I popped into a cafe around 10am in the center of Kursk for a meeting. It was empty except for one other customer. I ordered a standard-sized Americano, but when Alyona returned, she brought me a large Americano. Maybe they simply made a mistake, but she seemed to imply they did it on purpose. Perhaps because I was a foreigner? Many Russians will take an extra step (or add a bit more coffee) to make a good impression on foreigners and I haven't sensed that this trait has changed among the average Russian person since sanctions were imposed. I later asked Alyona about herself. She said she enjoys drawing/painting and may want to teach that skill someday. I asked if there were other artists in the family and she responded that her dad plays Jazz.
Svetlana, 15, was walking along Lenin St in Kursk with her two girlfriends when I noticed the New York winter hat, which is very popular right now - i see at least one a day. She spoke good English and said she wanted to be a translator. Her older brother also spoke good English she she said because he spent time in New Orleans. I asked her about her wishes for the New Year. She said she wanted to visit St Petersburg in the winter time.
Katya is a TV reporter for a local news station in Kursk and asked to speak with me about city infrastructure for people with special needs. As I went to meet her in the center of the city, I looked at the city buses that passed me. It would have been impossible for someone in a wheelchair to fit inside, much less get on the first step. It is not just a Kursk issue, but a Russia-wide issue. At least local TV is raising awareness, though many years may pass before there is money for such buses.
Igor has been a journalist for most of the past 25 years and penned 3 books, including one on the bandits of Kursk region. I asked him if the crime situation was improving. He felt it was getting worse because of the widening gap between rich and poor in the region, an issue that is Russia wide. When I asked him about the most interesting Kursk crime story he covered, he said it was the kidnapping of a businessman's son. The kidnappers demand $2mln and ended up getting caught. One of the kidnappers told Igor after the sentencing that they were too greedy. Had they asked for a smaller sum, they might have gotten it.
He said he had just finished his mandatory military service and would like to attend university in St. Petersburg. However, he said he needs to save up money first so he took a job as an administrator in Kursk in the meantime.
Lera, 15, was standing on Lenin Street in Kursk handing out flyers for an electronics store along with a woman about 4x her age. Lera said she didn't want to depend on handouts from her parents. I asked what job she would like to have in the future. First she said she wanted to be a banker. When I asked why, she said she really wanted to be a policewoman. She said she loves watching a tv serial called 'Trail.'
Oleg is a well-known character in Kursk, running a gallery showing off local artists including himsdlf. Oleg was dressed in a denim jeans jacket, bell-bottom jeans and pointy black shoes, a reflection of his afinity for the 1970s and its music. He said he loves Robert Plant and listens to Led Lepplin sometimes when he paints. Indeed, a TV in the gallery corner was showing a LZ concert. Oleg said he was studying for an engineering exam some 30 years ago at a friend's house when he picked up a brush and started painting on a canvas belonging to his friend's brother. The brother told him he had talent and he gave up engineering. Oleg, who is surrounded by his paintings in this photo, doesn't just have an affinity for bell bottoms. He claims to have one of the largest horse bell collections in Russia with more than 1,000 pieces.
Alexander said he would like to move to Moscow to study acting when he finishes a technical school in Kursk. He said Johnny Depp is one of his favorite actors and Pirates of the Caribbean one of his favorite movies. We actually met in front of the Kursk theatre, which is visible behind him.
Denis, an IT engineer, said the biggest event of his life in 2014 was buying a flat, a near decade-long dream. I asked if he took a mortgage. He said no because - as he put it - he didn't want some banker hounding him and ripping him off for the next 20 years. Russian mortgage rates are around 12-14%, so it is a burden. Denis said the ruble weakness was a problem as inflation is outpacing wages increases. 'I am earning more, but have less left over.'
I asked Alona why she decided to attend Kursk Medical School. She said she grew up in a village and visited a hospital as part of a school program. She recalls watching nurses bandage an amputee and decide she wanted to help people as well.