Post-Soviet Sojourn: Life in a Russian Orphanage
This article was published in the May 1993 issue of Memphis Magazine . The city’s annual Memphis in May Festival salutes a different country each year, and in 1993 it was Russia. After I spent a summer volunteering at a Russian orphanage and several months studying in Moscow, the magazine asked me to paint a picture of Russian life right after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
The flights that took me from the United States to Russia first hinted at what I was leaving behind and what I was heading for.
The widebody jet that took us from the U.S. to Prague offered complimentary beverages, quasi-gourmet meals, movies, and soft European music. The Czech and Slovak flight attendants spoke a lovely brand of English and endeavored to make our flight as comfortable as possible. And the restrooms on that flight were cavemous, with dispensers along one wall offering every imaginable sort of toiletry.
The next flight, a jump from Prague to Bratislava, in the now Slovak Republic, squeezed us into a narrower jet. Lunch consisted of boiled meat and boiled vegetables without the accompanying European serenade. The flight crew seemed pleasantly indifferent to our presence, and the restrooms featured small, rough, brown squares for toilet paper.
The final flight aboard a Russian-built jet alarmed me, but not for long, as the hot air (the air conditioner, if it existed, wasn’t working) lulled us into a languid stupor. The inch-thick, cloth-wrapped wooden seats aboard this Russian wonder flipped completely forward when the plane nosed down, sending my own nose into my neighbor’s back. The restroom effused a rather adversarial stench, and offered no paper of any kind. The flight attendants tolerated us.
We didn’t complain, though. Not on the planes, and not when breakfast turned out to be fish; not even when we arrived at our Moscow hotel and found that only one shower and one toilet in the entire place worked. Not that ours was a particularly self-sacrificing group — we simply had a mission.
I was one of 44 college students and recent graduates who had volunteered to live and work in orphanages throughout Russia for the summer. We had been recruited by Intemational Families and Exchanges, a non-religious, not-for-profit humanitarian aid organization based in Maine. I chose to join the program both because I love children and because I wanted to improve my Russian.
Summer ‘snow’ in Moscow
Before trekking out to our orphanages, we stopped in Moscow — which struck me, on this first visit, as a city of concrete set ablaze beneath the insomniac northern June sun, which rose before 5 a.m. and didn’t set till around 10:30 p.m. The lack of cold drinks (or anything cold at all) enhanced the blur caused by this overworked sun. So I questioned the paradoxical vision of snow I beheld one day during that same month: It blew in through the windows, it covered the streets and sidewalks, and it didn’t melt. The locals call this oddity pookh, or “fluff.” Given off by female Balsam poplars in the early summer, this fuzz fills the air and pads the earth in what looks like a wondrous summer blizzard.
After resting a night in Moscow, we boarded a train at Moscow’s Paveletsky Station, and I was about to embark on the first of many memorable Russian train trips.
Russian trains bombard all the senses with stimuli, and this one was no different: Acrid smoke from the cheap cigarettes that teenage soldiers bummed off each other mixed with the charred smoke of the coal-burning samovars used to brew tea aboard the trains. From all sides, an echoing voice barked about departures and arrivals, while aboard the train, babies cried, fathers yelled at their boys, and a few people complained about the heat.
We had stepped out of an infernal Moscow aftemoon into an olive-drab-green steel oven, an open car of wooden sleeping berths, where sweat dripped from the tired but enduring faces of elderly women, and condensation covered the windows, all but one of which were stuck closed. I had the good fortune of being seated next to the working window. Unfortunately, I was also seated next to a woman who feared that her daughter might catch a draft, and vehemently insisted I keep the window closed.
So I endured the heat, and looked forward to reaching my destination: the orphanage-school, where five others and I would be spending June and July. It is situated in Sosnovka, a tiny “labor town” of 12,000, which, at that time, had no paved roads (they have since built one), no stoplights, and is located in one of the poorest parts of the south-central Russian heartland.
At the entrance to Sosnovka, a larger-than-life painting of Lenin loomed over the administration building. Across the street, a statue of a fierce-looking soldier wielding a machine gun stood poised to defend the town against enemies. Around the neighborhood were billboards that read “Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” “Glory to the great Russian nation,” and “Glory to labor!”
The orphanage-school was located at the end of a dusty road, next to a forest. I had feared we might find a dank, rotting bunch of cells, but found instead something like a summer camp.
We had loaded ourselves with as many clothes, toys, sports items, medical supplies, and other donated items as we could possibly carry. In addition, several volunteers had individually arranged for large shipments of aid to be sent to their orphanages. But while we knew these things would help the children, we also understood that what they really needed was our love and affection. What we didn’t expect, however, was how much of it they had to give, and how much of an impact they would have on our impression of this strange country.
Five kids on each hand
The children overwhelmed us on our first day at the orphanage. They brought us flowers, put on a concert, taught us how to wash our hands properly before eating. When we walked, they held our hands, five or ten kids holding onto each of our hands. These children had a physical need to be close to people.
The employees of the orphanage, although very warmhearted, rarely displayed their affection for the children overtly. I had hoped to find a place populated by children who see each other as brothers and sisters and run by a caring group of adults who do their best to fulfill the roles of parents. Since most of the adults are teachers, though, they keep to a reserved, teacher-student relationship with the kids. While this looked like coldness to me at first, I later came to see that the kids loved many of the teachers and that the teachers did show affectly, in their own subtle way.
Some of the counselors and teachers, unfortunately, lacked the skills necessary to raise these children into emotionally developed, grown-up human beings. Perhaps it was due to a lack of specialized training, or perhaps for some of them this was simply a job — and those people put in the same effort as they would for any nine-to-five job. I believe they were the exception, and that most of the teachers do care for the kids a great deal.
Still, one thing troubled me: the faces of little children who, after falling down and hurting themselves, don’t cry. Why? Maybe because there’s no point. Rarely does someone come to pick them up and comfort them.
The children always wanted to do things with us: swim, walk to town, buy us ice cream, play basketball or dodgeball, and we were eager to please, though we didn’t always know the rules. On the second day there, a group of about twenty boys and girls wearing bathing suits told me they were on their way to the river and invited me along. I raced back to my room and retumed in a flash wearing swim trunks. As I marched the group out of the gate toward the river, a voice boomed at me, “Where are you taking those kids?” I froze in my tracks. The supervisor was a bit miffed; no one had authorized a trip to the river — I had been hoodwinked.
Except for playing sports or doing other very physical activities, the boys kept their distance from us. They had a very strict code of what real men do, such as carry bricks, dig ditches, and play basketball, and what they don’t do, like let women do their work for them, cry, or show their feelings.
The girls, on the other hand, were very affectionate. Each day they brought us big bowls of berries they had collected for us in the forest. They filled their pockets with wild hazelnuts for us, or gave us sunflower seeds. They brought us beautifully arranged bouquets of wildflowers, or long strands of berries strung on thin reeds. Occasionally they even brought us unusual insects and, once, even a hedgehog.
A dog’s life
They played with their affectionate dog, Palma, and gave her bits of food they saved from their meals. Palma feared all males, though, and when I would approach her to pet her, she would rim away with her tail between her legs.
The girls loved the dog, especially the eight- and nine-year-old girls, with whom Palma slept each night. And Palma loved them. But one moming the girls approached us and said flatly, without emotion, “Palma is dead.” Katya Potapova, an eight-old-girl, recounted the story for us:
On the evening before, the girls had been sitting on their front porch, reading and relaxing with Palma, when two older boys grabbed Palma by her ears and began to drag her away, squealing and yelping. When the girls screamed, “What are you doing?” one boy, the oldest at the orphanage, answered curtly, “Palma ate some farmer’s chickens.” They continued to drag her by her ears through the dust.
These eight- and nine-year-olds followed, wailing desperately. They looked on as the boys brought the screaming dog into the yard of the slaughterhouse, where the day before they had helped slaughter several pigs. The girls peered under the fence, their wide eyes filled with tears, as the brick in one boy’s hand came crashing down above Palma’s eyes. These girls, who had no one, were losing a good friend, right before their eyes. The brick came down again and Palma fell. Then the boy lifted Palma’s head off the ground by one ear and plunged a knife into her throat. He moved the knife from side to side. Palma’s white fur became saturated with blood. The boys walked away.
Katya and the other girls felt it was unfitting for a friend to lie in a pool of blood and mud in front of the slaughterhouse, so they lifted the heavy carcass and carried it away toward the woods, staining their hands and clothing, to find a nicer resting place for Palma.
I gave Katya a hug when she finished her story, and she began to cry, uncertainly at first, because rarely do these children find a shoulder to cry on. But her tears fell faster as she finally began to let it out.
“Potapova! Why aren’t you working?” a shrill voice demanded, addressing the child by her last name, as was always the case. I tumed around to see a tall, black-haired, black-eyed teacher.
“Palma is dead,” I said. “Katya is very upset.”
“We have rules around here,” the woman growled, ignoring me. “This is work hour.” And she led Katya away by the hand.
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.
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.
A berth in ‘punishment class’
On one winter visit to the orphanage from Moscow, I hadn’t been able to get a return ticket from Tambov, the big city near the orphanage along the main train route. Rather than allowing me simply to bribe the conductor to get a seat as is customary (the conductor reserves several places for bribes), the orphanage director, concerned for my well-being, arranged for transportation from Sosnovka to Moscow along a different route. My friends from the orphanage saw me off at Sosnovka’s tiny station — essentially a parking lot — and found a man who was also traveling to Moscow to look after me. A bitterly cold wind blew in through the cracks in the windows of this old local train. Some windows were even stuck open. The train had no heat. I could see my breath, and pulled my jacket collar up and my hat as far down as possible to hide myself from the air. A couple of kids sat down across from me and began to wail. I believe crying kids are standard issue on Russian trains.
After about three hours aboard the sob-filled, slow-moving train, I needed to go to the bathroom. I tried the one at my end of the car: locked. The one at the other end: also locked. Those in the next car: also locked. I came back to the first bathroom and tried to kick the door in, cursing at this point. I jumped on the door handle.
I caught a glimpse of a man watching me, his shoulders heaving with laughter. I glared.
“Do you have to do the little one or the big one?” he asked.
“The little one,” I answered, then recognizing him as Alexander, the man my friends had asked to keep an eye on me.
“Good,” he replied, “Follow me.” He opened the door at the end of the car. “You see that coupling between this car and the next?” he asked. “That’s the bathroom on this train.”
“Could this possibly be worse?” I asked myself silently.
I shouldn’t have asked.
Alexander and I had to change trains and we waited for the next one in the little agricultural town of Krasnodar, where I stood a 101 percent chance of being the only American at their tiny station, overcrowded with people carrying huge sacks of potatoes from their relatives’ gardens and farms back to the cities where they lived, where potatoes had become unaffordable. The potato savings alone justified the price of a trip. There were also babushki, grandmotherly women selling all sorts of things in buckets they carried, from bottles of beer and milk to cigarettes and rather sinister-looking mushrooms.
I asked Alexander to look at my ticket and tell me if it was for a luxury or second-class seat. He laughed with such genuine surprise that I felt a heavy sense of foreboding.
“Nope, no luxury cars at all on this train,” he laughed. “There are only three cars on this train, and they’re platzkartny.”
Great, I thought. Fourth class. Only on a cold night like tonight you might as well call it punishment class. Open cars. Tons of people in close quarters. Baggage packed in on a shelf right above the top bunk, so that the person sleeping in that bunk can’t even sit up halfway. Very claustrophobic. There’s an aisle running down the entire car, along which one can walk past the feet of the babushki, dangling off the edge of every unpadded plank bed, sticking out in front of your face.
“I guess there won’t be any tea on this train?” I asked Alexander without hope. “No tea on these agricultural locals,” he said.
I pulled my hood on over my ski hat. The air blew colder and colder as we waited on the platform, until at last the train showed up. It was colder inside the train than outside on the windy platform. Either the train had no heat, or it was broken (“under repair,” as the Russians always say with optimistic-sounding cynicism). I saw that my ticket was for the upper bunk — the one in which you had barely room enough to lift your head. I turned to the man sitting next to me, a burly guy of about forty, and asked him if he would consider trading his bottom bunk for my top bunk. I was desperate to get out of the coffin-bunk, and although I nearly always accepted whatever the natives would accept in Russia, in this case I was prepared to act like an ugly foreigner and offer money.
But I didn’t even get the chance to mention money. The guy began ranting to the passengers around us, “Listen to this young guy asking me, his elder, to give him the upper bunk! What nerve! Ha!”
Humiliated, I sank back onto my haunches and began to eat the meat cutlets my friends had packed for me. That, I soon realized, was a crucial error.
My bed was the only one without a pillow, so I lay down with my head on my bedroll, my head freezing, with a blanket around my legs, also freezing. My torso perspired in my thick ski jacket. My toes were numb. I fell into a tormented sleep.
Kiss that down jacket goodbye
About an hour later I woke up feeling funny. I made my way to the bathroom. The dim light from the hallway showed the rusty metal floor to be covered with mud and slime. My untied shoelaces became saturated with the stuff. The door didn’t close properly, and there was no light. Once I was inside, the place was pitch black. Longing for the clean, warm, velvety, luxury-class cabin I had had on the inbound trip, I staggered — feeling quite ill now — to another bathroom at the opposite end of the car. Suddenly a very large woman — a big, solid blue uniform with a very angry face, stood to block my way. Where had she come from? I nearly knocked her over.
“Where are you going?” she snapped. “To the bathroom.” “There’s a bathroom at the other end!” she said, letting me know that this one was on her turf.
“There’s no light in that one,” I offered.
“Ha! He needs light!” she chortled, and then backed into a little room.
This bathroom had a light. I quickly closed the door, coughed three times, and vomited. Then vomited again. I felt better.
Opening the bathroom door, I met the metallic gaze of two extremely angry eyes.
“And where are you going now?” she demanded.
Holding tenuously onto consciousness and actually hoping for a little sympathy, I groaned, “Back to my seat. I don’t feel well.”
She fumed, literally; the air was so cold I could see the hot breath shooting from her flared nostrils. “Get back in there and clean that place up until it’s cleaner than you found it!”
“Me, clean it up?” My head swam.
“Who else do you expect to clean it?” she spat.
I looked around. I saw only a puddle where I had been sick and a broom handle with a bare wood block at the end.
“What should I clean it with?”
My question angered her so much you’d have thought I’d told her to lick up my vomit.
“How should I know? Take that jacket off and wipe the floor with it!” she screeched and stormed into her room.
I touched my 80 percent down, 20 percent feather-filled jacket lovingly, bidding it a tender farewell. I wanted to cry. I couldn’t think; I was very sick. My head burned, and I felt half-conscious.
As fortune would have it, I found a napkin in one pocket. I tore it up and began to mop my vomit up with each little piece. I wiped the floor. I wiped the disgusting toilet. The smell — not to mention the sticky slime all over my fingers-almost made me throw up again. I rinsed my hands in the sink and once again plodded off toward my bunk, clutching my stomach.
The woman was in my way again, eyes glinting like dirty ice. I could tell she was disappointed to see that I hadn’t sacrificed my jacket. She peered into the bathroom.
“That’s not clean!” she railed. “Look at that wall! I guess where you come from, foreigner, you can go around vomiting wherever you want and have people clean it up for you, but not here. Get back in there and clean. Clean! Or I‘ll call the militia at the next stop!”
Her words rang past my ears with such force I wanted to return the pain with a slap. But my body was numb, and my arms hung limply. I slinked back into the bathroom and soaked up the last patches of putrescence with the last piece of the napkin, then returned to my bunk — with eight hours yet to go.
An hour later, I awoke, sick again. I woke up every hour, each time hoping the train had reached Moscow; each time quite sick. I ran to the closer, pitchdark bathroom to throw up. Sometimes I didn’t make it.
Finally, at 4:30 in the morning, we arrived in Moscow. I staggered back to my room at the institute, untied my vomit-saturated shoelaces, pulled off my vomit-stained shoes and jeans, swallowed two of the lovely green pills my doctor back home had had the wisdom to give me, crawled into bed, lay my head on the large pillow, and slept.
‘Everything is better in America, right?’
Naturally such an experience made me appreciate the comforts of my home country. And I found that many Russians still know little about what life is like in the West; many simply cannot imagine a life as comfortable and easy as we have it here.
One young teacher’s aide, just out of college, asked me, “In America, can the average worker afford to have his own apartment?” When I answered that most working people have their own places (though I didn’t mention they rented them), she said, “You have it all. I’d give a lot to have my own place.”
Most people in Russia don’t have a lot, materially speaking. Like Vova, who didn’t discard his tattered old playing cards when he received a new deck, people in Russia possess an ingenuity born of extreme necessity, and are very adept at making the most out of what they do have. A friend, Volodya, wanted to heat his small garage so he could work on his motorcycle during the winter. Bribing a mechanic with a bottle of vodka, he obtained a huge heater out of a public bus. Then following the guidelines in a college physics book, he built a power transformer for the heater from scratch. I was impressed.
This resourcefulness, however, is not always so charming. At the orphanage we quickly learned to dispose of our trash very discreetly, as we would see kids playing with yesterday’s refuse — sucking on a dead battery or substituting a used syringe for a squirt gun.
Sometimes people would say to me, “Everything is better in America, right? Everything is terrible here in Russia, but there are no problems in America.” These same people worried, “You’ll only have bad things to tell the people back home, won’t you? Yes, bad things.”
Sometimes they would use this tack as a ploy to get compliments: “All the food here is terrible,” the cooks at the orphanage would suggest daily (they loved this game), “and the food in America is much better, right?” “No,” I answered dutifully each time. “The food is good at home, but we eat very well here.”
“That’s right, the food here is great!” they would cheer in response. “I bet you’ve never had aladdi like these in America.” Aladdi are little cakes of fried dough served with sugar or jam, a bit like pancakes or flat donuts. I answered, “I can honestly say I have never had aladdi like these in America.”
“That’s right! We make the best aladdi in the world!” the cooks would say triumphantly, pushing a big plate of steaming hot aladdi toward me, a reward for playing their game.
Americans’ odd eating habits
At the orphanage, we ate with the children on the European schedule: the big meal at midday. But the other two meals were totally unpredictable: donuts for dinner, pasta in thick cream with sugar and butter for breakfast. The nutritional value of most items was questionable: Both the cabbage soup and the mashed potatoes were often served with chunks of fat, which we left aside.
The Russians pile butter onto bread as if it were a luncheon meat: eight pats of butter on a single slice. They don’t spread the stuff. They thought we didn’t like their butter and took offense because we used only half a pat per slice.
“You eat poorly, ” the cooks would tell us after each meal. “You never eat enough butter, either.”
They served us everything on their finest dishes, and gave us salt, a symbol of wealth in Russia, in a very attractive little bowl. We admired the bowl, but used the salt as sparingly as we would at home, perhaps even more sparingly, as all the food had been generously pre-salted.
Every week the orphanage staff asked us about our strange eating habits, and over and over we would explain the current Westem theories about what fat and salt do to your heart. When an article about our group appeared in the town’s newspaper, two large paragraphs detailed our bizarre eating habits. “For some reason they don’t like butter or salt,” one cook marvelled in the article.
I heard one boy complain to the orphanage’s doctor that he was feeling under the weather, and the doctor replied, “Are you eating enough butter?” The same doctor helped us move into our accommodations when we arrived; he had converted the infirmary into a very nice sort of guest quarters for us.
He offered me some friendly advice: “You Americans eat too many vegetables. The Americans who came last year ate a lot of vegetables, and I told them the same thing I’ll tell you: You have to eat four kilograms of vegetables to get the same amount of vitamins as you get from one kilogram of meat.”
Another doctor instructed the orphanage’s psychologist to go barefoot all summer, which she did, so that she could “let all the harmful organisms in her body escape through the soles of her feet.”
The Rich Also Cry
The nurse at the orphanage seemed to treat all ailments with iodine. Lack of medical supplies was not the problem; we had brought great quantities. Still, when one young boy twisted his ankle, she painted the ankle with iodine, applied a loose bandage, and insisted he stand on it for an hour while she watched The Rich Also Cry , the 1970s Mexican soap opera that has gained a fanatical following in Russia (though most Russians appear to believe it’s an American show, and current, too).
But not all the doctors rely on folk remedies and traditions. Alexander, a doctor in the town’s infectious ward, was uniquely curious about Western medical and scientific techniques. The other medical personnel I had met didn’t express any interest, but Alexander often spoke to me of his desire to learn more. He craves knowledge and resources. When we met, he spoke to me of a worker at the orphanage who had lost the use of his arm in a motorcycle accident.
“The nerve was severed. In America they could fix that with microsurgery, but here such a thing doesn’t exist,” he lamented.
He wanted to learn about Western medical techniques, but had absolutely no idea where to find information. When I told him that the Journal of the American Medical Association now publishes a Russian version, he was astounded. He was likewise shocked when I let him know that The New York Times is available in Russian.
I tried to buy him subscriptions to these publications as gifts, but Russian bureaucracy made it impossible. One “periodicals bureau” controls all subscriptions in the country, and when I called they said that they only take subscriptions every six months, and that I had missed the cutoff for the next year. They suggested I call in the summer.
There was ‘power’ here, too
Just as he was openly curious about American techniques, Alexander was also uniquely open about Russian life. He once asked our group if we had brought along a radiation detector, so that he could verify the “official word” about nominal radiation in Sosnovka. And he described the Sosnovka of ten years before:
“There was vlast even here in Sosnovka,” Alexander told me gravely. I looked at him without understanding. Vlast: power?
“Yes,” he said, “they watched everyone and everything.” So “power” is the euphemism for those prying eyes of yesteryear.
“Only ten years ago,” he said, “the power still controlled Sosnovka. And years ago — much worse. There was a woman from Sosnovka who had met an American during World War II and went to America with him to get mar· ried. They allowed her no contact with her mother or family here, though they often tried to contact each other. Finally, in the 1960s, when her mother was on her death bed, the power let the woman come for a visit.
“They picked her up in a car with curtains on the windows, and drove her straight to her mother’s house. She was told she could see no one but her mother, speak to no one else, and not even leave the house until they came for her.
“Now here you are, Americans, and every day you walk these streets as if this were your home town, freely and happily.” He paused, a bit choked up. “Do you understand what it’s like to see all of you here, walking freely about our town, talking freely with us? That we can be friends?”
As we walked about town, people would often greet us by saying, “l hope there will never be war between our countries.” War was so often on their minds. And sometimes people would hold up their hands together in the sign of international brotherhood.
Someone once asked me what I missed most about the U.S., and one answer just slipped out of my mouth before I had time to think about it: “convenience.” And I can think of no better illustration of Russian inconvenience than its telephone system.
An intercity call within Russia requires a trip to the intercity phone bureau, where callers either wait in line for up to an hour-and-a-half to place a call themselves or wait up to two hours while a switchboard operator places the call for them (if she remembers and isn’t in a bad mood). Naturally, one cannot choose; some bureaus operate one way, some operate another.
And as for intemational calls, a few pay phones in Moscow offer hassle-free calling for a mere $12 a minute otherwise expect to wait up to four hours to make a single international call, whether from someone’s home or the Central Telegraph.
Perhaps even more harrowing than trying to make a phone call in Russia is the process of shopping, even for the most basic goods. A visit to a state store just to buy eggs, milk, and bread can take an hour and a half. There is one line to pay, another to receive the item you’ve paid for. Each department — dairy, bread, meat — has its own lines. Shouts of frustration and anger are often heard in these lines, not because these people are particularly nasty by nature, but because their system is giving them a collective migraine. Certainly, they haven’t much to smile about in those shops.
Once when I had waited in line for three hours to buy a train ticket only to have the ticket window close just before I got there, I yelled, in English, “This country sucks!” The man in front of me in line turned to me, and understanding only the exasperation in my voice replied in Russian, “You speak the truth, friend.”
Although I tried to live as Russians do, I occasionally avoided Moscow’s infamous lines by shopping in the “hard currency stores,” Western supermarkets and stores which accept convertible Westem currency only, and which have sprung up everywhere. But to my adventurous side, that seemed as much fun as peeling the colored stickers off a Rubik’s Cube and putting them back in such a way that it looks as if you’ve solved the puzzle. This exacted no effort and caused few hairs to gray, and I rarely resorted to such a cop-out because, frankly, there’s no point in coming to Russia just to be able to say, “Look, they have Spaghetti-O’s,” or “This Big Mac tastes just like the ones back home, doesn’t it?”
Russia on sale
Russia’s economy was in a deep crisis, its currency having gone through the floor. The country’s people, as a result, were plunged into poverty. We Westerners, though (or anyone with even a few dollars), suddenly found perversely ourselves rich. For foreigners, Russia was on clearance.
I picked up a pair of beautiful crosscountry skis for $3. Marvelous hockey skates that would go for $90 in the U.S. sell for $6 in Moscow. Russian “universal stores” sell worthwhile souvenirs at low, low prices: I got a Russian-made Lomo Avtomat camera for $9. A simple three-course lunch: 14 cents. Forgot your toothbrush? That’ll be a fifth of a penny, please.
I’m not much of a shopper, but in Moscow I always seemed to come home with something or other at the end of the day. Two things explain this: First, costs are negligible — a savvy foreigner spending rubles can live comfortably for several weeks on $100. Second, there’s a sense of urgency: Because of lousy distribution, things disappear from store shelves never to return, prompting shoppers to buy as much as possible wherever and whenever items are available. And because of inflation, prices double overnight.
But Russians have their own entrepreneurs, the most fascinating of whom are the speculyanti, or speculators, who buy goods at the low government prices and resell them on the streets for twice the price (or far more). Speculyanti may be anyone from cabbage-sellers working off the back of a farm truck to older people working to support their pensions. These underground traders may also be found literally underground, within the beautiful halls of Moscow’s Metro system. Each metro station celebrates a different Soviet theme, and their names resound with Soviet significance: Communist Youth, Revolutionary Square, October Revolution. Here, struggling to make enough money to survive, these booksellers, flower vendors, milk-, sausage-, and toilet-paper-sellers line up under enormous statues of fierce-looking revolutionaries poised to kill, weapons in hand or in front of beautiful mosaics or murals. The beautiful rail system beneath Moscow’s muddy streets is not just transportation; it’s museums and de facto shopping malls.
Still on my mind
In December, when I returned to Memphis, a friend asked me what I missed most about Russia. I answered without hesitation, “The kids at the orphanage.”
Memories of the children I met in Sosnovka still haunt me. I long to see them again, but more than that, I want to help them. I can no longer sit as comfortably in my home as l once did, knowing that these children must remain in that institution for years and years, until they finally reach the mature age of sixteen and must set out on their own, with little hope of any sort of success.
I think of Sveta, a 16-year-old girl who “graduated” from the orphanage last summer, and spent the year living in a rural Moscow suburb and working at a textile factory, earning only “enough money to eat on some days” — about two dollars a month. She complained of the bed bugs that infested the workers’ dormitory and tormented her at night.
Before I left, she told me that the factory would shut down due to a shortage of cotton. I wonder where she and the others like her are now.
I know that I didn’t cause these children’s strife, nor can I bear the ultimate responsibility for helping them. But they are not responsible either. And I can’t help but think, if I don’t do something to help, who will? Who on the outside even knows about them?
I’ve struggled with this question, and believe now that I understand the nature of my responsibility: to be a messenger. To tell everyone I can reach that the children I know and others like them in orphanages across Russia are in dire need. They need clothing, medicine, and families. And they need to know that somewhere, even somewhere far away, people care.