Letter Home from Yekaterinburg, Russia (Sept 1997) – Part 2

I recently found in my closet several handwritten letters that I sent to my mother during my time teaching in Russia. I sent many more, but these were all I could find. I will be posting these on my blog. I have retyped the letters but changed nothing. It’s hard for a writer-editor not to tweak her old stuff. But I wanted to keep the letters as authentic as they were the day I wrote them. God bless.

If you missed my first letter home from Moscow (August 1997), you can read it here.

If you missed part 1 of my Yekaterinburg letter (Sept 1997), you can read it here.

Yekaterinburg, Russia, 9/27/97
Weather: Unseasonably Hot!

Dear All:

I am writing this letter during an Indian summer that has lasted a month already, with apparently no end in sight! Blame it on global warming or some natural millennial cycle, but the weather here is crazy!

Apparently Yekaterinburg just went through the coldest summer in recorded history; in fact, the day I arrived here it was absolutely freezing, and I was wearing a winter parka on August 31. The contrast was striking, because we left Moscow in sweltering heat. Once our train crossed the Ural Mountains about 26 hours later, we stepped out onto the platform at one of the stops and nearly froze. From that point it was a scramble to scrounge around for coats and boots buried in our luggage which was carefully and intricately stowed in our two train compartments; it was not an easy feat of engineering to stow this stuff in the first place – 7 people, 3 of whom had a year’s supply of luggage and text books! – so trying to dig through everything as the train approached Yekaterinburg was completely chaotic!

Within 2 days after our arrival here, however, the temperature shot up to 80 degrees F and has not dropped since! Heating is subsidized here, so the city is responsible for its supply. Every year on September 15, the heat goes on in every building in the city, automatically. Fortunately the city decided to delay for another month. We’re just hoping the temperature doesn’t take a sudden nosedive before October 15. Meanwhile I heard from someone recently that back in NYC it is cold already … and here I am in Siberia in sweltering heat. And I brought only fall and winter clothes with me.

The nice thing about the weather, though, is that it has given my colleagues and I some time to get out and see most of the city before it becomes buried in snow! I am here with two other visiting CEP lecturers; one is a social worker from West Virginia named Dan, and the other is a lawyer from Hamburg, Germany named Robert. Even though we live in different parts of the city and teach at different schools, we chat on the phone and also try to plan some group outing once a week, to a park or market or hockey game – as soon as the theatre season starts, we’ll plan outings there, too.

We also have two other CEP colleagues here, Vitaly and Sergei, who are permanent, i.e., Russian lecturers. We see them on occasion, too, but much of the time they are quite busy with their families and working other jobs. The economy here is tough, and I have yet to meet anyone here who works less than 3-4 jobs and fewer than 18 hours a day, 6 days a week – yet Sundays they observe very seriously as a day to spend relaxing with their families, strolling in the park, meeting for a big dinner, etc.

The economy is tough and their lives are even tougher, but the Russians who live here in Yekaterinburg are remarkably optimistic, energetic and enterprising people who are not waiting around for opportunities to come to them; instead, they are trying to make opportunities happen. I am truly impressed with the way the Russian people are pushing through this transitional period. And they are very concerned with each other’s welfare and state of mind, as if they want to be sure they all pull through the transition together.

As hard as I try to see what they are facing, I am only able to experience the hardships they are going through on a small scale. I am paid a local salary of $60 a month, the same as my Russian colleagues in my department; of course, tenured full professors are paid more … $100 a month. CEP kicks in an additional stipend for my CEP colleagues and I; this is based on local cost-of-living factors and is intended to boost our standard of living to that of an adjunct lecturer in the United States or Western Europe.

But I wanted to live as the locals do, so I put my CEP stipend aside and am living entirely off my local salary. Amazingly enough, it can be done … with regard to food and household items like soap and light bulbs, which is all I need to pay for. My rent of $250 a month is paid by CEP, as are things like utilities, phone, email, furniture, dishes, linens, water filters, space heaters, books, notebooks, paper, pens, traveling and entertainment costs, etc.

This means that where food is concerned, I can relate to my local colleagues – I go to buy a can of Coke for 50 cents or a bottle of spring water for 70 cents, which to an American from the New York area seem like prices from the 1950s, and I think to myself that with that 50-70 cents I could buy an entire dinner at a cafeteria. And even so, I still buy the occasional Coke or spring water or imported coffee mix, whereas my Russian colleagues would refrain from doing so.

But I relate to them only at this level. What about all those other amenities, including rent, that CEP provides for me? How do my Russian colleagues pay for all those things, when I am spending their entire local salary on food, and not on fancy, imported food but on the same local food that they eat? This gives a clue to why they work several jobs at once, day and night. And yet they see in this situation not despair, but hope … because while their lives are chaotic and uncertain now, the one thing they do have, finally, is freedom. The opportunities they need are not all there yet, but finally they are no longer denied the ability to pursue whatever opportunities they can create.

As one of my students wrote in an essay last week, “We in our [Russian] history have made a lot of great mistakes which now hamper reforms and disturb our progress … If someone wants to do something very good and useful for our country and our people, many things stand in the way … But notwithstanding we try not to give up and we rejoice at even little victories above our old system. And so I think step by step we can solve our problems.” The thoughts expressed by this 19-year-old named Tatiana reflect the perspective I have encountered here in general. These are remarkable people.

To be continued next Sunday …