In the small town of Uglich on the Volga, which has its medieval charm and also its unpainted tumbledown shacks, we visited Olga in the new house she built after retirement. It was a largish but simple two story white brick house. In the back was the vegetable and flower garden that every Russian householder wants and treasures,
Viking Cruise Lines arranges for its passengers to visit with real locals. This was our home visit.
We filed in to sit on the 20 chairs around a long table in her living room. In front of us was a 12 by 18 foot mural photograph of the skyline of …Chicago. It was not quite clear why Chicago was there, but it had something to do with welcoming Americans. Olga had set out brown bread, pickles, tomatoes and boiled dill potatoes from her garden. Two cut glass decanters held a honey colored liquid that was described as “moonshine.”
Through an interpreter, Olga made the traditional three toasts as we drank along our little shots of rough alcohol. Olga said her husband Dmitri had made it, and produced him, like an exhibit, out of the kitchen to take a bow. He wore scratchy grey wool and grinned with a fortune of gold teeth. She explained that both of them were retired engineers; they had worked for a company that made watches and small tools.
Then she got a little pointer and waltzed over to a wall with family pictures. She pointed out two daughters, a son, and a grandson, who lives with her and Dmitri because they are close to a good school. She told us to eat, as there is no drinking of rough stuff in Russia without some food. Russian has waged many a battle against alcoholism, and a little food is always provided.
We have not met many extroverts in Russia, so Olga was welcome. She answered our questions about our whole stockpile of half-formed notions from growing up with the notion of Russia as scary and veiled in mystery and myths.
We have not gotten to the bottom of all these mysteries, but we were surprised that a great many Russians are not excited about capitalism. In Soviet days, everybody had a job and a salary, also free rent, healthcare, and education. Naturally, Olga said, she liked it better when she didn’t have to pay for everything.
The Russians of our age have been cared for by the state, imperfectly perhaps, but capitalism after retirement does them not much good. They’re not about to start an international private enterprise or buy a KFC franchise. In Uglich, as in other small towns, the people have welcomed electricity, but many have refused running water. They still like to draw from the town wells, or in winter, cut a hole in the ice and dip a bucket.
Why would Russians love the changes? Throughout their history they have been handed from one despot to another. Self-reliance is not something they know. Serfdom and Communism were all about groups and group support. Olga was from Moscow but she moved to rustic Uglich because her husband’s mother was there. In Russia, it is embarrassing if a family puts an aging parent in a home. They are for the destitute and the lonely.
This may not last. The small towns are dying as the young people move to the cities to learn capitalism, get jobs where performance is rewarded, and buy cellphones. Change is hard, but historical cycles are not exactly easy to stop. You might as well dam up the Volga.