Three Russians Describe Their Lives in Moscow

Three Russians in Moscow react to my description of my travels in Russia years ago.

I can write a lot about the country I live in. I almost agree with the facts in this mail, but not about unsmiling people. It doesn’t depend on time. I wrote you about the Russian smile. We never smile without a reason. I paid attention today in the subway – nobody smiles, and, yes it looks unpleasant. But if you try to speak with someone, the situation changes at once. I think you can see that Russians are very smiley. Like me.

 

My family never had problems with the government, we lived a very simple life and were very happy even in those years – smiled, walked in the parks, my parents worked, my brother went to school, engaged in swimming, I went to kindergarten, then to school. My grandparents had a high status at work, therefore had a lot of benefits – the best clinics, sanatoriums, they even bought food without queues in special shops. It is important to note that they were not in the party (which sounds strange even for Russians, but they just worked hard).

I don’t remember the queues in shops, I was too little, but I remember these shops – you had to go to the meat department to choose and weigh a piece of meat, then to the fish department, then to milk, then to bread… Then to the cash register. And you had to remember all these prices! It was very important to say the correct price – 20 for meat, 18,5 for fish and so on. To have all these numbers in your head! It was wild!!! But I don’t agree that using an abacus makes us stuck in the past– it was very comfortable, even now some sellers use it instead of calculators. You will  never believe it if don’t try!

I can say some words about 3 generations of education – my parents, me and my nieces and nephews. The education in the Soviet Union was very important; it was the only way to become a successful person. The discipline was strict but the knowledge you got at school was great. For example, my mum speaks German well even now after 50 years later (she never practices it). There were a lot of different workshops at school (art, science and sport).

My generation is the most unlucky. I was at school just after the Soviet Union fell. Those were the worst years for my family and for thousands of families in Russia. Money instantly depreciated. My dad (with 2 higher education degrees) worked in a furniture factory in the nights after his day job, my mom worked as a cleaner after working all day in the publishing house. In winter she fell and broke 10 eggs – it was almost a tragedy. A lot of people got rich those years but not my honest and principled parents. We got humanitarian aid from other countries and we were offended by this. So you see – maybe the fall of the Soviet Union was a long-awaited holiday for some people but not for ordinary families such as mine.

In the 90-s at school all the workshops were closed. And we saw that education is not the way to become somebody. In those years, the most popular profession was to be a bandit. They were the heroes! But the level of education was still rather high (because of inertia).

 

And now times have changed. My nieces and nephews study in a different cities (Moscow, Voronezh, Nizhniy Novgorod) and I see how different it is. They have a lot of very interesting programs, different workshops, they go to sport and art academies.

In general, the situation has changed. Moscow is the same as other European capitals, i.e Paris or Berlin. But in the provinces the life is still difficult. My mother-in-law still lives in a house with wood heating (in the country, 1000 km from Moscow). But after living 20 years in the North she can get a flat in any city she wants so we are waiting!

I know that one of the ugliest Russian features is to scold all Russians. But I don’t like doing that. Therefore by cursing all Russian, we abuse ourselves

 

She is 28.
My childhood was during the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet. I remember the empty shelves at the shops and huge lines to buy things. Those lines were like a “social network” where people discussed their troubles, shared their experiences and even quarreled. If somebody tried to be tricky and cut in line a huge scandal would break out and people would go outside brought outside to argue with each other. That time is over, but nowadays I often encounter women with a “soviet” mindset at the shops who would like to be the first even in a line for fitting rooms or getting into subway cars.  They always control the situation and never yield to anybody; they tell you where the end of the line is and where you should be.

It sounds funny but the word “Soviet” (inside the abbreviation USSR) comes from the Russian word “soviet” that means “advice”, so in that time it was very popular to give advice and teach each other how to live, how to behave, how to bring up children, what to wear and what to eat. Frankly speaking, this soviet attitude is still alive today. And we even say often: Russia is “a country of advice givers”.  For example, when I am abroad, adult people around don’t care how I look but in Russia you can hear “are you not cold/warm in such clothes, or even –you shouldn’t wear sunglasses when you are taking photos, or you should not buy this milk at the store due to the fact that they don’t like that particular brand, etc. It annoys me that people who have a strong soviet background intervene to your private space constantly.

However those, of course, are small effects of that time. In general, life has changed significantly. The modern generation of youth has everything that the Soviet youth could only dream of. I remember that in my childhood imported gum was fantastic and a great gift. Once a dad of one of my friends brought a lot of American gum, and we were so happy just to try such cool gum. “Tom and Jerry” was the only animation movie that we could watch; “Burda Moden” was the only western magazine that we could read. Now you may have all that you wish for – traveling abroad, buying brand name clothes; there are no boundaries nor control and what’s more important, the younger generation doesn´t have that fear to be of being controlled and then be being punished.

But one thing that definitely hasn’t changed that is the Russian smile. It´s really hard to see people smiling in the street. That is why foreigners think of us as a little bit rude and an unfriendly nation. But there is a nice explanation why Russian people are reluctant to to smile to strangers. In general, we are not used to smiling just to be polite. A smile is a sign of personal sympathy. So, if a foreigner gives you a smile, this might mean nothing, he was taught to smile to everyone, but if a Russian smiles, this means that he or she truly wish you well.

He is 40 years old
Thank you very much for showing curiosity about how Russia has changed. Actually I do not think that I am a person who can tell you a lot about how  Russia has changed. I was only 18 years old when the USSR fell and now I am living in the capital of Russia (Moscow). But I lived in Siberia (Kemerovo) until I celebrated my 18th birthday. Are you ready to listen to my point of view?
First of all, I can assert that Russia has changed a lot since the fall of the USSR. But, in my opinion, there are not only positive changes but negative ones also.
For example I can’t agree that people on streets didn’t smile. Actually I think that people in that time were happier. The majority of them were really hospitable and empathetic. I remember that if you visited someone you were always were offered a meal. We could play football the whole day and then go for a meal all together to someone´s house. The majority of people were always ready to share a meal with you. Now people have become more individualistic. In general, they are looking after their relatives and think only about themselves. Now people are more divided. Maybe it is because of the difference in their status (wealth) or due to changing ideals. They are competing for their place under the sun now. I can’t help thinking the same, that Americans smile more than Russians. But believe me Russians can be really welcoming, kind and empathic.

I agree that hearing English on the street during the Soviet Union was very unusual. I never heard anyone speaking English. But your story about the secret police seems a bit strange to me. Yes, the USSR was a closed-off country. At that time you did not have any possibility to travel. Now we see it was a disadvantage. Now a lot of Russians study English and you can see on the streets that the vast majority of people speak English. That is the reality nowadays not only for Moscow but also for other big cities.
You wrote that apartments were small and crowded. I lived with my family in a 70m2 flat (three rooms plus kitchen) and we were four people. I do not think that it was very small. Nevertheless, you have to consider that recovering to normalcy after the Second World War wasn’t so easy. A lot of buildings had been completely destroyed. Now you can purchase any kind of apartment. It depends only on your income. But if you do not have enough money, you will have to live on the streets, you can be left without education and your children might not get enough to eat. In the Soviet time, the government guaranteed a minimum standard of living and it was impossible to bump into a homeless person on the street. I can add at that time all children had the same rights (independent from the prosperity of their family)  to education, sports etc.
I agree that now there are a lot of possibilities. Russia is becoming a consumer society. On the one hand, you can easily receive all kinds of desired service, but on the other hand, a lot of people are now lost. They are bumping into pseudo-values. For example, we see a lot of advertisements on TV. They try to convince us that we are the best if we are wearing these particular sneakers or that you can attract the attention of the opposite sex only if you buy this particular car. In the USSR we were thinking more about honor, intelligence, justice, friendship, betrayal, meaning of life, love etc.

You write that women spent a lot of time waiting in line to buy food. Yes, it was true. Now there are a lot of big stores and hypermarkets. You do not have to spend time <http://www.multitran.ru/c/m.exe?t=3358593_1_2&s1=%EF%F0%EE%E2%EE%E4%E8%F2%FC%20%E2%F0%E5%EC%FF>  in queues anymore.
It couldn’t be truer that the level of sex education was very low. It is a shame that abortion was the main form of family planning, but I hope that it wasn’t true for all people (PS: it was quite difficult to find good literature on sexual education). On the other hand, a lot of Soviet people were brought up on the ideals of eternal love. We were inspired by the love of Natasha Rostova to Andrey Bolkonsky (“War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy). Now everybody is quite educated about family planning and there are a lot of possibilities to plan your family successfully.
The most important advantage to modern Russia is that now Russians can travel abroad, communicate with other people and try to understand their culture, as well as receive good services and products.

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