An American Babushka in Moscow:  Singularity and Social Space

Like Oedipus I was never able to escape my fate.  In principle, if not in actuality, I was orphaned before I was born: a father dead from the war, a mother lost to desire and chance.  My grandmother came to save me when I was less than two weeks old.  The first thing she did the morning after she returned to her small homeand to her old man, who was slowly dying from the black lung he had spent decades developing in the anthracite mines he labored in, was to go and see the Old Lady.  She and my grandmother while certainly not friends were not enemies either; rather, they were competitors.  My grandmother was a legendary interpreter of dreams, and the Old Lady a prophet and fortune teller, and people came from all over the area to learn from them what life had in store.    The old woman looked at me and informed my grandmother  that my destiny was to always be alone.  My grandmother, knowing that my destiny could not be changed, set out to prepare me for it.  She did this by accustoming me to my solitude, so that it became a habit rather than a sorrow.  Instead of defining it as a burden, she defined it as freedom.   And so it was that I became a singularity, turned inward rather than outward and living in my mind, which is where absolute freedom dwells.

Not so much in the early and middle years of my life, when curiosity drove me into the world to experience and know it, but as I grew older – when my children had grown and left me behind….when relationships lost their pull and the world began to bore me….I became ever more withdrawn into myself.  Truth be told, I could go for weeks without leaving my home as long as I could study and write.  The life of the mind is by its very nature a solitary one and so I am well suited for it, and it for me.

But I live in the former Soviet Union, where there were properly speaking, no suburbs as are evolving now.  No back yards, no gardens to play in but instead, the well designed social spaces where people went and still go to walk, to meet others, to let their children play in playgrounds and ride their bikes and scooters.  The free apartments that were given to the Soviet citizens were very small.  In fact, the standard apartment was approximately 45 sq. meters, and in those small spaces lived entire families: grandparent, parents, a child.  Usually, and until just recently when Putin’s incentives for Russians to have more children kicked in, Russians only had one child because there was no space for more.  The very design of the apartments they lived in forced them out into the social world: to the parks and libraries, the free clubs, classes and sports facilities.  Even when the old men gathered (and still gather) to drink and talk together, they do so standing around small tables in the park.   The Soviet World was a world of free and very enjoyable social spaces.  The apartments were merely places where people went to eat and sleep.   Any attempt at withdrawal into the crowded space of one’s own was everywhere contradicted by the communal space of Communism.

So it is, that this morning, the communal space of Perovsky Park, imposes on me as I struggle to write and drives me out of my singularity.  First, there is the Jazz music coming from the small amphitheater in the center of the park.  This does not end, before the blare of the loudspeakers and the pounding music begins to rise up from the soccer field.  And from every one of the fifteen playgrounds that are within a two hundred yards of my apartment, the squeals of children rise up.  From the skateboard park directly across the street, the crash and clatter of the skateboards hitting the ground join the the din.  All of this, and I cannot withdraw into my own mind, cannot focus on my writing;  and so I give up and go out into the public space of Perovo.

On my way out the door I say hello to an old man, whom I have learned, was a famous fighter pilot in the Soviet Air Force.  I walk slowly towards the park, past the playground to the left of my building where I run into another neighbor, a much younger man who speaks very good English and I pause to talk to him about what is happening in Moscow these days.  We both decry the fact that the city, even now two weeks before the World Cup begins, is so terribly crowded.


I move on to the area where there is a small and ancient church – a private church built for the sister of a Czar.  (See picture above._ Once all of Perovsky Park was part of her estate.  The church has a booth  sells what are called “pirogi” – small little buns filled with jams.  I buy one and sit in the shade to eat it. I watch children and adults create their own traffic jams of scooters, bikes and prams as they walk along the paths.  There is a small and permanent fair in the Park, and the children riding the bumper cars, twirling inside of giant plastic balloons floating in pools of water, whirling around in small planes,  are screaming with joyous delight.

On my way home I stop at the outdoor gym to use the equipment.  I wait my turn behind another Babushka ten years my senior.

All in all, the communist social spaces work to break down my singularity; a good thing and a bad thing.  I go home and write my article, trying not to be distracted by the sound of the announcer on the loudspeaker at the soccer game, but feeling so much better for the sun, the exercise and the small conversation.

Mary Metzger is a 72 year old retired teacher who has lived in Moscow for the past ten years. She studied Women’s Studies under Barbara Eherenreich and Deidre English at S.U.N.Y. Old Westerbury. She did her graduate work at New York University under Bertell Ollman where she studied Marx, Hegel and the Dialectic. She went on to teach at Kean University, Rutgers University, N.Y.U., and most recenly, at The Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology where she taught the Philosophy of Science. Her particular area of interest is the dialectic of nature, and she is currently working on a history of the dialectic. She is the mother of three, the gradmother of five, and the great grandmother of 2.


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