Post-Soviet Sojourn

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Working the fields, carrying bricks

We shared the children’s work, digging ditches and carrying bricks. We also worked the cabbage fields together, hoeing and weeding the staple food. The orphanage maintained a plot of land on the local collective farm, and it could keep whatever produce the children maintained.

The teachers divided labor very strictly: Only girls worked in the cafeteria and in the fields, while only boys dug ditches and carried rocks. We tried to shake up their sexist social order a bit by having the young women in our group help some of the little boys carry rocks one day. Genna, a scrawny twelve-year old, objected. “This is man’s work,” he squeaked, puffing out his puny chest.

Cindy, a varsity swimmer from Yale, answered, “I’m twice as old as you and ten times stronger!” Genna — a stubborn kid — didn’t relax his stance. He denied what he saw and continued to insist that women couldn’t do the job.

We insisted upon dividing the work force equally, so boys and girls worked together in the kitchen, fields, and ditches.Eventually, we insisted upon a little role reversal, and for almost a month we divided the work force equally, so boys and girls worked together in the kitchen, fields, and ditches. As soon as we left, however, everything reverted back to the way it had been. The girls continued to sweep, bent in half at the waist, using brooms they had made from fresh-picked tree branches. I winced when I saw these girls; in Moscow, I had seen many elderly women bent thus in half, who would never walk erect again.

Community on rails

Once my work at the orphanage was finished, I remained in Russia another five months and spent many nights traveling by train. Though I was living and studying in Moscow, I often came back to Sosnovka to visit my friends at the orphanage, and to bring visitors and presents from the big city. In addition, the group of Americans I lived with followed a very ambitious travel schedule, and we traveled by rail to Latvia, Lithuania, and St. Petersburg, as well as to Siberia and Uzbekistan by plane (plane fare each way — about a six-hour flight — cost us only $3 in American currency).

Although my first experience aboard a Russian train, coming to Sosnovka, was less than comfortable, I strongly believe that trains can be the best mode of transportation in Russia. Russian trains are extremely punctual and by far the most relaxing form of transport in the country — if, that is, you’re riding in first class. Booking agencies such as Intourist always place foreigners in first class, which is quite a bargain; most one-way tickets purchased in Russia cost less than $10. Although the quality of service and physical condition can vary greatly from train to train, I usually found the women and men working aboard Russian trains to be friendly and chatty. And they brew some delightful tea, which they’ll sell you for either a dollar, or ten rubles (about 1.5 cents — a good reason to carry local currency). The two-person cabins are the nicest available: Each bed is often made in advance, with two down pillows each, heavy blankets, and sometimes even a flower in a vase on the small table by the window.

Train riders line the passageway to chat with one another or just to watch a particularly beautiful sunset. There is a rather nice sense of community about trains, but this is more pronounced in the communal cars, where etiquette requires families who’ve brought food aboard to share with everyone around them, often creating a large, jovial picnic. Community cars also foster a great deal of card-playing and story-swapping among young soldiers, old pensioners, and other passengers.

On one trip, I passed the time playing cards with a ten-year-old boy, Vova, who taught me how to play “Fool,” possibly the most popular Russian card game. As Vova dealt me the oldest, most tattered playing cards I had ever seen, I was overcome with pity. I was seeing something I had always taken for granted; playing cards are free on airlines, and I can afford to buy new ones when they become tattered. But these had become so faded that the numbers were scarcely visible and the non-coated paper cards were coming apart layer by layer. One of my companions gave Vova a shiny new deck, which he really appreciated. Looking back on one other train experience makes me appreciate that trip with Vova all the more.

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