How I Survive Communism’s Consequences and Even Laugh Posted by josefina on Feb 27, 2008 in Soviet Union
With as many inhabitants and as huge a territory as Russia’s, it is a country bound to exist in different versions for each and every person who has ever lived in it. To me it seems that among much of what I hear or read about Russia – be it on TV, in papers or magazines, in books, in blogs, both Russian and foreign – there is very little that I can agree with. Seldom do I hear someone speaking about this country using the same words that I would. I’ve lived in Russia since 2004, first in Saint Petersburg, later in Omsk and now in Yekaterinburg. I was born after perestrojka, which is why I obviously know next to nothing about communism and the actual conditions of living under its rule and ideals. Yet the first book I have come across that verbalizes my own Russian experience turned out to be written in 1992 about the aftermath of communism in Yugoslavia – “How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed” by Slavenka Draculic.
Almost twenty years have passed since that book was in the process of being written, yet while I was reading it last week all I had to do in order to confirm its timeless value was to lift my head from the pages and take a look around. Much of what was true then is still true today. The book is a compilation of essays about the reality, often grim and harsh, of everyday life in Eastern Europe, focusing especially on the situation of women. I didn’t anticipate finding so many fragments of my own life in the Urals in 2008 on the pages about women cooking soup in Warsaw or hunting for good quality make-up in Prague twenty years ago. Yes, since I moved here I’ve never used a vacuum cleaner (I use a broom just like everyone else). Yes, I’ve also washed my clothes in the bathtub on Saturdays (though I now share a washing mashine with three other people). Yes, I’ve learned to save everything from buttons to jars, because any kind of recycling except for by your own innovation is unattainable. Moreover, until I came here I thought being a feminist in the 21st century was unnecessary. Russia proved to me the opposite – here, feminism is of outmost necessity.
Here’s a slice of my life:
Internet is in Russia treated as if being a natural resource that cannot be reproduced or renewed, and regarded as if they’re afraid they’ll be running short of it soon. The dormitory, in which I live in Yekaterinburg, is the best dormitory in the city (though that’s not saying much) and was the first dormitory in the country to be equipped with wireless internet connection in January 2008. Internet here is free of charge, but every student only gets 100 Mb per week. What’s more, from eight in the morning till eight in the evening you have to “pay” for every megabyte you download with yet another two megabytes, as a way to curb the use of internet among students during university working hours. Yet there is one perk – internet is limitless from 1 a.m. till 8 a.m. As a writer and a sort of journalist, for me internet is the only way of making a living in Russia and that’s why I get up at 6 o’clock every morning to take advantage of those two unlimited hours in order to get my work done.
The wireless connection has in many ways revolutionized my life here. Since I am a morning person and my roommate, an American last year student of Russian philology, is a night person, and we live together in a tiny room with only just enough space for two beds and two desks, before I had to first type my articles and letters in the communal kitchen, and then moving back into our room and send them off in darkness while she slept. With wireless internet I can spend the whole morning writing and e-mailing simultaneously out in the communal kitchen. We are ten people who share it, yet not everyone uses it on a daily basis, even more so early in the morning. The young mother with her little child only uses it to cook meals during the day, and the physical education teacher only for occasional smoking in the evenings, leaving the room empty to me, my roommate and the two Korean girls living next to us. In my block I am the only morning person, and as I walk out in the kitchen with my laptop under my arm, the first thing I do is turning on a burner on the stove. I do this not because I am about to cook something anytime soon, but because it is freezing in the kitchen since the only radiator is ancient and has long ago given up hope of being able to warm up the room. It takes about thirty minutes before the burner gets hot enough and in the meantime I wear my winter coat over my shoulders. From time to time a cold chill from the cracks in the window hits against my skin, but I’ve grown so accustomed to it after all this time that I hardly notice it anymore. We always stuff the cracks with padding from old madrases in the fall, but there is only so much padding can do when the windows haven’t been changed or even repaired in the past 40 years.
After an hour or so I cook oatmeal for myself and my boyfriend, a student at the Mathematical Department who lives with his roommate on the ninth floor. It’s warmer up there than down here on the third floor, almost too warm sometimes, though the price of the rooms is the same, no matter if you are freezing or sweating. I serve him instant coffee and oatmeal with cinnamon and brown sugar – what’s left in the expensive pack that I bought for making Swedish Christmas cookies in December – without milk. Milk went up almost 20% during the fall of 2007 and I can’t afford it anymore. He says it tastes even better without and I pretend I believe him. Later we walk the 45 minutes to university together, but that is not merely for financial reasons. Taking a bus or a trolleybus or, why not, a tram, is not expensive in Yekaterinburg. But taking public transportation means doubling the time it takes to get anywhere in this city because of terrible traffic. All day long, save for night time (to a certain extent) and an hour or two during midday, the roads are clogged with cars and trucks and buses and marshutkas. The situation is not typical for Yekaterinburg, but for Russia as a whole – the cities were built under a different regime and that regime never knew there’d come a time when driving around in a SUV would become more than a way of transportation. Now it is a way to display your wealth. And as more and more people are able to display their wealth on a daily basis, more and more people must succumb to their lack of not only money but also time (lacking even a slight chance to waste hours in traffic) and walk an hour or more by foot.
Perhaps I don’t complain about walking to university because I am Swedish, and in childhood we are taught to greet any kind of physical activity, be it forced or recreational or compulsorily, with gratitude and joy. Perhaps I don’t complain because I don’t wear the kind of expensive and exquisite shoes, the kind incapable of resisting any kind of dirt or fluid, that Russian women wear. If you need an explanation as to why Russian women, and sometimes also Russian men, change shoes upon arriving to the office, you needn’t look further than at the roads.
Sometimes taking a look around in Russia today, however, doesn’t explain everything. And that’s where books like “How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed” have an important role to play. Though bigger pictures encapsulating political reasons or economic grounds for why Russia today is the country it is are indispensable, equally significant is the individual point of view. Today it may not mean anything when I say that after three years as a vegetarian in the Russian province I have yet to come across a grocery store with soymilk. I can buy tofu in the Chinese market and soy meat from Buddhists, but that is not my point. My point is that Russia still has quite a long way to go before being ready to be compared to Western countries. It is too early to wave the white, blue and red just yet.
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