared food sections. Following the seminar I met with students and teachers of the advanced English classes for lively conversations on the food industry in both America and Russia.

Tuesday was my first venture into the countryside to visit the Cooperative in Nickolaevsk. We met with the top four executives of the cooperative and they gave me a tour of their kitchens, commissaries, cafes, and restaurants. I taught a master’s class to the bakers and made suggestions to improve the products and production.

While my dough rose and was baked in the commissary, we had lunch with a sampling of the foods prepared in their commissary and of course there were many wonderful Cossack toasts were offered and the vodka flowed. After lunch the breads were brought in and we sampled them all. The breads I made were well accepted and were made the next day with the highest sales recorded for a midweek day.

There was a farmer’s market in the village and I asked if we could walk through. It was very different from our markets since farmers only sold one item or two items. This is part of the Russian system where everyone must have a job. One farmer can sell tomatoes for one hour and then he must go home for the day so that another farmer has a chance to sell his tomatoes. Each was allowed one hour and no longer.

There was an old man selling radishes. He had them in a flat basket arranged by size. They were covered with dirt. When he smiled at me he had the most beautiful smile and gorgeous clear blue eyes. I asked my interpreter to ask him if I could take his picture. He said yes if I would stand with him. His eyes just sparkled. As I was leaving he ran after me with a large red radish that he was rubbing with a wet rag and then he presented it to me. He reached in his pocket and brought out some loose salt and looked at me expectantly. I sprinkled it on my radish, ate it and told him how wonderful it was. He yelled something and everyone around laughed. My interpreter said he yelled, see everyone even beautiful American women liked his radishes.

During lunch everyone teased me about my new friend and they said he would tell this story all day everyday for the rest of his life and the villagers would not like me because he would drive them all crazy on my account. One of the people in my party mentioned that they had not seen any water around the market and that he’d probably spit on his handkerchief to shine the radish just for me!

It was wonderful getting out into the countryside and seeing some of the small villages and meeting the people. The roads were absolutely terrible with train-sized potholes. Quite often our driver would get off the roadway and drive through fields because it was easier than dodging the holes. From what I was told the only good roads in Russia are within a 50-mile radius of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The next day we drove to the Cooperative in Ilovlya. We had tea with the director and took a tour of all of the different facilities of the Cooperative. This cooperative was much smaller and poorer than the one yesterday. It was very dark with only one light hanging from the ceiling over the work table. The walls were blackened by either a fire or with age and there were no windows. From what I could see, the bakery was extremely clean, but terribly depressing. I suggested painting the walls white and getting either a larger light or more lights. I was told it would have to come out of everyone’s salary to pay for this and they didn’t make enough.

While the dough was rising and baking, we went to the Cossack museum which was absolutely fascinating. The museum was in the middle of nowhere, but it was an old authentic farm with everything still intact. There was an assortment of clothing to include the wedding clothes that the people who had lived here actually wore. Of course I loved the kitchen with all of the old pots, the fireplace and learning about how they cooked their food.

Some of the ideas reminded me of the American south like having a summer house away from the kitchen to keep things cooler. The baby bed hung from the ceiling which kept the baby away from varmints and made it easier to swing the baby to help it sleep.

They even had a Korovai – the Russian wedding bread that I’d written about in my book Celebration Breads. The Cossack version was even more interesting than the one I wrote about in that the center of the bread was hollowed out like a tube cake only larger. The center was filled with long thin breads similar to twisted breadsticks to signify the union of two people. Everyone that attended the wedding took one of the pieces of bread as they left the wedding to show they supported the bride and groom.

It was a very hot day and when we got ready to leave the museum some of our group was missing. We heard giggles and found them in the river. We returned to the Cooperative’s restaurant for lunch. After lunch the breads were brought in for viewing sampling. They enjoyed the flavor, but we all agreed the breads had risen too long and spread out rather than rising high like they should have. This is where I stressed that the training should be taught by knowing the bread and the dough rather than following just a recipe. Their instructions were to bake the dough after 45 minutes. We found that they had turned up the temperature in the proofing box to speed things up, but still left the dough for the right amount of time. Rather than coming home, we went back to the bakery for more training teaching the bakers to learn more about their dough and what it should look like. It was a good training exercise.

Thursday morning our trip to the Cooperative in Leninsk was cancelled since the bakery was being remodeled. Instead we went to a large super store which was like going to a Super Walmart or its equivalent in America. We received a complete tour of the store and I was allowed to go through the bakery and see the operation. I was impressed with the cleanliness and efficiency of the operation. Their prepared food section was beautiful and could have rivaled any supermarket or specialty food store in America.

All of the employees were standing on concrete floors. I mentioned that in America we furnished employees who were standing in one place on hard floors with gel mats to stand on eliminating leg fatigue, swollen ankles/feet and sore hips. They thought this a good idea and are going to look into furnishing these for their employees. Before I left the store someone came up and showed me a picture in a catalog to see if the mats were the same which they were. The equipment was modern and up-to-date.

After lunch at the Institute we went to a second super store where we were given a tour. This was a much older store that was not as well laid out as the one in the morning nor was the food presented as nicely. I was allowed to enter the bakery and it was well run and clean. We were invited for tea where they served a sampling of the breads offered at the bakery. For some reason large companies follow different standards than the Cooperatives and they made quite an assortment of breads that didn’t follow the guidelines of using only grain, water, yeast and salt.

Friday morning we were invited to the Agricultural College where we met with the director and department heads. We were given a tour of the animals kept on the premises then to the kitchens. They are undergoing a large renovation project to update their facility and the equipment. I hope to go back when it is complete since it will be gorgeous.

The Agricultural College does quite a bit of experimental work and they were very excited that I try a new formula for bread using garbanzo beans which they feel are better than soy beans for added protein. The bread had a beautiful yellow color and nice flavor, but had a bit too much flour for my taste. They agreed the bread was dry and are going to work on the formula.

We went to the pastry kitchen and watched them making jelly rolls. They had quite a bit of waste and I gave some suggestions for using the ends to use every part. We had a lovely lunch. The Russian people have a wonderful sense of humor. I fell in love with hot tea served with condensed milk. I had told my interpreter that if I found out I had to die tomorrow, I’d eat a whole can of condensed milk all by myself. When the people at the Agricultural College called the Institute to see if I had any food dislikes or allergies, they told them my story of condensed milk so they’d have it for my tea.

Every place I went they presented me with gifts. They had a goody bag for me at the college and it was rather heavy. When I reached into the bottom of my bag, I found two cans of condensed milk with a note assuring me that they didn’t think I’d die tomorrow! The Agricultural College would like for me to teach a master’s class for them when I return to Russia.

This was my last day in Volgograd. In the afternoon we had a meeting to discuss what the goals of the project had been and if we all felt I had met them. The department heads felt that we’d more than met the criteria for the project and they seemed to like what I’d done. I was thrilled when the director said they’d asked for 100% hoping they would get 75-80%, but they were delighted since they felt I’d given them 200%. They are looking forward to another project within a year to year and a half. I hope they mean it since I’d love to go back.

After the meeting they gave me a farewell dinner and presented me with more gifts. Of course no get-together is a success without the Cossack toasts. After 12 had been given, I asked for the 13th and told them how wonderful their country was and the people were so warm, welcoming, good-looking and intelligent which brought the house down and brought many jokes about my Radish Man. Then I told them that the only thing that kept my trip from being the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me in my life was that my husband had not been there to share it with me.

A 14th toast was added to Keith with the promise that he would be invited to come with me next time. If he’d just come talk to people about America they’d love to have him – whoopee!

Saturday morning was my last day in Volgograd. I packed which was quite a challenge since I had so many gifts to try to get into my luggage. I met Elvira, Tanya, Ali and Sergey. We went to Sergey’s mother’s shop for some of the most wonderful ice cream I’ve ever had, and then for a final ride through Volgograd before going to the train station.

I had another 17-hour train ride back to Moscow. This time I was alone in my train car and read most of the way back. I was met at the train by Yuri our driver which felt like being met by an old friend. He took me to my hotel – not the same one where we stayed when we arrived. Myron and Michael were going to be there and we made plans to meet for dinner and share our experiences.

I hired a tour guide and went back into the city center. The weather was cold and it was pouring rain – an absolutely miserable day. We decided to go into museums so we would be inside rather than explore outside. One of the special exhibits was Gold of the Tsars which was unbelievable. I’ve never seen so much gold in one place in my life.

Afterwards, we went to lunch. Since I hadn’t carried a purse, I’d placed my money in Keith’s money belt. Not having a belt, I put the leather pouch in a deep pocket of my raincoat. It was wet all the way through to the lining so I hung the coat over the back of my chair. That night when I went to pay for my dinner, my credit card and all of my rubles were missing. It was a two-sided pouch and I had my passport and American dollars in one side and the rubles and credit card in the other. Thank goodness my thief didn’t know this or I’d have been in even more trouble. Only one side had been opened.

I called Keith who cancelled my card and was able to change some of my dollars into rubles. Luckily I lost very little cash and cancelled before the card was used. I also learned another lesson about protecting money! It was also not the easiest thing to change dollars into rubles on a Sunday night, but I finally did it.

The next day we were debriefed at the ACDI/VOCA offices. We all sat at computers and typed our final reports. We were then taken to lunch and rushed off to catch our flight to America. Michael and Myron were on the flight to New York and I was on the flight to Atlanta. I boarded the flight and was just settling in when the stewardess came up and asked if I was Betsy Oppenneer. I said I was and she asked me to gather my belongings and come with her.

I asked if there was a problem and she just kept walking. The first thing that flashed through my mind was that something had happened to Keith and someone was sending me a message, then I began to wonder if I’d screwed up at customs or something and was being called back. Once we got to the front of the plane, the stewardess said her supervisor has upgraded me to first class and ushered me to a lovely big seat! I still don’t know why, but it sure made the trip home much nicer. It was a wonderful ending to a trip of a lifetime.

I left America wondering what could I really teach the Russian people and now I can’t wait go to back and teach them even more! WOW, what an experience!