Letter Home from Yekaterinburg, Russia (Sept 1997) – Part 4

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:

One of the primary reasons the economy is starting to boom here in Yekaterinburg is the strong presence of the mafia. They invest money that the government cannot invest; corruption is still sadly widespread in the Russian government, and any money that goes in is never seen again in any shape or form. The mafia, by contrast, invest money, initiate projects, get things done and keep things running smoothly.

While the city cannot and should not depend on the mafia to run things forever – and people here know this – the residents are still grateful for the leadership the mafia have provided during the transition! And ironically the strong presence of organized crime has kept petty crime and violence to a minimum, such that the city is a lot safer to live in now than in the earliest days of the transition before the mafia strengthened and consolidated their presence.

From the standpoint of Russia’s future presence in the international political economy, the mafia cannot substitute for an effectively functioning government which enforces stable laws on which foreign investors can count; but at least here in Yekaterinburg they have served as a much needed catalyst and have provided new infrastructure, which is part of the equation needed for successful foreign investment.

What the mafia cannot do for the city, though, is address serious social problems, two of the most immediately apparent being the environmental situation, on which I am working as one of my outreach projects, and the overwhelming presence of homeless children who are victims of the transition, and on which my colleague, Dan, is working as one of his outreach projects, trying to train social workers to build a series of centers for homeless children.

Social work is a very new profession here, so the need for training is tremendous. And environmental issues are not even thought about in political terms. The typical Russian reaction to environmental issues is that the country has a wealth of natural resources, so they are in no danger. But this precludes their thinking about issues close to home, like why water from the tap contains visible brown and black metals, as well as issues further from home, such as Russia’s participation in international environmental conferences and regimes.

As for the effect of the environment on our personal living conditions, they are visible, though not nearly as much as in other nearby cities like Nizhny-Tagil and Chelyabinsk, some of the biggest industrial and metallurgical sites in Russia – the Ural Mountains provide a huge source of metals and ores. The factories in our area, however, are to the northwest of the city; we live in the south, so we do not breathe factory smoke directly, though pollutants from the factories get into our drinking water, forcing us to boil and filter the water; even so, I use this water only for cooking and cleaning food, preferring to drink the bottled spring water.

The big problem with the air here is automobile exhaust, caused by an overabundance of cars in the city, as well as numerous trucks and buses. None of these vehicles uses unleaded gasoline. The effects are mitigated somewhat by spacious boulevards and numerous open spaces, plazas, parks, etc. But even so, since I am out walking anywhere from 3 to 6 hours a day, I stick to side streets.

Despite these problems, the city is very green. Streets are tree-lined, and this effect is conscientiously maintained. The city has many botanical gardens and green areas surrounding the river and ponds, as well as many wooded areas with hiking trails, one of which is located only a 15-minute walk from my flat! The apartment blocks have elaborate gardens, and the former collective farms and small wood houses have fruit orchards and vegetable gardens. Even the mafia are planting trees at each of their new construction sites!

What is severely lacking are street-side trash cans, animal shelters, any notions of recycling, and other relatively small yet potentially critical things which, though small, are difficult to implement here. One of my outreach projects will be to set up at the university an environmental politics research and discussion cluster group to discuss and work through such issues.

As for my university work, I am teaching two courses this fall, in completely different subfields from what I was initially told, meaning that my first week here was spent in a frantic search for course materials and developing two American politics courses off the top of my head within the limitations of available materials! But they really wanted these courses taught, as I am qualified to teach them, and they have never been taught here before. So I agreed.

This is the most refreshing teaching environment I have ever worked in. I have a group of 20 third-year students (age 19) and a group of 20 fourth-year students (age 20). Students study here for 5 years and stay in the same group all the way through – very different from what I’m used to. They are students of international relations, and about half specialize in English language and half in German, the latter having studied English only peripherally, but with enough knowledge to tackle my classes, which are taught in English.

I give them 10 pages to read every week, not only because of the language difficulties, but because they take 7 to 9 courses per semester!! They write short essays each week, and these are some of the most thoughtful and insightful essays I have ever read. And they are always eager to discuss issues in class, something they’ve never been allowed to do before.

It is rewarding beyond belief to be working with these kids. Additionally, I’m working with other students at the university to help them write proposals for conferences or attending programs in the United States; it is easy for me to locate such opportunities, but very difficult for them.

Till later –

Bcevo khoroshevo!