Thursday, August 2, 2012

Russia, a Dynamic Country

Winston Churchill once described Russia as a "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." While I will not endeavor to decipher those infamous words, the ethos of the phrase captures the dynamic, complex and fascinating nature of Russian society. Living in Vladimir for the past six weeks, I have had many encounters Russian people. However, today was an especially exciting day that speaks to the unique fabric of the Russian people.

In Media Class this morning, we discussed an article that appeared in "Novaya Gazeta" that was a satirical article comparing the state of affairs in Russia under the Soviet Union and today. I love reading the Russian press, but it is even more exciting when my Professor shares insights on life in the Soviet Union and explains the "subtext" of texts. For example,  one Soviet joke that appeared in the article asked,"What is green, long and smells like kolbasa (sausage)?" The answer, "the elektrichka (commuter train) to Moscow." She explained to the class that during the Soviet period, sausage was only sold in Moscow. Naturally, people from Vladimir travelled to Moscow to purchase sausage, thereby causing the train to stink of the precious, wrapped meat. 

This is not the first time we discussed life under the Soviet Union in class. A few weeks ago, one student presented an article on "Nashi," a semi-government affiliated youth organization in Russia. I asked my Professor if she participated in Komsomol, the Soviet youth organization, and she responded "of course, we all did!" Komsomol was like summer camp -- everyone did it. It was fun experience during the summer and during the year, it was a big social organization. All of her friends were in Komsomol. Olga was also in Komsomol, and when I asked her about the organization, she echoed the enthusiastic sympathies articulated by my professor.

During our classroom discussion today, my professor pulls out her Komsomol membership card (vintage, authentic and purely awesome!!) and one of her membership pins. The membership card contains a red-ink image of Lenin at the top of the front page. Biographical information, including a photo, is in the middle, while the back page includes stamps from her work place. The lapel pin, contains the same image of Lenin's profile and the Russian acronym ВЛКСМ (Всесоюзный ленинский коммунистический союз молодёжи), or in English, the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League. 

As she presented her pin, she said "Dena, I know how much you love Soviet history, and I want to give this to you as a gift."

I died of happiness. At first, I could not believe that she was giving me one of her pins. I wanted to follow proper Russian gift-giving etiquette, and asked if she was sure. "Of course, I have at least four more at home," she casually responded. I accepted the pin, and thanked her many times, and already have a gift ready for her. 

While I will never forget that professor and will always treasure that pin, this story reflects a broader theme of gift-giving Soviet antiques. During my time here, I have also received two vintage issues of "Krokodile" magazine from 1974, Soviet coins minted in 1988 and 1991 -- all of which were gifts.  At one level, this is old fashion Russian hospitality, a truly admirable feature of this country that I sincerely hope will never disappear.  At another level, it is fascinating how Soviet artifacts are suddenly valuable. In the market, many babushkas sit on the ground and sell their old Soviet pins and rubles. On one occasion, I was looking through a stack of Soviet currency and asked the vendor the price of the collection. She responded that the bills with the image of Lenin are worth more than the bills without Lenin or the currency from other republics. 

Later that day, I discovered a totally different side of Russian society: the baby house (Дом Ребёнка). The "baby house" (direct translation) is an orphanage where babies between 0 and 4 years of age are housed. My friend, Kristin, visits the house several times a week to play with the babies and today, I decided to tag along. Even though children are not my forte, I wanted to explore a new side of Russia to which I was previously not exposed.

I have to thank Kristin, as I am so thrilled I went. First, while I anticipated a horrific orphanage like the ones pictured on "20/20" or "Nightline," the facility was incredibly clean, neat and organized. There was a flat-screen TV, plenty of space and clean toys. Each child had a crib and all of the diapers, food and clothing was in order. I was very impressed. The staff was also very gracious and happy to have visitors.

Volunteers can only play with the children with congenital conditions such as down syndrome or cerebral palsy. Without volunteers, these children would not go outside. My friend was handed an adorable, chubby 1 and a half year old named Nikita, who probably has down syndrome and some physical ailment as his ribs and hips seemed to be abnormally developing. Meanwhile, I was handed Aleksei, who was three years old and had a condition whereby his brain was growing too big for his cranium. He was a restless child and when we took him outside, he was banging his head against the stroller. I felt so bad and one of the workers recommended I take a different child. I later found out from my friend that they never really take that child outside, and she was surprised they gave me him. 

After I returned Aleksei, I returned to the playground with Sasha, a feisty two-year old. Sasha is one of those toddlers with big eyes and an even bigger smile that stretches from ear-to-ear, showcasing his two-year old teeth. He loves to whip his head back and forth and teeth on himself, as well as visitors. 

So there we were -- Kristin, Sasha, Nikita and I -- on a swinging chair in the playground of a baby house in Vladimir, Russia. We spent two hours together in one section of the playground, while the non-special needs children played in another section. While I am not usually one to play with children, I was happy that I was able to sit outside with Sasha and Nikita, an opportunity they normally would not have. What a simple act, and yet, so meaningful.

I do not know what will become of Sasha and Nikita, but I know that Russia in 10, 20 or 30 years will look significantly different than the Russia today. There will probably be a different perception of Soviet history and antiques from the Soviet era. Most likely, new apartment complexes will be constructed, Russia's economy will continue to develop and Russia's population will become even more diverse and dynamic thanks to migration and technology. I guess I will just have to return to see for myself.

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