When friends hear that I visited Russia recently, they ask little about the art or architecture or landscape. They want to know about the people. What are Russians like? Are they rude? Violent? Noisy? Drunk? Pushy? In other words, are they what we expect the enemy to look like?
Not at all.
Take Ludemilla, for instance. She hosts a tea for a dozen or so Viking River Cruise passengers several times a month in the summer. Her large 1936 log home is just a block off the main street in Yaroslavl.The exterior is decorated with gingerbread frames around the windows, a large vegetable garden in the back yard, a rustic gazebo for outdoor dining and a large sandbox for her grandson. Black rubber slipons to protect her shoes from the muddy garden lean against the doorframe.
Potted plants filling the deep window sills can be seen through the sheer living room drapes that are decorated with garish orange eyelash curls. The room is wallpapered with stripes of green ivy. Among the toys and books and knickknacks on the shelves is a huge faux wedding cake made of fabric and wrapped in cellophane. The fake cake is much larger than the small television. Framed pictures on the walls range from family photos to a paint-by-number treasure to a classic landscape. The table is spread with a pink checked plastic cloth, china plates and water glasses painted with assorted fruit.
Ludemilla serves plates of sliced vegetables — the cucumbers are from her garden but not the yellow peppers she explains — cheese slices, dark bread, pickles and a white cake with raspberry topping. And homemade vodka. The “moonshine” is the centerpiece of the Viking visit and our guide, Dimitry, teaches us how to guzzle quickly to avoid the bitter taste.
Ludemilla, 60, has lived in the house 40 years. Her late husband was a member of the communist party and they came to Yaroslavl for him to work as an accountant in a nearby district office. Now her daughter and grandson live with her. Although Ludemilla doesn’t speak English she tries to answer our questions as translated by Dimitry. At one point she rushes from the room and returns with a sweater to try and answer one woman’s question about fabric care. She bustles about the room non-stop attending to her guests.
Her home is much more spacious than the Kommunalka we visited a week earlier in St. Petersburg. After the 1917 revolution, the large apartments of the wealthy were divided up among several families so each person could have equal space, about 27 square feet. Most of these have been torn down over the years but a few still exist. Larissa, a retired nurse and widow of a seaman, served us hot tea and a delicious cheese-filled coffee cake in her one-room portion of the apartment.
The four unrelated residents share an entry hall crowded with their shoes and coats. They also share a common kitchen which is narrow and old-fashioned. They share common bathroom facilities which have a clawfoot tub in one room and toilet and basin in another. The whole building is aging with crumbling concrete steps and wavy floors. But Larissa’s one room portion is well furnished with a makeshift bunk over her office space for when her son visits. She has a shiny new stainless steel refrigerator in her private room, as well as a computer and printer. A shelf unit separates the office area from the formal living room with a sofa that makes into a bed. The room is also home to a friendly cat, a noisy bird and lots of potted plants.
Larissa purchased her share in the Kommunalka about 10 years ago to be near a daughter and grand children who live in St. Petersburg. She remembers communism as being more “calm” than the current democracy and enjoyed the availability of plenty of schools and gym facilities when her children were growing up. The people have more freedoms today, such as the freedom to travel, she says, but that is only a freedom for people who have lots of money. She wore a cross around her neck and said she attends the Russian Orthodox church a little more regularly now than during the Communist regime.
She has a car and drives to her “dacha,” family property she inherited about 10 miles from St. Petersburg where she has a garden. She can’t afford to build a house on the property but considers it her summer getaway.
We met lots of other Russians more briefly. The young woman who smiled and moved aside when a group of tourists invaded her car on Moscow’s subway. The woman with a stroller who waved as our boat passed her in a riverside park. The fishermen who never even looked up from their task as our boat passed. The young motorcyclists that filled the sidewalks near the Moscow University.
They served us food, they guided us through their cities, they sang and danced for us. Some of them speak highly of President Putin; others not so much. They seemed very much like Americans.