Traditional Siberian Apartment Building

30 Sep 2012 Trans-Siberian Express – Part 5

Differences and Similarities in Siberian Homestays with Elena and Irina

Traditional Eastern Siberian Apartment Building

Traditional Eastern Siberian Apartment Building

If you’ve been reading the series of post I’ve contributed to WeSaidGoTravel.com, then you’ve read about the Siberian hosts that I had at my Siberian homestays – Elena in Ekaterinburg and Irina in Irkutsk. If you haven’t read my previous posts, you might want to take a look at them first.

I want to share some of my impressions from these really thought-provoking experiences. Despite the obvious differences in their situations, Elena and Irina share an underlying similarity which seemed to be related more to attitude than to economic circumstances. It’s true that both ladies are part of Russia’s middle class which is growing by leaps and bounds during this sometimes chaotic transition from complete dictatorship to a kind of democracy that is still a little too controlled for many Westerners.

In the past, Russia had basically two classes. There was the small group of the Russian aristocracy, called boyars. And then there was the overwhelming majority consisting of peasants, who worked the land and served the aristocracy. Nowadays, Russia has a growing middle class. It’s not growing fast enough for some, but it’s important to keep in mind just where Russia was 50 years ago in terms of democracy and middle class.

First, Elena:

  • Member of the new middle class.
  • She was about 63 years old when Kay and I were there in 2004.
  • She lived alone – divorced with an adult daughter.
  • She had a 2-room apartment.
  • She was a language professor at university.
  • More than 77% of her life was lived under the Soviet government.
  • She lived in a large industrial city of 1.4 million people.
  • She lived in a huge apartment complex, similar to what we in Chicago refer to as ‘the projects.’ The building itself and the hallways inside were very unattractive. Many of these huge complexes were built in an attempt to meet the housing shortage that came about as the population shifted from the countryside to the cities in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

And Irina:

  • Also a member of the middle class.
  • She was about 40 years old when we were there.
  • She lived with her husband, one son, and one daughter.
  • She lived in a 3-room apartment.
  • She was a physical education teacher at university.
  • About 65% of her life was lived under the Soviets.
  • She lived in a university city of just under 600,000.
  • She lived in an attractive apartment building, similar to the traditional buildings that can be found in most major U.S. cities – four or five stories high, three or four apartments per floor.
Traditional Eastern Siberian Apartment Building

Traditional Eastern Siberian Apartment Building

It’s always somewhat dangerous to make conclusions with a very small sample, but  the similarities that I noticed in these two homestays were things that I encountered again and again over the next eight years during which I spent a significant amount of time in Russia, stayed in more homestays, and made Russian friends.

So here goes – and please remember that these are not scientific conclusions  they are just impressions that I got from personal observation.

The first thing that hit me as soon as I entered both apartments was the amount of stuff everywhere. There wasn’t a corner, a table top, a cupboard, or any other spot that wasn’t jammed with stuff – papers, figurines, old magazines and newspapers, and more. You might think that this was true because the apartments are relatively small. But I think the attitude came about from growing up in the Soviet environment and having lived through the Yeltsin years when there were virtually no products available in the stores.

My guess is that some people developed an attitude of holding on to whatever they had because they didn’t know when they were going to get more. I’ve heard enough true stories from Russian friends who stood in line for hours and then arrived at the front of the line to fine that everything had already been sold. It seems that it would be easy to develop this attitude in that kind of situation.

To illustrate this attitude, I remember one evening having dinner with Elena. She was scraping her plate with her last tiny piece of bread for any last bit of juice from the meat. I guess I was staring at her with a strange look on my face because she suddenly apologized to me and said, “I’m sorry, but I remember when we had nothing.”

Traditional Eastern Siberian Apartment Building

Traditional Eastern Siberian Apartment Building

There was no way I could really and truly understand what she’d been through, but I will never forget what she said or how she said it. Her comment helped me to understand how fortunate I was to have been born into a family that certainly had its share of problems, but that had provided food and clothing for me and made it possible for me to choose my path in life.

Both Elena and Irina had had very little voice in deciding their careers. They had both been given a very limited choice of possible careers. Some of my friends in Russia really had no choice at all. That situation is quite different now – young people can try to follow their desires.

Although these ladies were part of the middle class, they did not have closets overflowing with the latest fashions. How many of us in the U.S. open the door to a closet stuffed with clothes and yet we stand looking at all those options and complain that we just don’t have a thing to wear? I am ashamed to admit how many times I’ve done that.

Both Elena and Irina dressed very nicely, but there were only meager pickings in their closets. While some of my clothes don’t get used week after week, they had only a few nice outfits that they alternated from day to day.

My stays with Elena and Irina gave me a bit of a jolt in the sense that I spent some time thinking about my own life and my attitude toward what kinds of things I feel I need to have. I won’t pretend that any of my spending habits changed as a result of my experiences at these homestays, but at least, I became a bit more conscious about making purchases and questioned myself more prior to make buying decisions. Seeing similar situations on TV news or reading about people in difficult predicaments just does not have the same impact as meeting people in person who have gone through life challenges that I can hardly imagine.

After the second homestay with Irina, Kay and I experienced a different kind of homestay in a Siberian village on the shores of Lake Baikal. In some ways, this next homestay was quite a contrast to the previous homestays – in other ways, there were similarities. Come back to this site for my next post in this series on Siberia.

About the author:

Kate is a seasoned traveler and tour director who has lived on the island of Java for the past 30 years. Java became her home when she took a 3-month work assignment to train Indonesians on word processing equipment in Jakarta, and she fell in love with the adventurous lifestyle that she found there. Although she continues working as a tour director in many countries of the world, she now spends most of her time writing in her home/office in Yogyakarta, Central Java, which she shares with her three Dalmatians. You can visit her at KateBenzin, at her blog Traveling Forever, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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Kate Benzin
2 Comments
  • sandy
    Posted at 18:02h, 08 October Reply

    I found Elena’s comment so poignant. It makes sense that the Russian people who suffered through so many years of restrictions and deprivation would want to keep as many possessions as they could ..just in case. Great article!

  • Irene
    Posted at 09:44h, 09 October Reply

    I am Russian. I am grateful to Kate, she chose very careful words describing these uneasy issues and I feel her sincerity towards what she thinks and writes.

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