In Siberia
[Colin Thubron is a Russian-speaking English writer.
He travelled in Siberia in the mid-1990s,
shortly after the economic collapse and severe inflation of the early 90s,
the Yeltsin years. In Khabarovsk, a principal town of Primorye,
the SE corner of Siberia near the Chinese border,
he interviewed a middle-aged woman named Natasha.]

§   §   §

She said: "I don't know how we'll live when I retire. My mother saved 6000 rubles for her retirement --- in her day that would have paid for a car. But now, after inflation and the Yeltsin years, it'll buy two loaves. Pensioners' savings were swept away overnight like that. So I've taken my mother in to live with us. I've even tried to save myself, bought a few shares. But I call it funeral money." She did not laugh. She was typical, she said, of her middle-aged generation.

"When Gorbachev came to power we were overwhelmed with hope. Then slowly we realized that it was only talk, talk, talk, and that everything was running out of control. Then when Yeltsin took over we cautiously hoped again, but that only lasted a few months, and now .... I don't think it will get better in my lifetime."

"Even the Japanese are withdrawing from Khabarovsk," she said. "It's too risky investing here, too corrupt. And there's no help from Moscow. In fact, whatever happens in Moscow happens very thinly all over Siberia. So there are just a few rich in Khabarovsk, all mercenary. But Moscow!" She made as if to spit. "If I was God the Father, I would erase it from the earth."

I ordered us more coffee, hoping it would not seem like charity.

"And it's typical of my generation," Natasha quipped, "to be leaving things to God! That's Orthodoxy for you. For centuries it's inculcated obedience, always obedience. We're always on our knees. 'Forgive me, forgive me!' we cry. What for, I ask? What for? For working thirty-five years and then getting no pension? You know, people still go into the factories and offices to work, even though nobody pays them. Why? Why do they do it? It's just habit, obedience. My husband still goes to work --- and for over six months he hasn't been paid. Last year half his salary was just forgotten. And this spring he was paid in glass. Can you imagine it? Some customers had paid the firm in sheet glass; so it was just passed on to the employees. I was furious. 'Can we eat glass?' I asked. 'Can we wear glass?' But my husband just accepted it.

"We're too patient, we Russians. It's our national failing. Any other country would be in revolt. But us? No. We just sit and hope. We get used to having less. People survive by reverting to their dachas and vegetable plots, or they go into the wood and pick berries and mushrooms. Old people are near death. After my mother paid her rent, she had enough left only for bread. And now you see them in the streets, these old women, begging. Men in Russia have a life expectation of fifty-seven, and that's just as well. But women go on to seventy, seventy-two. That's why they're out there, in the streets, when it would be better to be dead. I will be dead rather than beg." She lifted her hands and shut her eyelids with her fingertips. "Better."

I asked hesitantly, because she had not mentioned children: "What about relatives?" "Ah, that younger generation. My daughter's twenty, and do you know what she did? She went somewhere in Khabarovsk and bought herself an Email connection. So now she gets information from abroad. E-mail! When I was twenty, I barely dared to buy a stamp! Nobody moved or did anything without permission. But she and her friends simply see and feel things differently."

They were the first generation without fear, I thought, the children of Gorbachev. "They may make a new Russia." Yet it seemed far away.

"I hope so, I hope so. But if things don't change fast enough, they'll lose heart, just as my generation lost heart in perestroika. They'll sink into bitterness or drink.... or they'll go abroad. Our children are happier abroad than we are. I was once in Germany, and whenever I saw a silver birch --- our national tree --- I used to stroke it and ask 'What are you doing so far from home?' Even our old songs, I love them. But my daughter's generation isn't sentimental like us. They may love Russia, but they can leave it. Can you understand that?"

Yes, I said, they would leave it because it wasn't the future. The future was geographical, and it had moved westward from under their feet.

She went on: "If my daughter stays here she may not find a job. But if she goes abroad she will lose her Russian ways altogether. She'll lose them and forget us."

--- From In Siberia
Colin Thubron
©1999 HarperCollins
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