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.





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:

russian subway statues large

One looks above and sees their images on ceiling mosaics.


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.