08 February 2024

Time (Elektrostal, shameless nostalgia, and repost)

Sergey Kadyrov's "Elektrostal City" video with his own composition.

In the fall of 2004, I found out that McDonald's had established their first restaurant in Elektrostal, Russia. I confess that I had mixed reactions, as I recorded in Cures for homesickness:

McDonalds from my window (2004).
Although I'd heard rumors for years, I found myself unprepared for the mixed feelings I had when I saw, right from my eighth-floor $8/night hostel window, a McDonald's restaurant right there on Yalagin Street, "my" street in Elektrostal. On the one hand, I had to smile—leave it to McDonald's to find even this out-of-the-way industrial town. I knew that I would be welcome within its golden precincts, I would get polite service and predictable food, I could close my eyes, inhale the french-fry incense, and the miles (er, kilometers) separating me from home might briefly melt away.

There was another feeling, too. "They" had found "my" safe little city, "they" had violated its innocence, "they" were out to Americanize even this stolid, utilitarian, brick and cinderblock outpost of Soviet planning. I was no longer solely responsible for defining to the Elektrostal people what "American" meant.

Two weeks later, I felt that my description of this "stolid, utilitarian, brick and cinderblock outpost of Soviet planning" gave a somewhat inadequate picture of the city, so I filled in some details. (P.S. no. 2 in this blog post.)

Three years later, I began serving as an instructor at the Moscow region's first privately-owned linguistics college, a post that didn't end until November 2017. Judy and I and two cats lived happily in a warm apartment that became an extension of our educational work, a place where we fed and entertained students and offered our guest room to many wonderful visitors over the years. We were familiar figures at the local libraries, art exhibitions, poetry readings, not to mention the grocery stores, coffee houses, pizza and sushi restaurants, post office, computer parts stores, the fitness center, branch banks, the sports clinic, the immigration office ... and McDonald's. We knew many of the bus routes and stops by heart. In short, Elektrostal became a home for us.

It's a complicated time to express nostalgia for Russia. For me, Russia has been a massive paradox—encompassing what I called in this post "the warm heart of Orthodox heritage" with "centuries of relentless violence, conspiracy, invasion, aggression, suspicion, and mass-scale cruelty." And those negatives have been on blatant display since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

It's no comfort to me to say, correctly, that every nation, including the USA, has its ratio of high ideals vs cruel betrayals. As a patriotic American, I have a responsibility to defend our own high ideals in this particular season of danger. However, as a Christian I feel bound to challenge any time, any place, where "Christian civilization" serves as a justification for outright cruelty. Modesty, grace, and deep listening must be part of any such challenge, but blind denial and whataboutism are not options.

Given today's realities, I find it understandable that many people want to "cancel" Russian language and culture. (See Canceling Russia.) But I can't join them. The reason in some grand sense is my long acquaintance with Russia, starting with my first Russian class in high school, my first visit in 1975, and my travels to many parts of the country. But more concretely, my reason is: Elektrostal, period. This is the city whose artists and educators, students and grocers, doctors and bus drivers (and even the immigration office, usually!) welcomed us and gave us a home.

Tevosyan Square, Elektrostal. Celebrating the first day of school, 2016. The Sberbank branch bank mentioned below is just beyond the left edge of this picture.

I began this post with one of Sergey Kadyrov's videos that feature views of Elektrostal. This video includes a segment recorded from a bus driving along Mir Street, passing Park Plaza, the Crystal sports stadium, the Kazantsev School (at 2:20) where we taught, and City Hall. The memories flood back.

Stories are better than sentimental generalities. Here's one on life in Elektrostal (and a nice helping of Boris Pasternak), originally published April 7, 2011.

Sberbank branch where I read Pasternak.

The day before yesterday I went to the bank for a routine transaction, arriving about forty minutes before my appointment at the nearby hair cutting place.

I brought a book with me, knowing there might be a wait. As I entered, I took a number and glanced at the electronic signboard showing which number was being served. Number 37 was at window 6; I was number 83. Well, there was a chance, I thought.

Half an hour later, they were still twenty places away from serving me, and I knew I had to face reality. Off to the haircutter without finishing my banking. I took another number (117) on my way out, although I figured that, with my luck, they'd get to that number long before I was able to get back to the bank.

Well, no, they hadn't. They'd simply gone a little past my first number. So, no longer having a close deadline, I settled in for a wait. All the seats along the wall facing the bank tellers were taken; I folded myself into a child's seat next to the ATM. 

"It's a good thing to bring a book," said a woman a little older than me, sitting on the other side of the children's table and looking at my thick paperback of Pasternak's family correspondence. "Yes," I agreed, "and it's a good thing that this seat will hold 83 kilograms." A little further away, I heard a typical exchange among the elderly pensioners who make up the majority of the bank's midday customers. "What kind of transaction could be taking 45 minutes over at window 7?" "I have no idea. But that teller has been sitting at window 2 for most of the morning without taking any customers."

Meanwhile, an elderly man was trying to figure out the number system—another customer was patiently explaining that he had to push the machine's button for a number and then watch the signboard to know which window would be serving that number when it came up. Not every arriving person even bothered to find out the system—occasionally someone would walk into the branch and assertively step up to a window, standing just to the right of the customer being served. They were almost always noticed and reprimanded by other customers: "Wait a minute. You have to wait in line just like the rest of us."

On the other hand, those same customers, as I've seen more than once, might rise to the defense of an elderly man who's already been sitting a while, and who shuffles over unsteadily to a window and quietly asks whether the wait would be much longer. The crowd knows when to bend the rules and demand that someone be allowed to slip in.

I was interested that, while I waited for the signboard to creep from number 88 to number 117, I came across this passage in the Pasternak book, in a letter to Boris Pasternak's parents and sister Lydia:
The house doesn't terrorize me, and I'm not scared of work or bother, although I have enough and to spare of all that. The reason I have no time is something entirely different.  As with money, and with objects I don't know how to value and am always glad to give away, I would probably be glad to share the most precious treasure that I know, which is: free time (perhaps that's the very thing that all religions have deified under the name of God). I mean the pure interval in which one can see the boundless fullness of real life, as real as the life of trees and animals. And incredible as it may seem, I would be able to find enough free time to share with anyone you like, because everyone always manages to get hold of and store up the thing he values most highly. But, more than anything else in the world, this is something reserved for the connoisseur. An understanding of art, however rare it may be, is much more widely distributed than a feeling for and understanding of free time. I'm talking about something that's far greater than mere 'leisure'. I'm talking about living time, in freedom.

This is something that I would be willing to share (as I have done on occasion), but only with someone who knew the meaning of the word 'an instant'. Why is there so much beauty in a thunderstorm?—Because it piles space upon space, making them flash, in other words it shows how fathomless the instant is, and what immense distances it can absorb and give forth again. But since there aren't many who know how inexhaustible and capacious an instant is, there's almost no-one to share it with—yet an instant is all that free time is. It's in this sense that I never have time—I don't have time for those who don't know what time is. [pp. 113-114]
There is beauty in a thunderstorm, and immense beauty in the moment people stick up for an elderly client, even though they will be "delayed" as a result.

On the one hand, I've never been bored at the bank.

On the other hand, I see on the bank's Web site that—contrary to what I was told when I opened my account—debit cards, usable at ATMs, are available to foreigners. I think I'll check into it again. [Indeed, I soon had a debit card, which saved many hours, and deprived me of time to spend reading in the warm company of other bank clients.]

[Continuing from 2011....] Having just observed another birthday, I was caught short by this passage to Pasternak's sister Josephine, written in 1927, more than thirty years before his death:
I haven't aged, and yet I've more than aged. I don't think I'm going to live as long as I should like. But there are other reasons too—I'll explain them below—why I've started behaving and feeling—in my consciousness, in my spiritual being, without reference to my biological self—as if I were in the final stage of my life. The main reason is this: that it's the only way to live in Russia at the present time without being a hypocrite, or wasting effort to no purpose,—or worse, provoking horrible catastrophes while achieving nothing whatsoever—wasting the explosively personal creative fire of mature middle age, these years so utterly and deservedly devoted to the love of freedom. I don't want to let myself go on this subject. I'll leave it at that. [p. 82]

Related: Boredom for dummies.

The Roys Report on the "Flashpoint" roster of Pentecostal prophets hitting the road for Donald Trump.

The Authoritarian Playbook, 2025 edition.

Christopher Harding on Alan Watts, for all his faults ... 

"Quakerism in Illinois Yearly Meeting will die in our generation, unless we as a Society stop saying, 'Ain't it awful'." From the late Mariellen Gilpin—one of the series of memorial posts in the online periodical What Canst Thou Say.

A frighteningly up-to-date quote (1845!) from Frederick Douglass on genuine Christianity and its peculiarly American counterfeit. (Thanks to Jim Fussell for the link.)

Clare Flourish on The Zone of Interest (film version). I consider myself warned.

Another helping of vivid memories: In December 1969, B.B. King made his break onto the Top 40 radio charts with this song, which he performs here not long after he received his first Grammy for that hit.

No comments: