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.

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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.

AN ELDERLY RUSSIAN MAN SELLS CUCUMBERS AT THE ROADSIDE.

 

 

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Moscow Under the Ground

Komsomolskaya metro station

The Metro stations that form a ring around Moscow are famous for their beauty, and indeed they are beautiful. Opened during the rule of Joseph Stalin in the 1930s and ’40s, they  boast marble walls, frescoed ceilings and, most stunningly, an array of larger-than-life sculptures depicting the people of this vast country.

As history teaches us, this stunning civic effort was undertaken in the decades just following the 1917 overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, ‘overthrow’ being the polite and highly inaccurate word for what really happened eight months later when Czar Nicholas and Princess Alexandra together with their five children and four family retainers were roused from sleep by the Bolsheviks and ushered, in their light summer garments, down to a basement room, where they were shot and stabbed, stripped and mutilated, burned and buried in two graves not discovered until that bloody century’s second-to-last decade. (Ah, piteous story that! And weren’t they darling children to judge by the pictures and the few silent films one can find, the youngest a boy and his four sisters as lovely and innocent a quartet of budding youthful beauty as anyone could imagine. (Did the head of the Bolshevik Party leader Vladimir Lenin in fact order these executions?  Lenin, whose noble visage presides of countless Russian squares and public parks? Lenin ,whose frequently-tinkered-with remains can still be viewed inside the walls of the Kremlin today? The debate on that issue still rages.)

the romanov girl

But this mass slaying is not what the tourist is invited to dwell on in modern-day Russia, any more than one is encouraged to dwell on the unparalleled Stalinist butchery that followed.

The visitor to Russia is invited instead to look at the country’s past with a soft-focus lens; to look on the high purpose of the Communist party ideal and not its reality as that reality played out in the years between 1917 and 1991.  And maybe it is easier to do that if one is a regular visitor to the Moscow underground and has the chance to daily pass these stunning likenesses of the Soviet men and women, the watchers and the workers, the miners and the laborers and the tillers of the soil, who first literally built and then later defended their country.  And they defeated Hitler, yes, but they did so at the cost of some 26 million of their number. 26 million!

All I can tell you is that I was deeply moved regarding these works of art.  They are that heroic, plain and simple.

One looks ahead, and they are here:

ploshchad revolyutsii metro stop

One looks behind, and they are there:

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One looks above and sees their images on ceiling mosaics.

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Stopping to stand with each one, even as busy commuters bustled past, I felt the urge, almost, to weep.

There was a fine ideal at play in the former Soviet Union, a fact that need acknowledging that. As one older Russian put it in a conversation with Nobel Prize-winning oral historian Svetlana Alexievich, “‘Under communism, in the words of Lenin, the cook ran the state! Workers, dairymaids, and weavers were in charge!…I was born in the USSR, and I liked it there. My father was a communist. He taught me how to read with Pravda. Every holiday, we’d go to the parades, with tears in our eyes.”

Or, as another person whom Ms. Alexievich interviewed said, “Remember the Soviet place names, Metallurgists Avenue, Enthusiasts Avenue, Factory Street, Proletariat Street? The little man was the most important one around!”

(Was he though? Was the little man really the most important one around under Communist rule or were the workers only told that?)

In spite of the many artistic tributes to this ‘little man’ I would say, based both on what I saw during my time in Russia and on what I have read in the six weeks since returning home to the States, that the little man is and has been quite UNimportant in the 26 years since Communism was replaced by the brutish sort of capitalism on view in that country today. And it goes without saying that now, in modern-day Moscow, Factory Street and Proletariat Street and Metallurgist Avenue are not to be found on any city maps.

Russia, on Closer Inspection

I saw things in Russia, yes, but I saw them from a distance. I saw them either as they were offered to us through the refracted lens of our Viking tour guides, or as I gazed out with my own eyes from the decks of the beautifully appointed ship on which we journeyed through that vast country’s northwesterly parts.

From on deck I saw both swelling waters with pastoral landscapes….

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….and intimate-looking villages such as this one.

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On the one morning that I didn’t keep the light-cancelling stateroom drapes drawn and so woke fully up at 4am, I caught a spectacular sunrise and even at that early hour saw householders patiently fishing for their breakfasts.

I also saw from on deck this abandoned building, just between two other tidy structures, and I’ll admit that the contrast took me aback some.

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Then this same juxtaposition was on display once again, on one of our long land days, when we spent time in the village of Uglich.

Near the end of our walking tour there, we were meant to take 20 minutes to enjoy the riverside vistas and ponder  the local art.  All I could do, however, was to study the burned-out house just across the street from the riverbank:

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The contrast seemed so pronounced: On my right hand side, pretty awninged booths offering exquisite hand-painted jewelry boxes and delicate watercolor depictions of St. Basil’s Cathedral; and on my left, this scene of  devastation.

What seemed especially strange to me was the fact that no official attention had been paid to these burned remains. It was as if the building was invisible to the people parking their cars here.

Here in the States you couldn’t even get near a place in this condition. It would be boarded up, and even the lot it sat on would be crisscrossed with yellow crime tape.

In the States you couldn’t so much as look inside such a building, but here?

Well, you can see for yourself: I could have crawled right in this window if I’d had a mind to (and if I were fearless and/or insane) for here it all was, open to its god as the saying goes, and open too to any interlopers bent on the scavenger’s task.

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And so it was that on this day, fully halfway through my two-week visit to Russia, I began to realize that this whole Russian trip would be offering a study in contrasts. Tune in tomorrow for specifics and the decidedly darker chapters my curiosity had me turning to.

No Easy Life

One day, traversing Lake Onega on our way from St. Petersburg to Moscow, we stopped at the island of Kizhi, a remote windswept spot first settled in the 1400s, where there now exists the Unesco World Heritage site known as Kizhi Pogost. Here, we saw this fairytale of a church constructed centuries ago entirely of wood without the use of so much as single nail.

church of the transfiguration

It still reminds me of nothing so much as the popsicle-stick houses we kids used to make at summer camp and yet with the help both of the Soviet government 50 years and today’s careful restorers it has survived winter snows and icy winds since it was erected in 1714.

Here on Kizhi, we saw historical impersonators practicing ancient arts. This short video I took shows a woman who that day was submitting brittle stalks of vegetation through the exceedingly long  (three, or four, or 27-for-all-I-know)  part process that would eventually render it into thread. (And to think I complain about the three days it takes to get a dress I have ordered online!)

I watched fascinated as such ancient crafts were practiced by these modern Russian citizens – and I wished neither for the first or last time that I could speak their language, as they surely did not speak mine.

Our tour guide, however, did speak English and she spoke it very well. Here she is describing how the people stayed alive on this island where arable land was so valuable and so scarce due to the very short growing season, that exactly none of it could be set aside for pasturage. A book I just referenced tells me that “because only small parts of Russia are south of 50° north latitude and more than half of the country is north of 60° north latitude, extensive regions experience six months of snow cover over subsoil that is permanently frozen to depths as far as several hundred meters (italics mine.) The average yearly temperature of nearly all of European Russia is below freezing, and the average for most of Siberia is freezing or below. Most of Russia has only two seasons, summer and winter, with very short intervals of moderation between them.”

What she is saying, in case her accent it too thick for you, is that before they skinnied out entirely, any horses and cows that villagers owned would be transported to the mainland on wee fragile crafts like this one so as to have at least some chance of staying alive.

a villager's old boat

Staying alive remains very much a concern in many parts of our world of course.

Assured survival has never been part of life and certainly we in the west are kidding ourselves if we think it is.

As Shakespeare says “we owe God a death,” each and every one of us. But in the meantime, we can build beauty like this, that can outlast our own short moments in the light.

Russia from on Board Ship

At 6 o’clock every night as we sailed along on our route from St. Petersburg to Moscow,  we passengers would be gathered like baby ducklings for an update about what we’d soon be seeing.

One night the talk went like this – and I should say I purposely pointed my camera outside at the ship’s deck rather than at the speaker’s face so that I could better focus later on the cool throaty sound of his Russian-accented English:

Our man was talking here about the Moscow By Night tour, which I turned out to skip, on account of how wiped out I felt after our Moscow By Day outings. By that point I had been marched through so many civic buildings, monasteries and churches I’d begun to feel that if never again saw another icon in my life I would still be able to draw half a dozen of them from memory, because there are just so very many images of New Testament apostles, Old Testament patriarchs and members of the Holy Family lining the walls of all these holy places: a whole race of sorrowful-looking, skinny-faced folks with improbably dark tans.

Here, for example, is a typical Mary-and-Jesus pair: russian icons

And here below you will see  one of our party, my own mate in fact, walking in the tourist’s typical ‘let’s-get-this-done’ fashion through one such sacred space. (I speak of the man facing away, the man with the white hair – and you may also note that all the women wear requisite scarves while even some dopey guy with a mullet gets to go bareheaded.

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So there was this aspect to our trip, where it was all your typical foreign-visitor stuff, with hordes of tourists jostling one another to snap more pictures than even Mother Teresa would lack the patience to look through later. One night we Viking Cruisers got hand-carried in our fancy coach into the heart of St. Petersburg for a cooked-down performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and were the only people in the little jewel-box of a theatre. Another night we were transported to the hills above Moscow for an evening of music where again the passengers on our ship constituted the entire audience.

Here are some of our shipmates waiting for the curtain to rise and those long-legged tuu-tuu’d swans to skitter out onto the stage.

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So as I say, it was all typical tourist stuff. But then something happened. At some point, very slowly, there surfaced, for me, another aspect of this two-week trip.

And that is the part I’ll be writing about in the days ahead.

What Big Eyes

img_3751In one of the little towns on our Waterways of the Czars tour of Russia, we visit an actual school, where one is struck by the disparities: 800 children, ages six to seventeen, gather five days a week in a building that looks to have been built by a team of inebriates wearing blindfolds. There aren’t a lot of right angles, in other words, and many of the lintels seem to slant and dip. And yet, the curriculum appears to run circles around our typical courses of study.

Here on the left and below, a typical classroom, not at all fancy, as you can see.

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And yet our Russian tour guide has this to say about the curriculum, “The pupil’s courses are compulsory, yes?

“They study the Physics, the Chemistry, the Mathematics, the Literatures.

“All children are also studying the English beginning in Fifth grade and in high school are adding a second foreign language to that, either French to German, yes.’

My guess, based on information we have so far exchanged in the last week?  That of the 25 well-fed Yanks stuffed into these slender desks not a one speaks or understands Russian. We are spotless in our ignorance.

Next, we file into a small auditorium which I suspect also serves as lunchroom and gym as the auditorium did in my own 1960s elementary school. (We called it the Cafetorium, in my mind a wonderfully jaunty, sort of Jetson-ish Space Age name. ) Here, three young girls in peasant garb sing us a lengthy folk song, during which, at regular intervals the music calls for periodic vocal yips which the girls dutifully provide even as their faces remain bland. They also swing little wooden gadgets back and forth that look like miniature venetian blinds and make the kind of clattering sound you might get on tossing a handful of Scrabble tiles down a set of stairs. The girls sing, yip and clatter for a good five minutes before bowing, shyly and adorably, and hurrying off the stage, offer us the chance to buy fanciful cloth dolls which both the boy and girl students have themselves sewn.

The dolls are female dolls, all with voluminous skirts and THIS one, we are told, is Little Red Riding Hood. But one has only to upend her, toss back her skirts and – whoops! – here under the ruffles of her petticoats is the child’s own grand-mama,  of ‘What Big Eyes You Have’ fame! She has spectacles and grey hair covered by a babushka. Another flip of the wrist, yet more tumbling and here appears the head of the Big Bad Wolf in all his ferocity!

Many of our group buy one. I do not, I think because as a child in the long ago Ozzie and Harriet years I had the American version of this doll which always unsettled me.

On our way out of the schoolhouse, we pass a handmade poster honoring a young graduate of this school who, serving the Russian army, was killed in Chechnya. In this portrait, dressed in his new uniform, he gazes manfully at the camera and we study his gaze. His story, carefully inked in block writing around his image, remains a mystery to us however, as people who can neither speak nor read the language of this country.

As we depart the school building, small and antiquated looking as it is with the cords for its electronics stretching from here to there in a way that no stateside Fire Marshall would allow, I get the feeling that these 800 children have minds far more fully furnished than our own minds here in the ‘Like Me, Buy Me, Like Me’ west.

And it comes to me at the door that perhaps the reversible doll unsettles me still not for any Freudian beast-under-the-skirts reason but because it reminds me uncomfortably of the ostrich, who also hides his head so as not to acknowledge what he does not wish to acknowledge.

russan wolf doll

 

That’s MISTER Jackass to You

fullsizeoutput_446cHeard onboard ship as four individuals find themselves lingering for a moment in a stateroom corridor:

Passenger One, pleasantly, after introductions: So what is your husband’s name?

Passenger Two: Jackass.

Passenger One, not having heard quite right:  I’m sorry? You say your husband isn’t traveling with you?

Passenger Two:  Nah Jackass left me years ago for his secretary.

Merry laughter all around.