For the most part, Russians and Americans lead similar lives. It's some of the most subtle differences that fascinate me, but also makes me appreciate much of what we enjoy in this country. It used to be that in Russia, there were only two classes: the rich and the poor. Now, especially on this second visit, I am realizing that a middle class is forming out of the previously poor who have worked hard, and actually tried to get ahead. The years following the breakup of the Soviet Union were very difficult for the vast majority of Russians. They worked for weeks and months with no pay, they survived food shortages and endured endless lines for a shred of government assistance.
Now, nearly 20 years after the end of socialism and in the infancy of democracy, Russians are catching up with, and perhaps surpassing, their fellow industrialized nations in many ways. Even in the three years since I was here last, the positive changes in the city are evident. The marked increase in Japanese and American vehicles was immediately obvious. Traffic has become borderline ridiculous, as the Soviet-era roads are inundated with new drivers. Twenty years ago, a small portion of the 3 million Sverdlovskis owned cars.
Downtown Ekaterinburg looks surprisingly different, with many buildings and even entire city blocks having recent facelifts, presumably for a G8 summit meeting that was held there recently. The continued resurgence of the Orthodox faith since being outlawed for seven decades was evidenced in the construction of at least two new churches. Even Madison Avenue could be envious of the downtown's assortment of retailers like Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren.
Going out in this city goes so far beyond what I what would call a tourist experience. You become totally immersed into this society that is still catching up with technology, excited about it, but still love the old ways of family sticking together through good times and bad, sharing meals and stories and just doing what needs to be done.