RUSSIA TODAY VI
Anyone making a visit to a country in the midst of transformation, as I did this summer, has to ask himself, “how valid are my random impressions for a country as vast and diverse as this one? Especially when my command of the language is limited (equivalent to three years of college study) and we spent little time in the countryside. My timid answer is that perhaps my impressions only confirm or slightly modify what acknowledged experts are saying.
Yet, that is not bad for three weeks, most of the time spent in the extreme south, six days living with a family connected with Kuban State University, and three days each in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Most striking was the hospitality. I expected the vodka to be offered lavishly, and the number of toasts at every occasion could be equaled in America only at an ethnic wedding. But I was not prepared for the amount of food at every meal, and that even the waitresses would cluck their tongues at my modest appetite. Najelsa, I would offer as an excuse, unable to put away a breakfast of tomatoes and cucumbers, porridge, fish, bread and rolls, followed by a full meal of chicken or pork and mashed potatoes with vegetables, then tea or coffee. Obviously, the thin young people on the streets are not putting away this kind of food every morning.
These young people would be seen on the roadsides, sitting on their haunches, waiting for a bus or just killing time. Very few American youngsters could even squat down like that, much less remain in that position long. Perhaps it comes more naturally to anyone who grows up with “Turkish” toilets (essentially a hole in the floor), but it also reflects a desire to keep pants clean in a country that provides few public benches.
Crime was clearly on everyone’s mind. Not the kind of almost random, violent crime that terrorizes neighborhoodspeople were outside all the time, especially during Petersburg’s long “white nights.” Private security forces in front of up-scale apartments and expensive stores reflected a fear of organized crimekidnapping and extortion. Young men, who had obviously pumped a lot of iron, stood around in their black outfits, alert to anything unusual, even me. They were often talking on their mobile phones, and it did not appear that they were chatting up their girl friends.
Average citizens locked doors carefully, but went on with life. Curbside abounded. The police were dressed in western uniforms and drove cars that would not be out of place in Illinois; foot patrols were not often seen in the central city, but given the summer heat that is hardly surprising.
Toilet paper and soap were readily available, which was not the case a decade and a half ago. The inability of the Soviet government to provide soap for coal miners provoked strikes that were important in bringing down communism. Public toilets were always available, but they were usually private portapotties operated by older women. Fifteen cents (twenty in Petersburg and Moscow) literally relieved you of one of the major concerns of travel here.
Water was much less a problem than expected. Local tap water is not consumed by anyone. For good reasonit contains some local life forms more dangerous than the mafia goons. Bottled water is sold almost everywhere, and usually cooled. My colleagues, being thoroughly American, preferred the non-carbonated varieties, but I followed local tradition, even brushing my teeth c gasom. Maybe that is a metaphor for my whole experience: I am willing to accept a bit of gas in my impressions, and I hope that my readers will, too.
William Urban, Lee L. Morgan Professor at Monmouth College, spent three weeks in Russia this summer on a Global Partners program sponsored by the Mellon Foundation.