The writer works at The Spotlight in the advertising department.
A trip to see my in-laws is not a simple thing, and does not happen for me as often as it does for my wife and daughter. You see, my wife’s family lives 5,093 miles from Albany, the farthest you can travel east in Eastern Europe, in a remote city in Western Siberia called Ekaterinburg. This is where all of my wife’s family is, but now, more importantly, this is where my daughter’s grandparents, great-grandmother, aunts and uncles, first and second cousins all live.
After an entire day of traveling (and I mean a solid 24 hours), I finally arrive at the childhood home of my wife, Ekaterina. I remove my boots and goose-down jacket and immediately settle into my spot at the kitchen table with my daughter in my lap, my wife across from me, her dad at the table head, her mom at her post in front of the stove and Great-Grandma in her comfy-cushioned chair by the window where the light is best for knitting. This is where I will spend 80 percent of my time for the next seven days in the kitchen; eating and toasting just being together.
For me, this is paradise. Gone is the cell phone and the laptop, along with the e-mails, text messages, notifications, status updates and tweets. Internet service, much less wireless signals, are few and far between here and despite having what is called a world phone, it still costs me five bucks a minute to use it. So I don’t. There is absolutely nothing else to do in this place but relax and get to know more about my wife’s family and absorb a little culture. I also get to know more about their country and the way they live.
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.
Going grocery shopping is one of my favorite `tourist` activities. Supermarkets are much more compact but still have every possible thing you could need. Every time we went, they were packed with people shopping and talking in a language I am far from mastering. If I keep my mouth shut, most people don’t notice me. Some peg my height as being a dead giveaway that I’m not from here.
Russian supermarkets have us beat. It’s all in the variety. They carry many different items; they put fewer on display and employ a few people to help. At the checkout, the first question is how many bags you need. If you didn’t bring your own, you can buy those plastic T-shirt bags for a nickel each, and then you step to the end of the line and bag your own groceries. One thing is for sure. Russians use far fewer plastic bags than we do, especially if you consider how many bags are pumped into our community’s land fill and blow around in our neighborhoods. I wonder where all those nickels go?
Back at the house, at the kitchen table, casual family discussions refereed by Katerina reveal stories from the past. Her grandmother tells stories stretching back to the assassination of the Romanov Family by Lenin and the Soviets right downtown in a house near the river. There’s an enormous cathedral there now called The Church on the Blood. They were the last of the notorious czar families that ruled the country for more than 400 years. After that, it was socialism and seclusion from the world from 1918 to 1991.
While America was emerging from The Great Depression and enjoying some of the most prosperous times our country has ever seen, my daughter’s mother and family were certainly not thriving, but at least they could count on the bare necessities. Right around the time that we’re engaging Iraq in the most technological war in history, the Soviet government falls and millions of Russians are plunged into a depression that economists say was twice as devastating as ours. Katerina was 8 years old.
Married to a soon-to-be first-generation American and having a beautiful child that has family on opposite sides of the earth has been an experience that has been very fulfilling for me on so many different levels. Right now, we’re all hoping for a baby soon from my brother-in-law to give us another reason to visit!