A Last Word

wounded in leningradThis picture illustrates in a woefully small way what the people of Russia went through in the last century, one such horror being this Great Patriotic War – World War II to us – that cost some 20 million of them their lives.

The once beautiful city of St. Petersburg became Leningrad after Czar Nicholas II was overthrown in 1917 and it was renamed. Then, just 25 years after that, this ‘Leningrad’ became…. a graveyard: Hitler’s Nazi troops laid siege to the city in early September of 1941 and held it by the throat until the end of January in 1944.

For those 900 days, it was surrounded. Supplies of coal and oil were cut off. Then, because the siege began in the autumn, the cold weather began bearing down, bringing nights below freezing as early as in October.

As winter set in for real, and with no heat source, the pipes all froze.

There was almost no food. Potable water was scarce.

And then there were the daily shellings.

Amongst The Rubble

According to an account by someone who lived through this unimaginable time in Leningrad, the unlucky souls who collapsed in the streets in the morning were just a few more snow-covered mounds by night. Even after the ground thawed enough to allow for burial, the dead were interred without coffins, their families standing by hollow-eyed and in silence. One witness to this history reports that “on the whole men collapsed more easily than women, and at first the death-rate was highest among men.” Was that because women have more adipose tissue you wonder? He goes on: “However, the women felt the after-effects more seriously than the men. They stopped menstruating and many died in the spring, when the worst was already over.”

People no longer smiled, it was reported. The city’s four-legged creatures began to disappear, killed and eaten, even the rats. By some silent accord it was agreed that one would not speak of ‘real’ food. In the end, by the time the siege was lifted ,fully a million of the city’s residents had died.

It is hard for us Americans to even imagine this kind of suffering. I have learned from reading my own family’s diaries and letters that during that 900-day period here in the States my mother was pursuing her life as a hale and energetic woman running the family business, ordering all the food, hiring and managing staff and maintaining its 120-acre grounds. Her 70-something father was, for his part, still happily working as an attorney and a district court judge and keeping a journal in which he marked the comings and goings of the birds he looked for on his long strolling walks.

It’s true that there was some privation stateside: gasoline was rationed, as were shoes. Butter also ‘went to war’ so folks had to make do with oleo.

But as far as I have been able to learn, people didn’t go hungry ,and women didn’t stopped menstruating because their bodies had shut down all functions not necessary for survival. In fact mother and my aunt were living so far from survival mode that they were still delivering babies well into their 40s.

Here is my mom now, pregnant with her first child a few months after Victory over Japan Day in August of 1945. (VE, or Victory in Europe day had of course occurred the previous April.)  The only thing World War II did to her was to deliver to her doorstep the blue-eyed coast Guard officer who would one day become my father.

mom 6 mos pregnant

I’ve been home from Russia for more than two months now but I still can’t entirely process what I’ve learned about its history. There was this war, and then there was rule of Stalin who with his purges and the famines his decrees caused brought about  the deaths of another 20 million people – and 20 is the conservative estimate. Then there were the grim years under Khrushchev, and Andropov, Brezhnev and  Chernenko. Then came Gorbachev in the 80s with his talk of Perestroika and Glasnost but all that ended with his resignation when first Yeltsin and finally Putin took up the reins of authority.

Now, those Russians who remember the Soviet era look back in a kind of sad wonderment at all that has changed in their country and in their lives.

“The Soviet regime?” recalled one in Secondhand Time, The Last of The Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. “It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than what we have today. Worthier. Overall, I was satisfied with socialism: No one was excessively rich or poor; there were no bums or abandoned children. Bela Shayevich who was Secondhand Time ‘s English translator, called the book a kind of update of 19th-century Russian literature for the 21st century. “People read Russian novels not for the happy endings because there is great catharsis in great pain and then something that is sublime.” I get that.

But then what happened? The abandonment. The Save Your Own Life phase of Russian living that arrived almost overnight. It had a devastating effect on the people:

“Imagine working that hard, your whole life, only to end up with nothing. All of it took the ground out from underneath people, their world was shattered; they still haven’t recovered, they couldn’t assimilate into the drastically new reality. When they started selling salami at the privately owned stores, all of us ran over to ogle it. And that was when we saw the prices! This was how capitalism came into our lives… Wild, inexplicable avarice took hold of everyone. The smell of money filled the air. Big money. And absolute freedom—no Party, no government. Everyone wanted to make some dough, and those who didn’t know how envied those who did.”

“I get indignant whenever people start talking about Marxism with disdain and a knowing smirk,” says another. “It’s a great teaching, and it will outlive all persecution, and our Soviet misfortune, too. It wasn’t just about labor camps, and informants, and the Iron Curtain, it’s a bright, just world, where everything is shared, the weak are pitied, and compassion rules. Instead of grabbing everything you can, you feel for others. ”

I find this last the most touching part of all: the feeling we all have about what our country could be. I think of a section from Reg Saner’s short poem “Green Feathers” which expresses our universal longing:

In the early air we keep trying to catch sight of something lost up ahead,

A moment when the light seems to have seen us exactly as we wish we were.

Like a heap of green feathers poised on the rim of a cliff?

Like a sure thing that hasn’t quite happened?

Like a marvelous idea that won’t work?

Routinely amazing –

How moist tufts, half mud, keep supposing almost nothing is hopeless.

How the bluest potato grew eyes on faith the light would be there.

And it was.

We all still look for that light and we pray, like the small and buried potato, that it will one day reveal itself to our sight.

Even More to Learn

lenin for sale

Soon I’ll go back to reporting on the kind of personal, certainly more trivial, thoughts I have been posting on this site for the last ten years – although even on the subject of Russia I seem capable of great foolishness: I found in my notes just now the observation that on sampling a thimbleful of homemade hooch at a Russian couple’s home, I felt my eyebrows instantly pluck themselves. But how can I end this series without offering one last glimpse of what I saw and learned in my brief stay in this vast country, only the small northwest portion of which I actually visited?

The answer is, I can’t.

One thing I have learned with all the reading I have done about the place, both during my two weeks in the country and during the two months since my return, is how sharply its citizens feel their loss of status since the time when Gorbachev, in their minds, simply ‘caved’, as they see it, ‘giving away’ much of their nuclear might along with their standing in the world. A further shame-inducing is the fact that this country, so vast, so rich in natural resources, today stands in only 12th place for GNP according to the International Monetary Fund’s annual tally. That’s after the US, the EU, China, Japan, Germany, the UK, France, India, Italy, Brazil, Canada and South Korea.

A woman interviewed by author Svetlana Alexievich in 2011 about the brief moment of hope after the Soviet Union was first dissolved put it this way. At first, she said, “everyone had very high hopes for the future. I remember the conversations we had in the staff room: ‘Socialism is ending – what’s next?’ ‘Bad socialism is over, now we’re going to have a good socialism.’ We waited… Pored over the newspapers… Pretty soon my husband lost his job and they shut down the Institute. It was a sea of unemployed people, all of them with college degrees. The kiosks appeared, then the supermarkets where they had everything, like in a fairytale, only there was no money to buy any of it. I’d go in and come right back out. I’d get two apples and an orange when the kids were sick.

“How are we supposed to get used to this? Accept that it’s how things are going to be from now on? How? It hurts your pride. That’s why people seem so tired these days. God forbid you were born in the USSR but live in Russia!”

The wealth in Russia is now concentrated at the very top. It is held by the oligarchs, as this gangster class is euphemistically called since the early 90s. That’s when the State stepped away from ownership of the factories, the farms, the oil and the gas, and this class of enterprising bandits stepped in to grab everything up.

Oh, to be sure, Moscow today shines like a jewel. It’s the prime showcase for all this wealth. But Moscow is also the place where, as our Russian tour guide advised us, the great preponderance of housing lies miles beyond the means of all but the very prosperous. And the GUM store, situated in Red Square formerly the world’s largest department store? The GUM store is a department store no more. Now it is merely an immense Fabergé egg of an indoor mall housing shops that as far as I can tell, not even prosperous tourists can afford to patronize. I spent two hours in the place, walking past the Louis Vuitton store, the Cartier store, the stores under signs reading ‘Pierre Cardin’ and ‘Versace’ and ‘Hermès’ and did not see a single soul in the process of purchasing anything in any one of them. I saw only the sales personnel inside and the security personnel standing at the doorways. As one disillusioned Russian said in an interview “Right now there’s a commercial on TV for copper bathtubs that cost as much as a two-bedroom apartment. Could you explain to me exactly who they’re for?”

Oh but see here, the government will say, the older folks still get their pensions. Only the skyrocketing inflation that followed the dissolution of the USSR almost immediately rendered those pensions worthless. As one older woman told oral historian Svetlana Alexievich “There IS no surviving on today’s pensions. What can you afford on them? You get yourself some bread and milk, and then there isn’t enough left over for slippers. It’s just not enough! Old people used to sit on the benches in their courtyards, carefree. Prattling. Not anymore. Some collect empty bottles around town, others stand in front of the church, begging. Some sell sunflower seeds or cigarettes at the bus stop…”

I saw those begging elders, as I wrote in my last post. I also saw countless other Russians at these kiosks or under improvised canopies or just out in the open, attempting to sell what they could sell – and for sure most were NOT the glowing young people such as the one pictured at the top of this post.

Some, like this grimacing man, sell trinkets outside the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, this on the June day when it was 38 degrees with a windswept sleet and all of us tourists were quivering like so many aspen trees.


Some sell CD’s outside the Catherine Palace, like this versatile gent who exemplifies three different ways to sing for one’s supper, all in this 14-second video.

Maybe you can even argue that the Russian husband and wife we met are in the business of selling their very privacy – to the touring company that brought us to them – in the sense that many times a month they allow the various tour boats’ large cushy couches to lumber down their narrow rutted road and visit them for a mid-morning snack.

The man of this couple built the house himself, with the help of his dad, he told us through our interpreter-guide, adding rooms one by one over the years so that it is made of several different materials. Out in back, the two have a small vegetable garden, and chickens, and a tiny screen house that would maybe fit two webbed 1970s-style lawn chairs but when we were there was being used to store a bent plastic baby pool propped up on its side.

They showed us some family photographs, like their wedding picture below…


…and with great grace they offered us food: half a piece of toast and a slice of cheese apiece, as well as a cut of an oblong pastry lathered in a red glaze.

Oh and a plate of the ubiquitous pickles you find everywhere in Russia.

And, to wash it all down, shots of that powerful hooch.


But as I noted at the start here, it isn’t mainly the straitened circumstances under which most folks live that they find so disheartening. For those old enough to remember, it is also the sense of all that is lost – and that topic I can address in greater detail tomorrow.

Old People, Begging

IMG_3796On my recent trip to Russia I saw so many lovely sights, both in St. Petersburg and in Moscow, both on the waterways linking the two cities and finally in the city of  Sergiyev Posad, some 90 minutes northwest of Moscow.

Here, in this last place, stand several churches within the walls of a monastery said to be the spiritual centre of the Russian Orthodox Church, which these days, I can tell you, is doing a booming business: Ordinary citizens stand for whole hours together waiting to get into the holiest sites here, in order to pray and commune with the icons. I watched as the they stood, patient long queues of elders and children and people of every age in between. I watched  as they lifted receptacles to catch a little of the holy water from the fountain in the ‘square’ around which all these churches stand.

The site in summer was nothing short of breathtaking.


And in winter, from a distance like this, it simply glows.

sergiev posad in winter

It’s when you walk outside the monastery walls and no longer stand at a distance, that you see something:

You see people begging, old people, stooped and bent.

I myself saw old people, and especially old women, again and again at the edges of the prime tourist sites in Russia. They never looked up; they all each just held out the battered cup into which they hoped you might drop a couple of rubles.

But who were they? Who are they? Simple math tells us they are among the Russian men and women who survived it all, from World War Two to Stalin’s disastrous collectivization plan and purges and, on into this century, the spying of neighbor upon neighbor and the arrests.

Quite obviously, these things did not kill the people I saw, yet the way they live struck me as a kind of death. What was going on here? By the time I came home from our one-percenters’ tour of Russia  knew I had a lot to learn. I had enrolled in an eight-week course in Russian history before I left and had in that context taken reams of notes and pored over both our textbook and our many handouts. Still, by the time I got to the end of my visit to Russia itself I knew I understood very little.

And so, on returning in mid-June, I began reading and I have been reading ever since.

I read a book on Russia’s cultural history. I read War and Peace. I read a book about Chechnya. While I was ‘in country’,  I read Secondhand Time, a vivid firsthand account of what happened to the real people, in their own words, after Communist ideals were replaced by the cutthroat capitalism that took over when everything that had been controlled by the state was offered for private ownership. It’s an oral history very much in the Studs Terkel vein compiled by Belarussian writer and Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich who returned again and again to the people she interviewed, to be sure she understood all that they were trying to convey to her.

I read the whole book on my Kindle, got to the end and read it all again. Then I sent away for the print edition and read that. From this book I learned of the privation the common people have suffered, with the inflation that followed quickly on the great move away from State-owned industry.

Older people have suffered most especially, these survivors of the Great Patriotic War as World War Two is called therem this war that killed 60 million people worldwide, 20 million of whom were Soviet citizens.

Inflation has reduced these elders’ benefits so drastically that as one interview subject put it in her conversation with Ms. Alexievich, ““There is no surviving on today’s pensions. You get yourself some bread and milk, and then there isn’t enough left over for slippers. It’s just not enough. Old people used to sit on the benches in their courtyards, carefree. Prattling.

“Not anymore. Some collect empty bottles around town, others stand in front of the church, begging. Some sell sunflower seeds or cigarettes at the bus stop.”

This man is selling cucumbers. To judge by the many kiosks that have sprouted up everywhere, there’s very little that isn’t for sale – but there’ll be more to say about that in my next post.