Life in a New Russia: St. Petersburg

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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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2 Responses to “Vladimir Vasilyevich”

  1. the Occasional Reporter Says:

    Your pen sketches of Russia are delightful and you seem to have a literate, well read grandmother.

  2. Maya Says:

    Haha! Thanks! She is very well well read and also pretty opinionated. Glad you're reading!


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