Life in Russia

I thought this morning that a bit of commentary on life in Russia and how it’s changed and otherwise from Soviet days would be in order. I’m in touch with Russia every few days and hear what is and isn’t happening now plus I have a variety of Russian delicacies here at home to supplement the diet with.

IPJ sent me a link to some Soviet era photos and so I thought I might run some of them plus some others I’ve found.

russian flat

If you expand the shot above here, it’s of a typical Soviet scene on a holiday.  I don’t know which holiday but they’re in bare feet and T shirts so it’s summerish – maybe May 1st or 9th.

That living room door is almost exactly like mine was, the garish wallpaper is typical even today although many homes now go for the plain painted walls.  Behind the camera will be a doorway to the balcony and a foot and a half thick windowsill with panelled windows looking out on the balcony.

The room is about ten feet wide and maybe twenty long and there might be another in the flat.  There are no actual bedrooms or living rooms as both double as either – you’ll see the divan on the right which folds out to make a double bed.  The bedding on top of the piano is an eyebrow raiser – most houseproud women put the bedding away in a wall unit section during the day.

Looking through the door, you’ll see the man on the phone and that’s where most phones are.  The shiny blouse on the woman in the foreground is typical “best wear” and the little girl’s dress shows just how stereotypical roles were in society – little girls were real little girls and little boys were real little monsters.  The earnest expression of the piano player is also correct – many young men are like that and often have such musical talent – a piano in a house was not at all uncommon and the little girl with the violin and mama is so like what I saw.

In summer, it’s common for get-togethers where the kids give a performance like this and the latterday fathers might even have a new western camcorder to record it all.

The room you see and the corridor are not as grim as the photo makes out – they’re scrupulously clean and comfortable within reason but having extended family there makes it difficult.

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Above is a housing block which looks, to me, to be in Moscow – ours were a little more run down.  the space between the houses are yards or dvori and that’s where kids would play on playframes and seesaws while the older kids would sit around and someone would play the guitar.

These houses might look, to us, like eyesores but let me tell you that, in winter, those two foot thick walls come in mighty handy and the central heating you’ll see in the next photo does it’s job – providing warmth, hot water, and heating for the bathroom by the simple expedient of running the exposed pipes back and forth – also to hang towels on.

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You can say what you like about Stalin and he did kill off the intelligentsia of the Soviet Union and murder tens of millions but in housing, he brought in the housing blocks to replace the type of housing above and good thing too.  These houses are cold.  When I went hunting, we stayed in one of these in mid-winter, with wood fires in the main room but the bedrooms were minus 20.

My gf’s grandmother still lives in one of these old wooden places although more up to date than these and with heating.  Russia has certainly improved that way although you still encounter the outside loo at the back of the garden and housing like the above is clustered into small areas, not yet demolished.

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Now, look at the balcony door behind in the above photo and you’ll see, to the right and down, vertical bar central heating just under the window sill.  Behind that is the balcony and you’ll notice the varnished wood slats of the outer windows, looking out onto the yard.  Those outer windows have to be bought and put in and yet they are fairly standardized.  I don’t know in which town this is but that balcony could well have been a replica of mine, except that my paintwork out there was beige and not mauve.

OK, you’ll see the girls on the left sitting on the divan by the wall, then comes the long table with table cloth and a woman sitting on an upright chair on the other side.  So, so typical and I miss it very much.  I bet those girls on the left have cushions under their bottoms to lift them up to table level.  There’ll usually be a rug or blanket draped over the furniture to protect it and there’ll be a persian-type rug screwed to the wall behind the divan, to keep the cold out.

The big issue whenever anyone comes to visit is how important he/she is.  If it’s a friend or four, then you’d go to the kitchen which will have a corner unit to sit on and a table.  Tea and makings would be had there.  The Tatars tend to have milk in their tea but the Russians go more for milkless tea made with the actual plant twigs and leaves stuck in the pot, often a herbal tea.  Samovars are still used in places but not as they once were.  A school might still have one.

If the occasion is a bit more important or the guests less well known or if honour is to be done to them, then the long table must be cleared and laid and the limited food you can afford must be spread round in many dishes and bowls to make it appear to be a “bolshoi stol” or large table.  There are many tricks to make it appear so.  It is a matter of honour to amply provide for one’s guests.

That room above is a typical woman’s room with that vegetation.

The girl on the left [foreground] is probably quite young but looks older and there is that type about – quite dowdy and part of the old ways.  I knew one of these and her mind was not with the modern world in any way – that’s where the ethnic difference is seen.  The girl at the back is typical of times up to 2000 “god” [year].  She is not worldly and is a real girl in the sense that drugs and sex are completely outsize her range of understanding – don’t start me on western society.

It’s a lovely place, socially, within the family, over in Eastern Europe or it was lovely up to about 2000.

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This classroom above has now gone.  Colours are brighter, the military type teacher is seen less and no one wears the pioneer scarves anymore.  In fact, they are much parodied these days although some pine for the old days when the kids were in some sort of scout/guide camp regimentation where they’d go away to be brainwashed in a sports week away.  I went to one such camp in my early days and they still had the campers being called to assembly at 7 a.m.  I couldn’t believe it but it was mighty interesting, followed by the music through the tannoys all over the camp.

There are still teachers of the old school and they generally get the results, the new laissez-faire teachers not doing nearly as well.  Every kid has his or her favourite teachers he remembers.  The kids work long hours, far longer than in the west and are better able to cope with a western curriculum than, in the main, western kids.

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I’m showing my ignorance here but I’m not sure whether the above is September 1st or “Posledni Zvonok” or Last Bell.  The bow in the hair and black and white Russian dress suggest the latter – the school leaving day.  There are many speeches and the littlest child gives a speech, after which the oldest child in the leaving year does.  The older children also dress like the littlest on this day and afterwards, you see thousands of kids dressed like this in the town.  See below.

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I forgot to mention that the hair in pigtails is a main feature of this outfit and the “old” girls have a ball dressing up and being kids again, one last time.  Later they go out on the town and there’s much drinking.  The event I was invited on by a girl was a riverboat – it went out early evening and came back about 6 a.m.  That whole night I talked to one girl, didn’t dance, didn’t go anywhere, just got her more orange juice, coke and nibbles to keep her fuelled.  I suspect she didn’t want to dance either.

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Ah, the theatre, central to the cultural life of the town but less now than before.  These days, young people tend to go to the western glitz centres like Riviera, with its more exciting image for the young.  The photo above is a typical theatre night which begins around 6 p.m. and goes until about 9 p.m. [to catch the last public transport].

There are two distinct types of shows, as far as I can see.  The shows with a man and a woman presenter, not unlike Wogan’s rubber lips jibe about the Eurovision and these events are long and tedious, with many different acts.  I avoided these like the plague but was expected to attend, as an honoured guest.

The other type was the opera and ballet and the performances were usually first rate, even world class.  Approaching the theatre was something special and I wrote about that in my first book:

Around the large, orange bricked building were a dozen or so giant, translucent ice sculptures, a large hot air balloon, various beer marquees, a giant lit up tree and a festive spirit; people were starting to arrive. Usually the families got there about seven, little boys and girls, be-coated, be-hooded, sweet faces of wonder taking in everything, parents also touched.

But first the ballet was on, up the road from the Memorial and across Freedom Square. They crossed the flagstoned state square towards the opera house, hand in hand, snowflakes as large as coins falling silently and softly on their hoods and jackets.

Inside, the presidential box hung half-over the orchestra pit and the opera house still sported the U.S.S.R. hammer and sickle, above the heavy main curtain.

Being a guest.  That was the thing over there – I was usually treated as such and so probably became spoilt.  What a shock then to come back to the UK and become a nobody again.  It’s the old story, isn’t it – without honour in your own country.  Ho hum, work tomorrow and I have to get things ready this evening.

For now, I’m going for a walk.

8 comments for “Life in Russia

  1. July 18, 2010 at 13:39

    Fascinating. Thanks for that most interesting read.

  2. July 18, 2010 at 13:54

    Pleasure, Bill.

  3. July 18, 2010 at 14:35

    Indeed, that was a fascinating post and pics, thanks for blogging it.

  4. July 18, 2010 at 17:10

    Interesting look at modern Russia. I’ve known several people from the old USSR (not all of them were from Russia), but that was before the breakup, and most of them were defectors and such.

  5. July 18, 2010 at 23:32

    A very interesting post, it seems you are getting rather nostalgic.

  6. July 18, 2010 at 23:34

    O/T it is also interesting after that series of test posts (the first three of which didn’t show up until after the fourth), I seem to be able to comment with my normal details!!!

  7. July 19, 2010 at 04:06

    Thanks very much for that. I visited Russia in 1995, when it was very much in a transition phase. The tables and meals were as shown in these pictures, but the book stalls outside the Metro stations were selling Stephen King. And I went to McDonalds for the second time in my life (the first was in Hong Kong).

  8. Russ
    July 20, 2010 at 09:07

    Very nice topic.

    Some words about heating system in Russia.

    The central heating system in Russia usually attached to “kotelnaja”, which allows heating of the 12-20 buildings (up to 20 stage buildings) , or more.

    Heating pipelines in flats are attached to the central heating, and it is impossible to disconnect a flat from central heating. Therefore, even if a person don’t have money at a certain period he still can use flat heating, cold and hot water in bath/kitchen.

    This allows living at the extreme place like these:
    This is Norilsk:
    http://www.payer.de/arbeitkapital/arbeit30772.gif

    Location: http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&q=&vps=1&jsv=257c&sll=69.469116,88.527832&sspn=1.084681,4.938354&ie=UTF8&geocode=FeblIQQdQiNCBQ&split=0

    In Norilsk, without central heating people will die very quickly. Winter last nearly 5 months.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norilsk

    For the Tatarstan is the same during the winter for about 2-3 months.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazan

    Another extreme place during the winter:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oymyakon

    Oymyakon has a World record for the minimum temperature for cities: -71

    http://www.emergency.co.nz/archive/siberia.html
    http://www.unp.co.in/f143/oymyakon-the-frozen-village-russia-54813/

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