Monday, March 14, 2011

Siberia: Evil Communists, Salt Shortages and the Russian Psyche

My dad's old shoes, that I found while rummaging in a cupboard

I heard many horror-stories about Stalin’s regime while drinking tea with wafers at 2 am (both of us are night owls). Baba Lena was around 10 years old when the repressions and round-ups began and they continued through her late twenties. She said that a lot of her friends went missing and were “taken away” by the KGB in the middle of the night. She’s certain that the only reason her family was spared was because her parents and both she and her husband were doctors (she was the head of the entire region’s physiotherapy department), and there was a shortage of qualified personnel in the hospitals before and after “The War”.
She said one of her closest friends “Marina” arrived at Lena’s apartment in the middle of the night, hysterical and repeating “they took him Lena, they took him away, they’ll take you too.” Later, Marina disappeared as well.
My grandfather, dad and uncle

Another time Lena was 10 and one of her closest friend from school didn’t show up for class. She mentioned this to her mother, who went pale, grabbed her coat and they briskly made their way to the girl’s home. When they knocked, the wife was in tears and tried to push them away (afraid that if anyone saw Lena and her mother talking to “enemies of the people”, they would be blacklisted as well). Lena’s mother pushed her way into the home, and all Lena remembers is seeing the two children huddled underneath the table with uncombed hair and tear-stained faces, while her mother hugged and consoled the wife whose husband had been taken away. Two days later the children disappeared. Baba Lena never heard from her best friend again.
According to my grandmother, communism was a dark stain that spread through the bright, intellectual world of Akadem-Gorodok and instilled a deep fear for one’s life and loved ones. A lot of Americans ask why Russians don’t smile and appear cold and unfriendly. These are protection mechanisms, leftover from Stalin’s regime. You could only confide in your closest friends, and every stranger might be an informant, so outwardly friendliness, that is so common in the US, was always treated with suspicion. The communist party encouraged people to “donisit” (tell on) their friends, neighbours, family members. Primary-aged students were urged to keep a close watch on their parents and to report any suspicious activity to their teachers. It’s no wonder that my grandmother burst out one night, “I hate Lenin, I hate the Communists. They are Evil, as Evil as the Devil. Let them be cursed for what they did to us!”. 
My (younger-version) Dad

Baba Lena’s reaction is in the minority of what most Russians’ believe. My other grandparents in Moscow still firmly state that communism was the right way to go. Denial about the repressions is widespread. The younger population, while not keen to return to the Communist Regime, is not thrilled with Democracy either, which explains why they have been electing such strong-handed, dictatorial leaders recently. 

In the US, the 90’s were the years of the Spice Girls, Britney Spears, game boys and the internet. In Russia, these were the dark ages. Life was more difficult during the nineties than it had been since WW2. The social welfare system crumbled, the land’s resources were snapped up by Oligarchs, there were wide-spread food shortages, famine in remote areas, uncertainty about the future, housing prices sky-rocketed, etc… No-one cared about free-speech or democracy, when there wasn’t enough food on the table or a roof over their heads. 

My aunt Katia told me there was a scare in Moscow about a salt-shortage. Everyone rushed to the stores and bought up as many kilos of salt that they could find. Today, although the store shelves are full of everything you can imagine (from sushi to Nutella), these products are available to the small percentage of the population able to pay for them. Most Russians still live on a staple diet of potatoes, cabbage and bread.
Salted, home-made cucumbers

A superpower dissolved in a matter of years. This put a dent in Russia’s psyche. An inferiority complex developed; all of a sudden no-one cared about Russia. From what I’ve observed, most Russians want a powerful leader that will straighten out the country, increase Russia’s influence in the world, and generally put the country back on its feet. One of my Moscow friends said, “Putin will make the NATO countries respect us. Until now they have destroyed and raided our country and laughed in our face. It’s time we regained our standing in the world.” If it costs a couple of imprisoned journalists or silenced dissidents to get there, that’s a price the Russian citizens are willing to pay.

No comments:

Post a Comment