An American Babushka in Moscow:  Why Are You Here?

Moscow July 2011 16

Sooner or later- sooner if they are rude and later if they are polite enough to wait until we have developed a relationship that would allow them to ask a personal question, Russians  will inevitably ask  “Why are you here?”  Some in a tone of suspicion or contempt,  will ask me as if they were throwing down a gauntlet  The clear implication is that only a spy or a fool would voluntarily come to live in Russia. After all, most Russians dream of leaving Russia, of having their children learn English well enough to go and study in England or America.  Wealthy and not so wealthy pregnant Russian women fly to America to have their babies so that they might be American citizens. So Russians cannot even conceive of why an American would come to Russia to live.

Back in the day, before the price of oil had fallen, before the brutal sanctions had forced Russians not just to spend less, but to eat less; when the Rouble was worth almost three times what it is worth today; when people who could never find a high paying job in Britain or America could come to Russia and earn good money simply because they spoke English  (It didn’t even have to be proper English and they didn’t even have to have college degrees or experience teaching English as a Second Language), they would ask me, with no small degree of haughty contempt, if I had come to Russia to earn money.  Although not true, it was a fair assumption.   I knew one American who made a quarter of a million dollars in one year just sitting around talking with Oligarchs and the children of Oligarchs.  He didn’t even know the rules of grammar.   To be sure he worked 14 hours a day six days a week, but he could never have made that kind of money as an unskilled worker in America.

Sometimes they ask out of simple curiosity. Sometimes they ask me out of kindness and concern.  It is almost incomprehensible to them that an old woman should be living alone far away from her family.  Often they will ask “Why did your children allow you to leave?”  I try to explain to them, that American families are not like Russian families, and that my children are not like Russian children in that they are in no way motivated by the need to take care of me.  American Babushki are not treated the way Russian Babushki are treated.  To be an old woman in America is at best, to be ignored, and at most to be an object of revulsion.  America is a country preoccupied with appearance, obsessed with beauty and driven by  commercialized images of sexuality.  To be a Babushka in Russia is something else altogether.  They are the cultural icons of the nation, the living embodiments of Russian tradition, Russian family values, and of Russian endurance.  They are respected and revered, and highly valued for their wisdom.    They are always to be cared for, never to be disrespected and never, not ever, to be disobeyed.

I remember when I first came to Russia, and was standing in a cramped Metro car holding on to a pole for dear life.  An older Babushka came in wearing a sweater and a head scarf in the sauna like heat of a nonairconditioned car, on a brutally hot summer day.   She took one look at me, and then looked down at the two younger women sitting in front of her, their attention focused on their cell phones, and with one word and a single sweep of her hand, ordered them to get up.   She then looked at me and beckoned me to take the seat next to her.  It is, they know, within their real, to tell others what to do.  They sit on buses and scream at the drivers for some driving error, they can stop in the street and chastise child and adult alike, and none dare even meet their eyes for fear of further reprimand:  no one, save for another Babushka, dare defy her.

The answer to their question is that I came to Russia in the same way I have done everything else in my life: quite by chance, without plan or intention.  I have never imagined myself  the captain of my ship, but have all my life, without any thought, gone where the wind took me.  And so it was, when the wind filled my sails and destiny directed  me to Moscow, I went.  One day I got an email informing me that I had been hired by what is often referred to as a McSchool, to teach English in Russia.  I have no memory of ever applying for this job.   It had never entered my mind to work in Russia.  I really didn’t quite know what to do about this, so I went over to my friend Susan’s house to seek out her most valued opinion.    Susan is a hoarder of the first order who watches me when I squeeze along the narrow pathway through the piles of accumulated and unused items she has acquired, to make sure I have not taken anything.    She bears an incredible resemblance to Katherine Hepburn, and for that reason,  never worked very much, but was always well supported by wealthy and influential lovers.  In her sixties she was still a beauty with a lithe body and a quick and retentive mind.  But the man who supports her now, is definitely neither wealthy nor influential, nor at all physically attractive or charismatic.   He is an engineer,  and makes decent money.  His one pleasure in life, aside from Susan, is spending as little of that  money as possible.  His hyperfrugality bothers Susan only in-so-far as it limits her limitless desire for adventure and travel.  She is driven into dark depressions by the monotony of her existence, and in me she finds a kindred soul, who hungers for change  embraces adventure and has the freedom to do as I please.

Her back is turned to me preparing dinner for her man, when I enter her kitchen.  She never turns around to look at me as I  tell her my story.  I ask her what she thinks I should do about  the offer.  She never turns to face me.  “So how old are you now?”  I answer that I am 62.  “And how many adventures do you think you have left in life?”  Right!  That was the correct question and the correct answer rolled into one.  And so it was, I decided to go to Moscow for a little adventure.  I planned on only staying for six months.  I took sabbaticals from the colleges, told them I would be back for the next semester, put my furniture in storage and bought my tickets.   My possessions have been in storage for ten years now.  Save for brief visits, I never returned to America and have no intention of ever doing so.

When I first came here, I , a dyed in the wool Marxist, was exhilarated to be in the land of the great Communist revolution.  Two days after I arrived I nagged a fellow expat to take me to Red Square.  She did and as she stood there bored and sighing, tears welled up in my eyes as I stood before Lenin’s tomb.  She tells me that underneath Red Square is a wonderful mall, and the first hint of something yet to be fully realized comes upon me.  I will spend my early years in Moscow searching out every small remainder of the Soviet Union: people, places and things.  I feel as if I can just know them, see them, touch them, I can come closer to Communism.  A decade later I realize that I cannot touch them because they are ghosts’  although never fully destroyed, Communism becomes more memory than reality every day.  Russia under Putin, is becoming on the one hand, the old Russia, the Russia of the Czar and the Patriarch, and on the other, a new more Americanized/Capitalistic Russia of Oligarchs and people who sport Western brands.  In the decade I have lived here Russia has changed and changed and changed yet again and I, well, I have gotten older.

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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