On 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.
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.