06 February, 2006

Russia as a glass half-empty

Note: I wrote this many months ago, and never got around to posting it here. Here it is, with a few minor edits. In the coming days I will add an entry on "Russia as a glass half-full."

In one of Plato's dialogues, Socrates observes, What an awful lot of things a man can do without! This one thought occurred to me repeatedly during my first trip to Russia. It didn't occur too often in subsequent trips, but it still comes to mind as I sit down to write this. These are some of my observations from living with ordinary folk in Russia, rather than staying in hotels.

Our beginning is a shallow comparison of first appearances. In the 19th century novel A Hero of Our Time, Lermontov gives a striking description Russian villages. Lermontov describes sad villages with dusty roads, untended vegetation, and crooked fences. The miracle of Russia is that the description leaps to mind even today, after nearly 200 years of modernization, regardless of whether one finds oneself in a village or in a city.

The fences are still crooked; why? The immense amount of untended vegetation pushes different sections out or in. You might think that the roads were dusty during Lermontov's time only because village roads were rarely paved in any country, but even in today's Russia, large numbers of roads remain unpaved, even in city suburbs. Russians outside the city center walk along paths that are little more than dusty roads; in the rain, they become muddy. Most paved roads also remain covered in dust; I cannot say whether this comes from the soot of automobiles that would never pass EPA standards, or the remnants of immense amounts of salt and other de-icing agents poured forth abundantly during the winter.

After the dust, one notices that few roads have any paint on them. Left lanes, right lanes, turning lanes, and stopping points appear to be more a matter of convention than actual fact. My wife tells me that some of these roads are indeed painted, but the paint comes off during the winter. There are not nearly so many stoplights in the center of Kazan as there should be. In some places, driving becomes a little chaotic, and pedestrians have to navigate their way through some dangerous traffic. Both Moscow and Kazan have passages beneath the roads, called переход, but Kazan desperately needs one at the railways station.

Every Russian bus looks, sounds, and smells like it's seen ten too many years of service. I have often wondered if the bus I'm riding is on the verge of falling to pieces. Here in Kazan, government-owned buses cost 7 rubles per ride (about 25¢), while private-run buses cost 10 rubles per ride (about 40¢). I prefer the government-owned buses not because of the lower cost, but because both kinds are usually packed with riders, bouncing along inside, and the government buses are at least twice as large.

There are no transfers, no child discounts, nor (as far as I know) is there any discount for disabled riders. There isn't any accomodation at all for handicapped riders. There is a senior-citizen discount of sorts for pensioners; they used to be allowed to ride all buses for free, but now the federal government gives them 200 rubles a month to use as they like. They can use this money to buy a special transportation pass or, if they prefer, spend it in some other fashion. This pass gives them free transportation on government buses; private buses don't accept the pass. So, government buses are frequently stuffed with pensioners.

Let me return to the point about untended vegetation. I have yet to see a single mowed lawn in this country. It doesn't matter whether one finds oneself in the city or in the countryside: if grass and weeds are allowed to grow at all, then they grow knee-high or higher. Perhaps the short, cool summers contribute to this. I come from a part of the world where every lawn is mowed and every leaf raked (or blown, given our disinclination to expend an ounce of effort when we could burn a gallon of gasoline instead); any homeowner lazy enough to let his grass grow higher than his ankles will be harassed by the neighborhood assocation or even hauled into court, and every city I know employs contractors and convicts to keep public lands neat. Russia's shameless untidiness — my wife tells me it has been this way from the days of the Soviet Union, and probably before them — is something at which I marvel.

Contrast Lermontov's description of a sad-looking village with the following: brand, shiny, new buildings standing proudly beside unsightly ruins; unpainted plaster buildings; unwashed stone buildings; uneven sidewalks made of asphalt; etc. Kazan received a massive expenditure of public funds to improve the city center, thanks to its milleniary anniversary (one sees signs in Russian and Tatar: Казань 1000 лет — Казанга 1000 ел). The results of this expenditure are evident, inasmuch as the theater, the Tatarstan government building, the Kremlin, and a number of other "official" or "historical" buildings now look gorgeous.

What looked good to me looked bad to the locals, though. Corruption, they tell me, is rampant. My wife informs me that the situation was so bad that the mayor will be replaced in a few months. This is not because he lost an election, but because he was passed over for re-appointment. In Russian democracy today, Russians no longer elect most of their rulers, and the ones they do vote on are the same ones who have held power for the last twenty years — since Communist times.

The oil company has also spent money on a development of impressive homes on the waterfront of the Volga river. My wife passes it and remarks that honest people don't make enough money to own such houses; the rich in Russia really flaunt it. You should see the Pyramid, an expensive entertainment center built recently in the center. My wife says that a little piece of cake costs 800 rubles, nearly $30.

One day, my wife pointed somewhere and quoted Gogol: If one day a Russian builds a fence, the next day he will find a pile of trash next to it. It should not surprise you that all these beautiful buildings — every last one — stands in eyesight of a depressing mound of rubble, or a muddy field strewn with bricks and garbage, or (at best) some construction. Large portions of the city have nothing but unsightly buildings, and piles of trash do indeed rise beside fences.

Small wonder, then, that I thought Kazan looked most beautiful last December and January: a white layer of snow covered all the garbage.

My wife likes all the seasons though; in spring, she likes the small green leaves that adorn trees like a new scarf; she likes summer's vegetation, its dandelions and its warmth; in fall she likes the yellow leaves that collect on the sidewalk, where you can push them with your feet; in winter, after a snowfall, trees wear another scarf, a white one, as a Russian woman's lace shawl. She also observes that if you are a pessimist, you see the garbage; if you are an optimist, you see the beauty. As you can see, she has a talent for description, and I'm hoping she'll write some sort of commentary on this that I can add to my "Russia as a glass half-full" entry.

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