Life in a New Russia: St. Petersburg

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Aunt Luba July 3, 2009

Filed under: aspic,Callisia fragrans,Homeopathic medicine,Order of Lenin,Penza — mdoukmas @ 3:00 pm

The first thing my grandmother’s sister Luba said to me was “Well! You’re not nearly as fat as you looked on your pictures!” The first thing my grandmother said to her was “Luba! Aren’t you wearing a bra?!” After affirming that she was, Aunt Luba pushed us all into the largest room of her Penza apartment and started accosting my grandmother.

“I know you’re older than me Valia,” she said “but I couldn’t believe it when I heard that you were visiting our people in Saransk and you weren’t even planning to come see me!” This was true. Although the city of Penza is just a two-hour drive away, my grandmother had not originally planned to see her sister whom she hadn’t visited since 2003.

“You know my heart isn’t as healthy as yours!” she continued, “So as long as you’re able to, you’ve got to make the effort Valia!” The entire scene was made more humorous by the uncanny, twin-like resemblance of the two sisters. My grandmother accepted her younger sister’s scolding meekly and then waved her hand and proposed to move on to a different subject.

Aunt Luba and her husband Uncle Petia live in a small, Kruschev-era apartment in the center of Penza. There were carpets all over the walls and plants cramped everywhere throughout the rooms. Aunt Luba loves homeopathic medicine. From gigantic cacti to extensive Basket Plant colonies, she knows the methods of cultivation, extraction, and consumption of all of her plants and was eager to share her knowledge on how to cure just about any ailment.

The other thing she loves to do is hassle her husband, who has gotten used to it after decades of conjugal life and throughout most of our visit sat at the head of the table, cracking witty jokes and laughing at Aunt Luba’s beseeching.

Before retiring Uncle Petia was a highly prized worker at a factory in Pneza. He was even decorated by the Order of Lenin, the highest award given to Soviet civilians for outstanding service to the state. Large photographic portraits of him with his medals can be seen throughout the apartment.

Aunt Luba’s health has been deteriorating with age (despite her consumption of homeopathic remedies), and she often calls emergency medical services to her apartment. But in the room where she receives the doctors, a portrait of herself has been conspicuously superimposed on the portrait of Uncle Petia. “They told me I’d get killed for that Order of Lenin,” she explained, “if anyone I have coming in here saw that photograph. So I covered the medals with a picture of myself!”

At dinner we were joined by Aunt Luba’s oldest daughter and her daughter, as well as the cousins from Saransk. We ate family staples such as potato salad, meatballs, and aspic and listened to stories of Uncle Petia’s forgetfulness.

“A couple of weeks ago, he went to get his pension and after coming back home, he put the money and his passport somewhere and couldn’t find it!” Aunt Luba exclaimed.

“Why do you bring your passport with you?” my Mom inquired.

“Well, I needed to get the pension and they won’t give it to me without my passport,” he explained.

Their daughter Lena also chimed in, explaining that she even came over from work and helped her father look for the passport all over the house. “We dug all over the house! He even went to the police to put in a report, just in case it was stolen or something. Then, at 11:30pm he calls me up and says ‘I found it!'”

“Uncle Petia! You should just put it in the same place every time so you don’t forget,” my Mom advised.

“He knows perfectly well where we keep this stuff!” Aund Luba said, “In the kitchen, in a plastic bag, behind the butter in the refrigerator!”

It wasn’t really made clear by anyone why she keeps her important documents back there. The cacophonous discussion of the sisters’ money-storing habits, as well as the careless attitudes of the other family members towards them continued for some time. In the end Uncle Petia was the odd one out, as usual.

“You know, I looked it up in the encyclopedia, and I know what his problem is.” Aunt Luba concluded, “He’s got a bad head, that’s what they call ‘dementia’!”

The clearly lucid Uncle Petia only shrugged his shoulders.

Before leaving Aunt Luba initiated us into the methods of making Basket Plant extract which, as she said, “cures everything, and boosts the immune system.”

Basket Plant – (Callisia fragrans). Also known as золотой ус, or “golden whisker” in Russian – Extract

Take an odd number of runner segments (15 or 17) and soak them in 1/2 liter of Vodka, in a dark place for 2 weeks. Then strain and drink one teaspoon of extract before every meal!


70, Sovetskaya Street June 28, 2009

Filed under: kolkhoz,Mordovia,Russian industry,Russian village — mdoukmas @ 1:41 am

My grandmother was raised in a “5-wall” house at 70, Sovetskaya Street in the Mordovian village of Sabur Machkassi about 60 km from the city of Saransk. In 1926 Sabur Machkassi was considered a large village with a street and a half lined with houses and a large kolkhoz which employed virtually the entire population of the village.

My grandmother frequently remembers how hard everyone worked. Her grandfather was considered a kulak and was sent away to Siberia in the 20s. But as his convoy approached the prison camp Stalin’s article “Dizziness with Success” was published in Pravda, and my great-great-grandfather’s convoy was turned around. He came back to the remnants of of his large tin-roofed house which at the time consisted of a solitary corner of two white-washed walls.

My grandmother was baptized in the village church and she remembers her first communion. The bread soaked in church wine tasted so bad that she could not swallow it. “When I came out of the church, I spit it out and my mother slapped me so hard!” She also recalls how some time later, she watched as the church steeple was broken down and a granary was set up in the building by the local authorities. “I never understood why they had to break the roof, why they couldn’t have kept the building as it was and stored grain in it if that was so necessary…” she said when we came to see the now-restored church building.

My mother and grandmother and I took the trip from Saint Petersburg to visit my grandmother’s sister’s grave in Sabur Machkassi. Aunt Tonya was the oldest of the four girls in my grandmother’s family and passed away in August. Since the time of the WWII Sabur Machkassi has seen a slow exodus of its residents to nearby towns and to Saransk, yet traces of the old village, and of my family, still remain.

After seeing the haphazard village cemetery, in which all of the grave markers were painted in light blue, we visited the home of my grandmother’s cousin’s daughter Lusia. She was a woman in her late 60s with magnificent, crystal-clear blue eyes. Lusia took us around her impressive household which included a large house, land with an orchard and vegetable patches, and an array of animals including cows, goats, broiler hens, rabbits, and a pig who we only heard grumbling in the darkness of its pen. At dinner we were joined by her daughter-in-law Lena who is a teacher at the village school.

“I teach at the elementary school level, 1st through 4th grade” she said, “all the subjects.”
The village school has ten teachers and nine grade levels. There are 30 students at the school. This year there were five graduates, and four new students came in. To complete all eleven grades and obtain a high school diploma, the most motivated kids have to finish school at a nearby town. “Those who do well go on to study at the university in Saransk,” Lena said, “others go to the vocational school in Komsomolskoe.”

“My husband used to teach history but he doesn’t any more. When he left the school we had very little money, and small salaries,” she said. Her husband Slava now works at the cement factory nearby which has replaced the kolkhoz as the largest employer in the area.

“The factory is in disarray right now, lots of people have been laid off. It’s horrible! They do pay regularly, but the salaries have been cut. It all has to do with the crisis probably.” She paused for a while. “Or maybe there’s no crisis at all, and they’re just making a big deal over nothing. I don’t know.” There are no strikes however and the population lives more or less at the mercy of the factory employers.

Lena was born in the larger village of Chamsinka close to Sabur Machkassi. “I finished college in Saransk and then was sent over here to work in the school. I worked for a year and then Slava came to work.” Now she lives with her husband and two kids in the same house as Lusia.

I wondered out loud at what life must be like in such a small village, with its one-and-a-half streets, simple wooden houses and gradually aging population. “It’s not so bad!” Lena and Lusia both said laughing. “If only there was steady work! Otherwise things here are good. It’s calm,” Lena said.

After dinner we all took a stroll down the main street of Sabur Machkassi and came up to number 70. “It looks pretty much the same,” my grandmother confirmed. The current occupant of the house came out at the moment and watched us from the porch. To my disappointment, however, we did not talk to her or ask to see the place. The house now belonged to someone else and even my family’s memories did not give us the right to claim it any longer. As we turned around my grandmother pointed out little concrete shed overgrown by tall grass and lilac bushes. “This is where they used to make us kids sleep in the summer!” she remembered.

Soon after that we left to go back to Saransk and drove past the giant complex of the cement factory with signs that read “MordovCement: Outside of Time.” That evening I mused about our day, visiting relatives living and dead, and about the vast, lush expanses of the Mordovian countryside.

Over the past eighty years these places have been transformed by ideological revolutions, wars, and technological advances. Computers can now be found even in the village homes. The population has been employed by a variety of corporate structures and has seen beaureacrats’ titles change. Religion has been abolished and restored, and people’s lands were taken away only to be re-given. Yet some things remain as they were when my grandmother had to sleep in the shed. The same houses stand, the same wheat is grown in the fields, the church is as it once was, and the grave markers in the cemetery are still blue.

A friend once pointed out to me that in Slavic homes things are always ticking. This is true. Pretty much every Slavic home I know has a clock that ticks in almost every room. That evening, as always, I found the ticking mollifying. At the end of the day, when the house fell silent and sleep was creeping through the rooms, I felt at ease, alone with the relentless, steady, quiet ticking of the passage of time.


An insider’s taste of Russia! June 25, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 1:56 am
Tags: , ,

This is a shadow page of my blog “Life in a New Russia: St. Petersburg.”  Please check me out at:


On The Railroad June 21, 2009

Filed under: Russian railroad,train travel — mdoukmas @ 5:10 pm

There’s something very romantic about traveling on the train. Perhaps it’s the explicit sense of journeying: watching landscapes creep past and change, the rhythmic clanking of the wheels, stopping periodically and seeing old ladies sell pies, beer, and fish. Food on the train always seems to taste better and tea is served in metal podstakanniki, or glass holders. These are the things I imagined before taking the trip to Saransk and my expectations were pretty much on point. The train was actually cleaner than I expected and our companion much more interesting (see story below).

My mother said that the trains were in much better condition than when she used to travel in the 80s. But the window in our compartment was not functioning well and our inability to close it was cause for calling train maintenance.

“I’ve been working on this railroad for a long time, and this kind of stuff happens all the time!” said our car attendant, Galina. The train we were on was old, and small repairs such as ours were left up to the reluctant work of the sour maintenance man who took a very long time in coming. “He does stuff but it’s almost impossible to get him to help out when you need it, he whines all the time!” Galina said.

“The trains to Moscow are better, they try to put better cars on the rails, and we get whatever is left over,” she explained, “I think that these are the same trains that Lenin took to see Krupskaya! You know, some are ok, everything works well and they have modern windows, but this one’s an old lady.”

Galina services the line from Saint Petersburg to Tolyatti, on the Volga River in the Province of Samara. “I used to go to Moscow, then to Adler (in the Sochi region), but I can’t go to Adler any more, I get headaches, it’s too hot and I don’t handle heat well. It’s hot on this line too but it’s still not the south.”

She has been working for Russian Railroads since 1988 and she talked a little about her life in this unusual profession. “You can say nothing has changed [in the past twenty years]. Things used to be simpler,” she said nostalgically, “the railroad is more or less kept up but now with the crisis they’ve stopped maintaining anything at all. Before things would be changed, repaired, and now…there’s no money, no resources…”

Galina was curious about us as well. It seemed that our compartment companion Vladimir Vasilyevich told her that my mother and I had come from America. “The grandpa in your compartment said you guys are coming from America?” she asked and became slightly flustered at my affirmation.

“I’m just asking because I’m thinking you’re probably in shock due to our transport! I told the others, I said ‘they must be shocked! Over there it’s not like it is here!’ It’s probably more civil over there in America…”

She added: “I’m ashamed! Goodness! I said we should be ashamed in front of these people! But then I think ‘Well, they’re ours, they’ll understand their own! They’ve come home after all!’ I already yelled at [the repair man]! What is this!? I was like ‘We’ve got Americans on the train!’ Don’t tell them over there in America about these trains of ours! It’s a shameful sight!”

After this lament about the state of her work place, Galina told me about her schedule and prospect on the railroad. She travels for five days and then has three days off at home in Tolyatti. She gets a 28-day vacation and a free round trip ticket on the train every year.

“But I’m sick of it!” she said, “I have 6 years until retirement, but I don’t know if I’ll work that long. Our medical commission is very hard to pass.” To continue working on the railroad, the attendants have their vision, hearing, balance, vibration and heat sensitivity tested. They also receive an electroencephalogram. “They check us like we’re going into space, and if anything little thing is off, that’s it, we lose the job!”

Those attendants who fail to pass the commission sometimes defer to the few private railroad companies which have appeared in recent years. “I work for Russian Railroads, it’s a state company, it’s a little more serious than the privately owned ones, and we get paid a little more. But even so, we’re not paid very much, especially with the crisis. We used to get a 50% bonus and now it’s down to 20%. At the beginning of 2008 we were getting 17,000-18,000 (about $600) rubles per month, now it may be down to 12,000 (about $400). And I don’t even know how much the retirement pension is.”

It was not always Galina’s dream to be a train attendant. “I’m from Siberia, from the Novosibirsk region,” she said, “then my husband got a job in Tolyatti. First I worked at AvtoVAZ, and then as a secretary, then at a milk factory, then got this job. It seemed so romantic back then! And now I’m so sick of it all!”

Despite this Galina seemed upbeat and caring for the passengers. Eventually, the grouchy, overweight repairman showed up wearing a mesh tank top and dirty pajama pants and fixed our window. We could not open it again until we reached our destination in Saransk, one of the last stops before Tolyatti. Galina hassled him the entire time he was working, but thanked him once he was done. To this he only replied “‘Thank you’? That’s not any kind of currency I’m familiar with.”


Vladimir Vasilyevich June 16, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 10:26 pm

<!– /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:""; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";} @page Section1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:SectioThe next day after we came to St. Petersburg, my mother, my grandmother and I took a trip to visit some relative in Saransk, in the Russian Republic of Mordovia. This is in the central part of the country and it took thirty hours by train to reach our destination. We had a four-person compartment and our companion Vladimir Vasilyevich proved to be an engaging conversationalist. After a while, the four of us got to talking about literature.

Grandmother: Dostoyevsky, he had epilepsy from a young age, and that reflected on his psychological state.

Mom: And so what?

Gm: When you start reading him…

Mom: Mom, stop yelling!

Gm: I can’t hear well, I took my hearing aids out…anyway, you begin reading him, and one phrase, one sentence takes up an entire paragraph! You keep reading and reading and in the end you lose track of where he began and where he ended. It’s hard to read him, very hard.

Mom: Well, what are you going to do?

Gm: Chekhov is good to read, or Tolstoy, but Dostoyevsky is hard.

Vladimir Vasilyevich: I don’t like Tolstoy!

Mom: But nevertheless, Dostoyevsky is the most famous [Russian] writer in the West…

Gm: And now they’re releasing the Brothers Karamazov again…I guess they have nothing better do to…

VV: The thing is that in [Dostoyevsky] you find a special point of view on the contemporary circumstances. You can either accept or reject any point of view that’s written…. And if you look at him, you realize his own state is pretty destabilized…”

He did not stop talking for almost 30 hours. He was a zoologist and professor at the Russian Academy of Science, an expert on invertebrate single-celled organisms. He had an opinion about everything. In first couple of hours of our trip, he spoke profusely on topics ranging from tick varieties, amoeba feeding patterns, salmon mating behavior, the particularities of crocodile blood and stomach acidity, the economic crisis, and the stifling inefficiency of the Russian bureaucracy.

“Russia has plenty of brilliant minds capable of making far greater discoveries than western scientists!” asserted Vladimir Vasilyevich, “The problem is that there’s no money, no grants for equipment and technological development. Nevertheless, people are working.”

He told us about the working conditions of a Russian scientist, bearing in mind that the Academy is the most prestigious research institution in the country and is government-subsidized.

“We do have internet access, but we can’t access a lot of scientific sites for example, because we don’t have the money. That access has to be paid for. But the Academy has no money.” Vladimir Vasilyevich said that he frequently accesses such websites using passwords which he obtains from friends and colleagues in other countries.

“Basically the exchange of scientific information is built on personal contacts and networks. Students’ access to all this information is even more restricted. It’s like the powers that be are trying to prevent people from finding common ground independently of the government. You can’t expect to have some unified absolute anywhere though. It’s impossible to unite any country to have a universal consensus on everything, unless it’s a war.”

After talking on a bit about the continued totalitarian tendencies of the Russian government, he added: “Here’s what’s most annoying to me: When initiatives or ideas are put forward [by the government] the seem really great, but the most important thing is missing: There’s no mechanism for realization!”

My grandmother chimed in at this point:

“Everything will come!” she said.

VV: Nothing will come!

Gm: Yes it will!

VV: No, all I see for the moment is the equivalent to taking out adenoids through the back door.

Gm: Well that’s the kind of mentality we have…

VV: No! Mentality has nothing to do with it!

Gm: We Russians really like…

VV: Let’s not even go there!…I’ve lived my fair share as well, and know lots of people with really good heads on their shoulders, but they’re constantly interfered with! Because their ideas are realizable and efficient, but this pushes a lot of bureaucrats away from the feeding trough! And that’s why people say ‘oh it’s our mentality’! It’s not mentality!

Gm: Well, now we’re under a new regime, so put your ideas forward and everything will be done!

Mom and VV: Nothing will be done! It’s all the same old thing!

VV: Nothing has changed. In the Soviet period financing was impossible to find, and it’s the same thing now. The soviet system made it so that nothing is mine, but everything is ours, so people feel free to steal. There’s no sense of private ownership, no respect of private property. Innovation is stifled by greed!

Dispite his overall criticism of the government, Vladimir Vasilyevich did have something positive to say of Putin: “He is the only one of those high-ranked officials who didn’t try to adjust the constitution to himself.”

At the mention of the current Prime Minister, my grandmother launched into a heart-felt speech about how good he has been to retired people, increasing and promising to continue increasing pensions. Elderly people in the last few years have also been receiving special gifts of food and household items to celebrate Victory Day on May 9th.

Vladimir Vasilyevich mentioned that his pension is only 3,000 rubles per month, or roughly $100.

“I’d rather them return to me what I have given to this country. I don’t need Victory Day gifts!” Even though he is of retirement age, he expects to continue working for as long as he can. The older pensioners like my grandmother, who is 83, are the only ones to receive significant pension raises. Nevertheless she too continues to work one day a week to supplement her income.

If it seemed to him like we were getting tired of talking, Vladimir Vasilyevich would go out for a smoke or talk with someone else in the car. At first he didn’t eat very much but only drank coffee. But by the end of the trip, my Grandmother had completely included him into our meals. We even put his zoological skills to work in inspecting some smoked fish my mom bought at one of the train stops.

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An Inconvenient Truth June 14, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 2:42 pm

May 31, 2009. Saint Petersburg

Upon arrival to my native city I am swiftly reminded of an interesting particularity of daily life in Russia which is shocking once one has been away for a while. Everything is annoyingly inconvenient. There are large ways in which things can be inconvenient, for example inaccessibility of single-family homes, or perhaps the lack of proper infrastructure. But the things that hit me were minor, irritating elements of daily life. Below are a few examples and situations.

Traveling takes its toll – The following series of events I have only seen once in my life, even for Russia this seems an over-the-top inconvenience. Upon exiting the parking lot in front of the airport in Saint Petersburg, you have to stick a little ticket you received when entering the lot into a machine. Standard. If you were there for 15 minutes or less, the parking is free, and the barrier opens to allow you to leave the airport. If the time of your stay exceeded 15 minutes you have to pay. However, the toll booth housing the person to whom the money has to be given is physically situated before the machine into which the parking lot ticket is stuck to know if one has to pay. So, if you do have to pay, you have to put your car in reverse, and pull back to the toll booth to pay the man. But, since there are already a million other cars behind you making it impossible to back up that far, the driver has to squeeze out of the car to go to the booth and pay for his parking time. Only then is the barrier opened, and the vehicle can exit. Since this is quite the mind-boggling scenario, below is a rough diagram illustrating the “flow” of traffic out of the airport parking lot:

There’s only one way out…or in
– Life in the western world has conditioned me to expect that if I see a set of double doors, both sides of the set will be functioning, one to allow traffic into the building and the other for those exiting. Or, if there is a large stretch of building with several sets of double doors, all of them will be open in order to increase the fluidity of traffic. Not so in Russia. Regardless of the amount of doors, the size of the building or the number of people trying to get through, only one door will ever be open. And not one set of doors, but just one side of one set of double doors. Not only does it create an extreme two-way bottleneck effect for no imaginable reason at all, but the phenomenon of passing through the door is preceded by a brief period of frantic rushing from one set of doors to another only to come to the realization that all of them are indeed locked and that to get to where you want to go, you’ll have to squeeze in with the fifty other people already trying to diffuse from one space to another. The only exception to this is the Metro where all doors are always open. This attempt at a man-made semi permeable membrane is also probably against all fire codes, but luckily for the institutions that practice this sort of traffic control, no one is around to enforce them anyway.

Exact exchange – In Russia, it can be surprisingly difficult to spend money, especially if you have large bills on your hands. Quite simply, most establishments that sell anything from groceries to theatre tickets are somehow not equipped with sufficient small moneys to provide change for large bills. Two or three times in any given day people will ask you to provide exact change, or extra coins so that the change can be given in one single bill. The larger your bill (say for example, a 1000 ruble bill), the harder it is to spend it since you just can’t get change. Case in point: When I visited the Anna Akhmatova museum all I had was a 1000 ruble bill. An audio guide cost 80 rubles. I had to go to four different people all over the museum to try to find someone who could give me change. Finally, someone begrudgingly exchanged my bill for a few smaller ones and I could enjoy the museum. The cashier who did mentioned that she probably would not be able to make change for anyone else for the rest of the day.

The Anti-crisis sale – The final thing I’d like to mention is the prevalence of the economic crisis. Talk of the global financial downturn talk can be heard in regular conversations as well as in the public and corporate arenas. Unquestionably, the world crisis is sharply felt in Russia. People are losing jobs, down-sizing businesses, and seeing their assets steadily lose in value. However, one convenience that has been a result of this crisis is the so-called “anti-crisis” promotion. Businesses have been jumping at the opportunity to advertise special discounts in light of the economic situation in the county: Get twice the sushi for half the price!


Train Woman – a flashback vignette of last summer May 17, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — mdoukmas @ 7:38 pm

-“Fuck! Fag sons of bitches!”
-“Yeah, they’re not buying anything!”

One of these two shaggy, red-faced women had just staggered through the train car with a handful of dirty, red-and-green road maps of Saint Petersburg and a long ribbon of lottery tickets. As she came toward my end of the car, dragging her feet haphazardly through the swaying car, she mumbled incoherently about the attributes of her maps. Her dirty brown coat was emblazoned with psychedelic insignia and tribal symbols.

-“She’s drunk out of her mind, she can barely walk,” my grandmother whispered to me when the woman passed us. For some strange reason I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She sat down in between two men on the last bench of the car and tried feebly to sell the maps to one of them. No success. I kept looking. She hung her head and collapsed onto her knees. Then she held her face in one hand and looked up after a moment. Her dirty face, framed by wisps of blond, relatively rare hair, was imprinted with fatigue. She looked out onto the long car and her eyes didn’t look to me like they were inebriated by alcohol. They were red, dim, and desperate. She was fighting down tears.

Then she got up and tried again, shuffling her feet wearily. The train began to slow down and as the doors opened onto another subway station she rushed out, meeting her counterpart from the next car, and damned us for our lack of consumer participation. The doors closed and both disappeared in the dim light of the Saint Petersburg metro.