Getting Around Luhansk
Over the last three days I’ve had the opportunity to explore the city a little, and I have to say that I am now pretty comfortable with the area around the University. In this installment, I will talk a bit about the University and the surrounding neighborhood.
Luhansk University’s main campus facilities are on Defense Street, the battle line between the Soviets and Nazis in WWII. The area was almost completely destroyed in the battle for the city, so most of the surrounding area is pretty new, with no buildings older than 60 years. Most of the architecture is in the utilitarian style of the Soviet area, with the usual wear and tear associated with buildings of that age. From what I have been able to see of the interiors, however, a lot of effort has been made to make them comfortable and homey.
The University buildings are newer and in a more modern style. I am told that extensive renovations were begun about 8 years ago under the current president and much effort has been made to modernize the facilities. I will be teaching in one of the two main buildings. It has a large central staircase leading up to the four floors. For the most part, I will be in one of the computer labs on the second floor. The arts building, which is not on the main campus, is much older in the more traditional Soviet formal style, having served as a cultural center for workers. There is a beautiful painting on the rotunda showing a scene where workers and party faithful greet each other. Back in the Soviet days, they would put a big Christmas tree in the rotunda and invite all the children of the city to a party and give each a present. That’s a side of the Soviets we never learned about in school.
One of the first things I noticed was that most rooms and hallways did not have their lights on. This is, no doubt, to keep the heat level as low as possible. As I have learned from hard experience, the weather in Luhansk swings wildly between the extremes. In the winter, -40۫۫ C is not uncommon, while in the summer, 40۫۫, such as we have had in the last several days, is normal.
Air conditioning is a relatively new phenomenon, and to have an air conditioner installed can take up to a week, as demand is very high. Luckily, my classroom is one of the rooms that has it. The technology in my lab, and, from what I can tell, across the University is very good. The language default on the computers is Russian, however, so you have to be very careful what buttons you push. Luckily, everything is in the same place as the US version of Windows, so it is just a matter of remembering where everything is.
The feel of the campus is much like Temple, a large urban university in the middle of a large city. With 20,000 students, it is comparable in size to most large US institutions, although almost all are gone for the summer. Unlike Temple’s main campus, there is tremendous effort put into the grounds. Landscape Design students have built a beautiful botanic garden with a grant from the EU. There is also a sculpture garden with pieces excavated by the archeology department. These peaces are from the pre-Ukrainian people who populated the area 3,000 years ago. Archeologists here are working on the meaning of the works, which were found in small artificial hills, or tumuli, which were not, however, exclusively associated with graves.
The neighborhood around the University is a commercial district, with shops, hotels and casinos all along the street. All of this has developed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is almost like Walnut St. in Center City Philly, but with many more kiosks. Here you can purchase snacks and drinks, including beer, which you can drink as you walk around. The streets are filled with people, some shoppers, some couples, and parents talking their children for a walk or bike ride. I have noticed that people do not make eye contact, but will talk to you if you ask for help. Most people have a very basic knowledge of English, which has been a big help to me.
I have been on a few excursions around the city with Oksana, the Asst. Department Head of the Foreign Languages Department, and Irina and Natalia, two of the faculty members. Our driver, Yuri is a master of Luhansk traffic; the drivers here are very aggressive. You have to be very careful crossing the street, as cars will pop out of nowhere and rarely deign to acknowledge your presence. All of them have been very kind and generous with me. Oksana’s sister was getting married this weekend, so Irina took me around to the city on Saturday and Natalia on Sunday, when we also took a quick trip out of the city. All of them were indispensable in getting money changed and finding international phones.
We went around and looked at the monuments, both Soviet and Post-Soviet. All of the statues of Lenin, except for one have been removed. The last one was saved in the interests of history. There are several monuments to Soviet generals and many to the veterans of WWII, all of which are quite touching, especially a new monument along Soviet Street (no one seems to care enough to change the name). About 30 km from the city, there is a monument to the Ukrainian Rus who chased away an invading Mongol army in the 7th century on the site where archeologists believe the battle to have taken place.
I also visited the home of Vladimir Dal, the great lexographer of the Russian language, who was a native of Luhansk, sort of like a Ukrainian Dr. Johnson. On the central square of the city, there is also a monument to the Ukrainian national poet, which replaced one of the statues of Lenin. We passed by the monument to the rescue workers who died helping the victims of Chernobyl.
The city is very green. I am told that this is odd for this time of the year. The hot, dry climate of the region usually kills the grass and defoliates the trees by now, but an unusual rainy spell about two weeks ago gave the city a brief reprise. By the time I leave in early August, the trees will have lost their leaves. The hot and dry climate also produces a lot of dust, and as there is usually a strong breeze blowing, it gets everywhere.
At night, the city is just as busy as during the day. I feel very safe on the streets, which are still very busy, and I find a long walk after dinner to be very relaxing. I have been going to the beer garden after dinner to relax a bit. The garden is in a park, and children are around us playing. There are several stray dogs that live in the park and beg for food. One inventive mutt walks up to tables and starts bouncing to the beat of the music that is playing. That dog has rhythm, let me tell you, and he gets a lion’s share of the handouts. There is a pack of about 3-4 dogs there, and they seem to do quite well.
The central market is a maze of stands where you can buy everything from local vegetables to books, and anything else you can think of. I had the chance to chat (through Natalia, of course) with a local woodworker who sells hand carved boxes and wall hangings. The carvings are in the eastern European folk style and quite good. He seemed to appreciate the compliments I made.
All in all, I don’t believe I will lack in things to do here in Luhansk. I am told there is a good philharmonic society and choral society, a good organ somewhere, and Ukrainian and Russian theater, but they are all closed for the season. That’s a shame, but between work and wandering the streets, I’m sure that there’s more than enough to keep me out of trouble.