Sunday, 2 January 2011

Samara: Narrow Horizons in a Vast Land: Ordinary Lives in a Little Tenement on the Volga ((Russian Volga Federal District)

For my stop in the Volga Federal District of Russia I find myself again in the riverside city of Samara (previously a stopover on the “Last Boat to Astrakhan”). Samara is a modern city, one of the largest in Russia (around 1.2 million inhabitants). it is a leading industrial centre in the Volga Area, and is among the top ten Russian cities in terms of national income and industrial volume.

On the surface this shows – the futuristic airport of glass and steel is hugely impressive, and many of the commercial buildings in the city centre bear the names of large national corporations.

The accommodation during my time in Samara was rather more modest however, sharing a small communal apartment in a tenement block at Number Four, Specialist Alley courtesy of Englishwoman C.S. Walton’s “Little Tenement on the Volga”. Walton appears to have travelled widely throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas - learning Russian on an earlier stay in the USSR – yet her reasons for spending a year in Samara during 1993 remain a little vague: “I landed in Samara through a chance meeting with a refugee in London. Valentina said she had grown tired on living on the edge of civilisation. She gave me an invitation to the home town she had chosen to escape.”

The first thing that strikes Ms Walton upon arriving at Samara's Department of Visas and Foreign Affairs is the grinding bureaucracy of the city and, one senses, the country as a whole. The native population appears wearily resigned to this pervasive and inefficient officialdom: the various peasants in this particular waiting room radiate “ptierpelost – a characteristically Russian expression for patience and the capacity to endure”.

Walton patently struggles to fit into this mindset, and one senses an exasperation on her part with what she sees as a subservience on the part of the general populace in the face of state incompetence. Chapter titles such as “The Idiocy of Everyday Life” do come across as rather abrasive, and one does wonder what her hosts might think of their lives being described in such stark terms. This can be seen further in her descriptions of the daily, grinding battle to buy supplies – involving hours of queuing for scarce products that are often of dubious actual use (“It was a victory if by the end of the day if I could procure yoghurt, mineral water or eggs”).

Here, at least, Walton does acknowledge that much of her perception is filtered through her Western eyes – what is a tedious and stressful ordeal for her is actually seen as a social activity for her fellow Russians. Her realisation of this can be seen where she describes how: “People constantly shouted questions to assistants over the heads of waiting customers, yet prices were clearly marked on the front of the counter. At first I wondered whether everyone was terribly short-sighted, or perhaps illiterate; finally I understood that in Russia shopping is a social activity and any opportunity for argument or conversation is gratefully seized upon.”

Overall, however, one feels that Walton finds the Russians who surround her to be oppressive in their acceptance of what she sees as intolerable living conditions for the 1990s. Her description of her accommodation indicates she finds her surroundings equally oppressive: “Each room housed a couple or family. Each flat [of 10 to 12 rooms] contained one kitchen and one washroom…clothes and sheets were washed here in metal tubs. Water had to be heated up on the stoves. The washrooms contained two lavatories and two cold water taps over a trough. Some residents kept their personal wooden toilet seats hanging from nails on the wall.”

During the course of the book Walton’s bewilderment and frustration turn to anger and sadness as she observes a depressing cycle of social disenfranchisement which largely manifests itself in a widespread alcoholism; especially among the men of the lowly social strata of the city that Walton inhabits. Local people describe the consequences of such social isolation with a telling casualness ”It looks peaceful out there but in fact this area is full of alcoholics, junkies, and criminals. Last Sunday they took away a drunk woman from our stairway who had been beaten half to death. The neighbours heard her screaming but of course no one opened their doors.”

Walton herself encounters this problem first-hand. However, unlike the locals she positions this social ill in terms of gender – depicting an inevitable vicious circle whereby Samaran women contribute to there own social inequality by encouraging ‘infantilism’ in their menfolk, leading to a lack of responsibility and an increasing reliance on the bottle:

“Drinking must be less damaging to general female health than the perpetual infantilism they nurture in their men. Female care allows men to make an art form of irresponsibility. They learn to cope with life with a bottle in the hand and a woman in the kitchen.”

Walton is even, in a quite amusing episode, on the receiving end of this mentality when dating a Russian: in an awkward exchange with his mother Walton is forced to make a shocking (to the mother) admission: “When I finally told her that her son dined in his works canteen she was shocked into silence. Then her lips compressed in disapproval: ‘I’ll come around after work and cook his supper here,’ she announced.” Compounding this cultural abyss a proposal of marriage swiftly follows – and is even more swiftly rejected!

What should be stressed here is that – for all her sadness at the social disenfranchisement of her neighbours and outrage at the gender inequalities she witnesses - Walton is also open to the positives of the society that she is observing.

That not all men are drunken boors is personified in the person of Boris, a neighbour whom Walton befriends, and who proves to be helpful, generous and willing to take Walton under his wing in terms of guiding her through the complex mores of Russian society.

Another fascinating character that Walton meets is Lina Ivanovna Shatalova, the local ‘wise-woman’ who lives in a shack off Specialist Alley with a menagerie of rescued animals. One senses that Walton finds a certain affinity with Lina’s unwillingness to conform the Samaran social norms, and certainly Lina has a fascinating back story which Walton recounts in vivid prose. Lina was born in 1934 after the great famine in the Ukraine and then went on to live through the Second World War, Nazi occupation, Soviet occupation, displacement to Siberia, life in a dangerous chemical factory in Novokuibyshevsk and then a job as a carriage attendant on the railways (dealing with abusive and philandering husbands and partners along the way).

Later on, Walton begins to find further evidence that “The surface conformism of Samarans masked deep political cynicism.” Towards the end of her stay she has a particularly poignant meeting with Natasha from Chapaevsk, a satellite town of Samara. Natasha stands out in protesting to the authorities about the living conditions she is forced to bring her family up in: “The town of Chapaevsk is a contaminated pit, ringed by military plants. My daughter is seriously ill…her doctors are useless. They won’t admit that the environment is poisoning her. It’s a question of political interests.” One recalls the shadow of Belarus, contaminated by a remote government through Chernobyl, here (and an earlier stop on my Round The World trip). Walton’s summary of this encounter is heart-breaking: “Most women in Chapaevsk chose to anaesthetise themselves against life. Natasha was exceptional in her conviction that things did not have to be as they were. She had tried to halt the destruction of her environment and to improve her quality of life. Tired and disillusioned, she is stuck in Chapaevsk watching her hair fall out.”

What this demonstrates, rather starkly, is that an unwillingness to question the system – even in modern times - is just as likely to be driven by fear as apathy. And when the system IS questioned, there are no easy answers.

Walton sums up her account and her experiences of Samara concisely yet effectively at the end of this book: “Number Four, Specialist Alley is a microcosm of provincial Russia – a depressed and impoverished world, shot through with moments of beauty and compassion.”

Certainly, despite the grimness of Walton's observations of life here, one gets a sense of the humanity and the resilience of the residents of this city, and one can only hope that its surface prosperity has filtered down more equitably to its populace in recent years.

From Samara, I take another strange detour – flying from Samara to the seaport of Bergen in Norway, despite my next destination being Murmansk high up in Russia’s Northwestern district. The reason for this is that – as with Astrakhan earlier – I shall be travelling to Murmansk by water with a book called “Return to Murmansk.” In 1990, Henry Swain sailed the 34-foot yacht Callisto to Murmansk. He had been there 45 years earlier, on a Royal Navy warship escorting American merchant vessels charged with supplying vital aid to the Soviets. U-boats prowled the Russian coast and the Luftwaffe nestled menacingly in Norway, while the cruel Arctic winter offered its own deadly hazard – ice.

Swain's return journey, along one thousand miles of rocky coastline and over the Barents Sea, as well as his account of the reception he received in modern-day Murmansk, forms the main narrative of my next destination.

Due to the sheer distance involved in travelling from Samara to Bergen, I opt to fly. Although quicker, this is no easy option and requires a number of changes to make it affordable. As it is, the one-way journey costs me £307 in total – but beware, some operators will quote routes that will cost you from £1000 to £1500 economy class!

My itinerary is as follows:

1) Aeroflot flight 836 departs Samara at 6.40am and arrives at 8:30am in Sheremetyevo in Moscow, followed by a stopover of 3 hours.

2) Air Baltic flight 7425 departs Sheremetyevo at 11.30am and arrives at 12:10pm in Riga, Latvia (I gain an hour here due to time difference – the flight actually takes 1 hour 40 minutes). There is a brief stopover of 45 minutes here before boarding a rather bumpy turboprop plane:

3) Air Baltic flight 135, which departs 12:55pm Riga and arrives 1:30pm Copenhagen Airport, where we stopover for 1 hour 35 minutes before the last leg of the journey:

4) SAS flight 2872 that departs 4:20pm from Copenhagen Airport and finally arrives at 5:40pm in Bergen, Norway.

From here, I make my bleary-eyed way through driving rain via the Airport Bus to Bergen’s busy seaport, located in the city centre (this normally takes 25 minutes, but my journey is 40 minutes due to hitting the tail-end of rush hour – still it is a LOT cheaper than a taxi!!).

Here I hook up with the 34-foot yacht Callisto and prepare for a 1000-mile journey around the rocky coastline of Norway and Russia in order to “Return to Murmansk”.

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