The Conference begins…

Friday morning I struggled with my tights. They were fraying and sagging so I decided to wear a black skirt with different tights. I went down to breakfast at the hotel and was surprised to find my co-conference goers already finishing up. Luckily Lyala was running early so she sat for another cup of tea while I ran to the buffet to get some kefir and some kasha. On my way there an Indian man stopped me and asked if I was a waitress. “Um…no…” I said, moving far away from the man. When I got back to my seat I noticed that waitresses were wearing black skirts. Lyala had on a suit.

“Do I need to be wearing a suit?” I asked her? “Well, no…you look fine,” she said, but her tone said otherwise. I told her I was going to change and she said, “Well, it is the first day of the conference.” Ok, so now I know that “first day” is a thing. Got it. We got to talking about how sometimes you’ll never know what you’ll need when you travel and she really did come ready for anything, having brought a bathing suit and an evening dress!

Doomed to wear droopy tights all day I changed into my skirt suit and waited in the lobby with the group. We were shuffled onto a little bus and waited until we had accounted for everybody and then set off…for our grand journey of half a mile. At first we thought the bus had just broken down there, but, no, the organizers apparently really wanted to make sure we got to the conference.

North Caucasus Federal University (SKFU) is in a cheerful, yellow building on a quiet street with broad sidewalks and tall pine trees.

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Lyala and I at the entrance to North Caucasus Federal University

Once inside we shed our outerwear in the basement coast-check and headed up into the conference hall. My god. What a conference hall. Stavropol is a city of about half a million people. Tucson is about the same. But the University of Arizona has approximately twice the number of students as SKFU but has nothing close to this conference hall. Each participant’s seat has its own monitor so it’s easy to see the presenter’s slides. Flat-screen TVs on all the walls show the presenter speaking so you don’t have to crane your neck. Plus, there is a special little booth in the back where the simultaneous interpreters sit, interpreting to and from English. It got me to thinking: do we ever invite guests to the University of Arizona that don’t speak English?

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The magnificent conference hall at SKFU

Anyhow, we took our seats. The first speeches were given by local dignitaries, welcoming us to the conference. We heard from the head of the local Federal Migration Service and the University provost. Interestingly, we also heard from the local Orthodox Metropolitan and an Islamic mufti.

Religious dignitaries
Religious dignitaries

Then the scholarly presentations began. None of them drew much of a reaction (the size of the audience didn’t really lend itself to discussion), except that one paper seemingly angered the representative from the Federal Migration Service. It concerned the settlement of Chechens in Europe. Apparently the paper hit a nerve because the Chechens had sought asylum in Europe. This makes sense, considering the Chechen wars. But from Russia’s perspective there is no need to seek asylum abroad because Chechens are not persecuted in Russia; they are citizens of the Russian Federation. You can imagine, for example, if a group of Americans sought asylum abroad. In fact, actually, I recently read an article about an African-American man in the United States who felt so persecuted by the police simply for being black that he sought asylum in Canada. It feels strange to have a fellow citizen seek asylum. The man from the Federal Migration Service was responding to this weird feeling; you can understand why he felt offended.

A recurring theme throughout this conference was how seemingly at odds the researchers were with the Federal Migration Service, a depressingly familiar situation. Academics, those who study migration (its patterns, its causes, its developments) know what policies will make migration more difficult for both sending and receiving countries. But policy-makers never want to listen to any of that. They just want to accomplish their political ends. So when I saw my Russian colleagues express frustration with their immigration officials I understood this problem intimately. Lawmakers in the United States don’t seem to care what effect their policies will have and refuse to make even the most logical changes to the immigration system.   It doesn’t matter what the policies actually do, it only matters what they sound like they’ll do. It’s kind of crazy that politicians are ever at odds with other politicians anywhere; they are precisely the same sort of person.

Did you think Sharif would let us escape without a photo session?
Did you think Sharif would let us escape without a photo session?

For lunch we shuffled into the dining room while servers brought us hot bowls of soup. Lyala and I got somewhat separated and, from a few seats down, I couldn’t understand what she was motioning to me about. She stood up and grabbed my glass and gave it to the grinning elderly man sitting next to her.  It disappeared under the table for a minute and then she handed it back to me. Everyone around me was giggling and sipping. OHHHHHH, now I get it!  I motioned to the man next to me, questioning if I should share some with him? Emphatic and scared gestures assured me that no, NO, I should not share with the man next to me. I quickly took a sip of the strong stuff and pretended to concentrate intently on my soup.

The grinning man next to Lyala with the bottle? The father of the entire field of migration studies in Russia. The man next to me? The University provost.  The day had suddenly swerved into a whole other kind of thing.

Tipsy from lunch, Lyala and I decided to ditch the conference and head to the Stavropol museum.  We hadn’t seen anything of the city, we’d been sitting all morning, and now we were a bit drunk. Best to get out of there.

The first thing we saw after we left the building was the freakin’ Carl’s Jr. Happy Star.  I just…I can’t even.

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The museum was about a five minute walk away (like everything else in Stavropol).  The exterior was quite extravagant.

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The inside was more modest, but it was a pretty good little museum.  At least I think it was good; it was hard to tell because Lyala completely took charge, insisting on sneaking photos at nearly every exhibit.

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In the beginning, this practice made me worried…you can tell photographing this sarcophagus made me feel guilty.

But, like many regional museums, this one was heavy on the taxidermy and I guess I’ve developed a bit of a thing for taxidermy.  It gave me the confidence to break the photography rules with gusto! P1010401

And a bear.  Because Russia.

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We took a little walk around and came upon this lovely tree-lined walkway through a park.  Because there was a statute, it was obligatory for me to be photographed in front of it.  It’s Lermontov, by the way.  illustrious author and “poet of the Caucasus.”

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So, as you can see, Stavropol is a lovely little city.  But we had to get back to the conference.  Sergei had been very firm about what time we were expected.

I had thought that there were more presentations that afternoon, but as soon as we stepped in the door we were whisked away to a coffee break.  I had some pastry and some tea and a little chit-chat with Sharif.  As everyone else headed back into the conference hall, the elderly man from lunch reached out to grab my hand.  “You must have some ‘lemonade’ with us!” he said, chuckling.  So I sat down and had a good long talk with the Father of Migration Studies and his son.  But we didn’t even mention migration.  I honestly don’t know what we talked about because I couldn’t get the hang of which language we were speaking.  Father would try to say something to me in English, which made no sense.  I’d then turn to the son and ask in Russian, “What did he say?” The son would reply in some other version of English that didn’t make any sense, either.  So I just nodded and smiled and toasted to some other fellow who wandered in– no idea who that other guy was; I don’t think he was even part of our conference.

At some point the conference ended for the day and we were sent back to the dining hall….for another banquet!  This time elegant Tajik gifts were presented to foreign guests, such as this robe given to the professor from Japan.

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My protector and photographer, Sharif, even gave me a present, although I was a conference newcomer:

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At this point, the Father of Migration Studies really let it all hang out.  He told racy jokes, sang a funny song, and somehow got tangled up in the draperies with Gulnara.  I present to you, the life of our party:

Here's to you, Leonid Leonidovich!
Here’s to you, Leonid Leonidovich!

I don’t know how we found the energy, but after our banquet we walked around Stavropol for an hour or so, enjoying the misty air.  We split some desserts in the hotel restaurant and headed to our exhausted slumbers.

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