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.




12 thoughts on “Old People, Begging

  1. I’m so impressed and moved by your deep dive into understanding what’s going on. So many places in this world beg for our understanding and call for us to keep open to compassion. I fail at this most of the time. I don’t think I can do anything to help these poor old Russian people, betrayed by their societies and leadership. I can struggle to stay open to compassion here but I am so aware that compassion merely felt amounts to nothing, if action doesn’t follow. So, always, the question is: how best to act?

  2. Hi Terry, Great report on what is such a bitter/sweet experience. I also feel bad for the millions there who were and continue to be betrayed by so called leadership. You have chosen a huge nut to try to crack open. Such history, so many political, social and religious changes in only the last 100 years!!
    I would be totally overwhelmed, but keep at it. I look forward to reading your future posts on this.

    1. Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment which I somehow never replied to (?!) A huge nut indeed . It’s funny isn’t it? The more you learn about something the more you want to learn. I share your feelings of compassion for the long-suffering Russian people .

  3. You are amazing..i am speechless as i read all that you have read…i who only has one book to Read for each month, can’t seem to find the time before I fall asleep.. Russia was great and yet so sad..you are right…the quest to know more.. We just saw the movie Dunkirk and i went running to the internet and maps when i came home Ever kid should be made to see some of these moments of our lives so this will never happen But we can only hope…. I wish we had hours to discuss this.. you are fascinating . I love to listen to you and my david Pour over the knowledge that you have.. Where is out next adventure???? We need to conquer more of the world and understand it. Miss you Love m

    http://www.martitalbot.blogspot.com “Travels with Marti”


    1. I miss you too! Let’s plan a get-together soon. We haven’t been yet to see Dunkirk. I’m going to have to take David by the ear and PULL him to the local cinema!

  4. Terri, another book you might consider is The Thousand Days by Harrison Salisbury( I think). It’s a searing account of the Siege of Leningrad during World War II. Don’t know if you got over to Piskoyevskii Cemetery in St Petersburg, but the mass graves there are heartbreaking. So many died of starvation irnombing if they were on the wrong side of the Nevsky Prospekt.

    1. Wow thanks for this recommendation Betsy! At the moment I’m eyes deep in some 19th century American histories and memoirs but I will surely circle back now to this book. Now I feel I can’t STOP reading about Russia. I love not writing for the paper anymore because it means I have the time to just keep learning and learning . 🙂

    2. Betsy I never thanked you for this (but I did immediately look it up and it’s now in my Kindle queue!) I missed that cemetery. That’s what’s bad about these fancy riverboat tours: They are all so *curated* such thatthere just IS no free ranging except within the little playpen they set you down in .

  5. I really enjoyed reading your posts about your trip to Russia. It is interesting to see what (we) foreigners notice in a country that is not the one we are accustomed to. I actually moved to Russia a year ago and a few months later I started a blog about my impressions of “the largest country on Earth”. I would love to know what you think about it.
    There is a post in particular that I think you might enjoy, as it is on the same theme as yours, but “with a twist”, and it is a real story. https://rttl.me/2017/06/22/not-for-me/

    1. Niccolo I loved looked at your website and seeing Russia through your very clear eyes. The narrative you provide, as with the summer day in St. Petersburg, is also wonderfully informative. I had to tear myself away just now to get ready for work! THANK YOU and good luck in your new country with your new bride. 🙂

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