What cements the Russian to the soil? Is it the language, the art, the literature, the church, the national spirit? It is all of that. But, what really constitutes his identity is the family. The family is the backbone of Russian society. I experienced this first hand one summer day in the countryside.
It was a typical Sunday afternoon at a Russian dacha with four generations of an extended family and guests. There was Irina and husband Dima, the young owners of the dark green duplex 50 kilometers outside of Moscow. There was Dima’s mother and a still practicing legislative lawyer. There was Sasha, a builder and Dima’s brother. There was Yelenushka and Andrush, Irina’s sister and her husband, both doctors, and their two boys, Anton and Ivan (“my name is John”) age 8. And Polina, Dima’s daughter from an earlier marriage, a beautiful slender art student living in London.
Then there was the star of the day, Yegor, age six months, Irina’s baby - a solid Russian baby boy if ever there was one. And the hungriest of them all, Vida, Elena and Andrei’s lovable golden dog. And of course there was me, the foreign guest. A Chekhov afternoon is never complete without a guest, sometimes a foreigner and usually a troublemaker.
A summer afternoon at a Russian dacha with friends is a failure if anything of importance gets done. It is the means and not the end that is important. Although, who is to say that doing nothing is not important?
Four Russian women crammed into the small kitchen. They talked, joked, stirred, cut, poured, laughed, all at the same time, and out came three salads, cold meats, marinated pork and onions for the shashlik, and a cake. Three grown men and two small boys wrestled with a garden tarpaulin, talking, arguing, measuring, discussing, pondering, and getting in each other’s way, and finally, two hours later, a thin canvas roof was hoisted onto a fragile pyramidal frame to provide shelter for the feast.
Conversations, as in Three Sisters, were about the mythical glories of the city, but in this case it was not Moscow as in Chekhov’s play, but Paris or New York or Orange County, California. Then came commiserations about opportunities missed and loves lost as in Uncle Vanya. Almost everything was open for discussion and all at once.
Shashlik, that tasty legacy of the Tatars, is the standard of the Russian picnic. The fire burned high between two rows of bricks on the grass and then settled into a pile of hot coals, over which meat and onions on long silver skewers were roasted to perfection.
There was no hurry - the Russian summer evening never ends. The light softened and turned to gold. The sun lingered forever on the horizon, just as the family lingered forever over cake, tea, wine, vodka. Little Yegor soaked up the adulation and saturated his diaper. Ivan started aimlessly hoeing the grass, which contained a smattering of lilies. There were four trees in the garden and I asked the men if they knew their names. After a long discussion and consultation with Andrei, the doctor, the experts decided they did not know.
A tall, leggy, green-eyed woman in shorts and halter, sat barefoot on the porch railing, speaking to someone on her cell phone. She was Irina, pretty mother of Yegor and wife to Dima, owner of the dacha and director general of our company, one of the fastest growing telecoms companies in Moscow. Irina and her sister were from Novosibirsk. Dima and his mother and daughter were from an old Moscow family and had the chiseled look of aristocracy. Dima worked in the arts, producing television advertising festivals, and taking veterans and ethnic groups on cultural tours down the Volga.
Lesnoy Gorodok is an old village of dachas. Along the broken asphalt streets stood cars with their guts scattered around them. Dirty men lazily worked without much promise of success. Cats sat in windows. Mothers pushed baby strollers. Children on bikes were chased by dogs. Some smiled and said, “Good day,” and others passed silently by with averted eyes.
Outside of Lesnoy Gorodok and into what was once a field of green, strange structures incongruously stood, as big as small office buildings in an Ohio town. These were the vulgar red brick dachas of the Novi Russkis, the rich and infamous, who spend their purloined wealth on everything excessive and have not an ounce of taste. One was a sorry imitation of the Parthenon and another a misbred cross between St. Basil’s Cathedral and Angkor Wat. Some lay unfinished, their owners having run out of money, been caught by the tax police (sent by a competitor), or shot by creditors.
They said the train to Moscow stopped at a station only 15 minutes away, but I could not overcome the inertia of a restful afternoon and the comfort of friends. Invitations to stay the night were graciously refused, but in any case that was unrealistic as there were no extra beds.
Everyone argued about directions to the station, but finally they decided to escort me there - the whole bunch of them. Down crooked paths, beside high green fences, past dachas great and small, over the highway and onto a broken walkway, the station appeared. The clamor and chaos of Moscow was only 30 minutes away. “Chekhov lives…at 20 Gorky St.”
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.