Articles From the April 1994 Unification News


Soul of Russia - Slipping and Slushing Through My Third Moscow Winter

by Erin Bouma

My first Moscow winter (1991-92) saw the end of the Soviet Union, the beginning of price rises and inflation and mild weather. Nevertheless, I was mighty chilled in November and early December awaiting both the arrival of my winter clothing and the centralized heating to notch up for colder days and nights. I found it very hard to adapt to mid- afternoon darkness (with the sun setting about 3:30 PM) and I went forth three days a week (starting in January, twice a day) to travel an hour to a classroom to teach English. I had two mild ice slips that first year, the first breaking the hinge and screw on a pair of reading glasses (but not my loose eggs) and the second, losing my apartment keys out of my coat pocket (necessitating a break-in two days later).

The next year was also mild by Russian standards, but I had my heavy coats, sweaters and boots and, more importantly, lived near a metro station where my students came to me. I had no slips but, during the four months of snow, ice and cold, I suffered from a lack of exercise.

This year finds me in my third apartment and now, somewhat dependent on bus schedules to get to the metro, larger shopping areas and an independent school where I teach two mornings a week. A tram (electric, on tracks) goes along my street (interestingly, the 8th of March St., in honor of International Women's Day), and a couple of buses come within a block or two of my place. The buses come around 30 minutes apart, and I've found you can get pretty chilled waiting out in the cold for 15 minutes, and I've even gotten chilled riding for a half an hour in an unheated bus.

The first cold spell this winter came in November, and I spent my free time in my kitchen with the oven heated. That was followed by snows and rains with higher temperatures through December and January. The problem is that Moscow not only has your ordinary slush, but it is always dirty slush and with poor drainage, the city also becomes a city with 1,000 lakes. (This, by the way, is why most Muscovites can't get too excited about spring because there is so much snow and ice to run off.) The other reality is that, with sudden freezes or melting ice, the sidewalks become skating rinks and cause many casualties. Apparently, in past years, the city hired more people to keep chipping away the ice buildup throughout the winter.

In the week before Valentine's Day, 100 people were hospitalized in Moscow for exposure to the cold and 15 people (all drunk) were found frozen outdoors. But Russians will proudly tell me that, at last, we are having a "real Russian winter." But the weather seldom gets them down. They have far more pressing concerns than temporary drops in the mercury.

For one, Moscow's population has risen sharply in the past three years and is expected to hit 8.5 million by the year 2000. But this is not caused by a rise in the birthrate, which has fallen in Russia to where there are now two deaths for one birth. No, rather there is an influx of refugees from wartorn provinces in the south and areas showing little hospitality to their resident Russians, especially the Baltics and Central Asian republics. This has put quite a strain on public services, housing and public transportation. I'm sure, however difficult things are here, they are still better than the other former republics. In fact, there are now many "guest workers" in Moscow from Ukraine and Belarus that Russians won't take because of low pay. In a recent survey, forty percent of Muscovites are receiving government support and only 20 percent claim they need no government help to survive. So that leaves another 40 percent who need some public assistance or subsidized housing, heat and food. Academics, scientists, doctors and school teachers are poorly paid as government financing begins to shrink and inflation eats up the remainder. People, even if it is not their inclination, are forced to be resourceful, take private students and patients or do some "business" (really buying and selling).

Not only is the birthrate falling, but life expectancy itself has dropped in Russia in the last year, quite dramatically. For men this is particularly alarming: from a low of 62 years down to 59. Women do a little better, but where they could expect to live to 75 last year, it is now only 72. I don't know if this is also connected to increased violent crime (a lot of it surrounding rival gangs and Mafia extortion), growing epidemics (of diphtheria, typhus and measles) or military conflicts. Health care continues to deteriorate and a recent report told of a hospital whose food caused food poisoning in 29 infants.

In a citizen poll of Moscow residents, their main concern, like many Americans, is growing crime (especially among teenagers). This is followed by inflation, political instability, environmental concerns, and fear of the breakup of the Russian republic by separatist minorities. One political cartoon shows Red Square with a sign: "The next crisis begins in 15 minutes." There is also a Soviet-era piece of wisdom recognizing that there is nothing more constant than "temporary difficulties." Therefore, practicality and steadfastness is forced on the people here if they want to survive. Living in the CIS, in fact, is just as stressful as in America, without the benefits of good health care. The stresses are slightly different, and generally based on unpredictability of the government policies and availability of necessities, rather than the intensity and complicated nature of life in the U.S.

For example, simply to rent an apartment to live in a city of shortages puts the foreigner at great disadvantage. Generally, the apartments available are offered by individuals who are leaving the country or moving in with family in order to increase their income. Most have no business experience or common sense; almost every missionary (and other foreigners, as well) has had at least one experience with a possessed landlord or landlady who makes unreasonable demands or suddenly decides to raise the rent sharply without warning. Missionaries also have to compete with Western businessmen and well-to-do locals who can, and do, pay absurd amounts for small apartments, driving the prices upward every three months. One brother here with five children found a large apartment and decided to take it at a higher price because the agreement was for two years. The day after his family moved in, another tenant showed up, claiming the apartment and waving a signed contract with the owner. The result is that a person can never relax and assume that anything will go smoothly. It also produces great strain to have to relocate every six months or year, as many of our families have had to do.

One definitely has to have his feet planted firmly on the earth not to be knocked off-balance by currency devaluation, coups, and social crisis. The average Russian, then, learns to count on himself, his friends and family and maybe God to get by. Coming out of the physically comfortable lethargy and lazy contentedness of communism, the young, bright and creative future are beginning to invest themselves in a new tomorrow, going around decades of calcified inefficiency to reinvent their own lives and society. And, in the hearts and minds of many of them is awaking a genuine spiritual interest and understanding. While diehard communists and ultranationalists rant and rave, they are already shaping a new reality. Quietly, life in Moscow is being completely transformed and, I am confident, by the time next winter comes, significant developments will move this nation to a new level under God's guidance.


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