25 January 2018

To Russia with love

"The most realistic path to political change in this country." (Found on vk.com)
The Russian presidential election is less than two months away. There's already a lot of skeptical commentary about whether the word "election" (which implies actual choice and the possibility of change) can even be honestly used for the process. Yes, much of that commentary will come from outside Russia, but it's also a huge theme on vk.com (vkontakte, Facebook's big rival within the Russian-speaking world) and other social media in Russia. To risk a generalization, the older the commentator, the more audible the sigh of resignation.

The election season, then, threatens to add to the cloud of negativity around the great nation of Russia. Three months after our own departure from the country, it seemed right to counter some of that negativity, not by spraying nice deodorant on the politics -- that I won't do -- but by looking back on just a few everyday things about Russia out of the many details of daily life that I intensely miss.

No kidding! This package came to us from the
postal workers at P.O. 144010, Yalagin St.
Before my first detail, I want to stipulate one huge category that I can't possibly cover adequately: the people. From the Russian Orthodox peace activist with whom I shared a talk show appearance, to the young woman who cut our hair, the dear members of the Russian Quaker groups, the extraordinary students and colleagues at our Institute in Elektrostal, the Baptist seminarians, the neurologist who treated my plantar fasciitis, the grocery store cashiers, refrigerator techs, poets, librarians, Kurskii railroad cafe workers, bus conductors, taxi drivers, hockey players, and not least, the postal workers who sent us candy for Christmas!!! ... the wonderful memories of friendship, kindness, patience, sympathy, and hilarity come flooding back.

Just sampling a few lesser things I miss severely:

Buying prescription drugs

If you live in the USA, your medicines are dispensed manually: you get a bottle with your name on it, and the pills are counted into the bottle while you wait in line, if you're lucky. If you've run out of refills, you will have to wait until your doctor authorizes a new supply.

Lisinopril in familiar box
Russia spoiled me. As soon as the staff at our local drugstore got to know us, we didn't need fresh prescriptions for our routine (that is, non-narcotic) prescription drugs. Just say the name of the drug and the dosage, and you get the blister packs in seconds. If one store is out of a particular medicine, there are five more pharmacies within ten minutes' walk.

Blood and urine tests were practically as easy: the clinic/collection point was one minute away from our apartment, and results were available online later that day or the next.

Only in Russia? Poetry readings on your bus ride.
Minibus sign: "A few minutes of terror, and you're home!"
Public transportation

I can't find too many nice things to say about driving in the Moscow region -- there were simply too many cars for the road system. Aside from the unpredictable duration of the trip, driving required developing a fine intuition for knowing when to yield and when to be aggressive, when to obey the rules and when to drive on shoulders and sidewalks. After two years, we sold the car we had inherited, and relied exclusively on public transport.

And why not? Almost every inch of Elektrostal (pop. 150,000) was reachable by buses running on convenient schedules that were posted on the Internet. Trains left nearby Fryazevo village for Moscow every 20-30 minutes at all times except the noon hour, connecting us to Moscow's unrivalled subway system in a little over an hour. Buses to Moscow were slower, but the Moscow bus stop was one minute away from our apartment.

Transportation costs were, admittedly, subject to high inflation. From September 2007 to September 2017, bus fares in Elektrostal nearly tripled. However, actually paying fares was easy ... you don't need exact change or a ticket. Once a guy got on board a Fryazevo-Elektrostal bus with a thousand-ruble note to pay the 20-ruble fare. The driver didn't have that kind of change: "Do I look like a bank?" The passenger appealed to the rest of us, and pretty soon practically all of us were involved in getting him the change he needed, with a lot of good-natured ribbing. Instant community.

During our last year in Russia, we began using the Yandex Taxi system, an Internet-driven taxi ordering and monitoring service with an Uber-like mobile phone interface that really took all the uncertainty out of using taxis.

Cheap Internet

Ministry of Culture blocks theaters from showing the film
The Death of Stalin. Plane is labeled "By Internet." (Source.)
In our apartment, for 100 Mbps (maximum speed) we paid under $10 per month. Now that we have given up our apartment and are in the USA, we see that our Elektrostal provider is running a special: for about $1 more, we can get 132 channels of cable television! We probably would not have paid that extra dollar if we'd stayed, since we rarely watched television, but when I look at what our friends here in Oregon are paying for Internet service, there's no comparison.

True, our actual speed rarely reached that theoretical limit, but nothing we did on the Internet required anywhere near that speed, even with two laptops, two tablets, and two phones connected all at once.

We were sternly warned to use a VPN in Russia, which we did. Now VPNs have been declared illegal. I have no doubt that they are still in use, one way or another.

Internet service on our mobile phones was also very reasonable. We paid about $6/month per phone for unlimited domestic voice and SMS usage and 4G Internet. However, we had to pay full price for the phones themselves; they were unblocked and not bundled into subscription contracts. On balance, it was an economical arrangement. I've kept my number and can use it even from the USA when I need to receive SMS texts -- for example to connect with my Russian bank.


Russia's constitution -- in the bookstore's fantasy section.
I miss Russian humor -- and as a dedicated follower of politics, I especially miss being around Russian political humor. Of course, in this highly politicized presidential-election season, I'll have access to a lot of it through the Internet, but that's just not the same as the stage whispers among our students, or the side-comments in the teacher's lounge.

Political humor in Russia is nothing new. In Soviet times it was far riskier, but nevertheless persisted, and some might say it came into full flower during the late Soviet era. (Heard on Radio Yerevan: What's a Russian classical trio? Answer: A Russian classical quartet after an overseas tour.)

Humor can make life bearable, but it also has a shadow side. The sad tradeoff of the current consolidation of Russia's "power vertical": the less hope for positive change, the more cynical humor. This kind of humor is a two-edged sword; the emperor might not have clothes, but who cares? What do you want me to do about it?

Still, I bet Americans have no idea how much Russians are able to laugh, not least at themselves. It's just not part of the stereotype here. And I miss it.

Friday PS: Winter

This morning, the following "one year ago" picture showed up in my Facebook feed. I actually miss winter ... except the ice.

Our courtyard one year ago, at 7:14 p.m.

Last September we led a learning tour of Moscow, Elektrostal, and St. Petersburg. I'm already thinking of what to include in the next edition of our tour.

Becky Ankeny: Hope and living water.

Now that's what Jim Kovpak calls Russophobia.

Three items on Russia's upcoming presidential elections: by Elena Solovyova, Leonid Ragozin, and Andrei Kalikh. Please read these writers with care: you will learn something about the wisdom and danger of passivity, and maybe the uselessness of glib insights from the West.

Last week, Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout came to Eugene. At first I was startled to hear such ecstatic music in such staid concert surroundings (the Shedd Institute's Jaqua Concert Hall), but then I realized why it was entirely suitable: utter virtuosity. Among many other great musicians, I was delighted to hear Billy Boy Arnold, now 82 years old.

On this video, the guitarist on our left is one of my favorites, Charlie Baty.

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