Russia has changed a lot in the last two decades, but there has one thing that has remained constant - the vital role played by the country's babushkas.
The babushka, or grandmother, has a special part to play in Russian history and life. They are the social conscience, and often humorously, the collective mouthpiece of Russia. They have an opinion about everything. They are fearless; they talked back tank drivers at the Russian White House in 1991, they march in political demonstrations (all sides), they guard the lobbies of apartment houses, they beat away gypsies attacking foreigners in the street (as they once did for me).
They sat outside my building on long summer nights, petting the house cat, enjoying the children playing hopscotch on the pavement, complaining about the immoral price of milk or the crooks in the Kremlin. Yes, they also sweep the streets and sidewalks with stick brooms. Someone has to do it.
Sometimes intimidating with their dour, deeply bred suspicious looks, they can quickly return a smile exposing a few gold teeth or none at all, or start a conversation, or willingly give a direction. They often live alone or in depressing communal flats struggling to maintain their dignity. They deserve help and they are one group you don’t want to have against you. They are, in my opinion, wonderful people and clearly an anchor in that mystical phenomenon called the Russian “soul”.
Before the Hammer and Sickle came down, the Westerner’s view of the Russian women was either that of the babushkas, the stocky grandmothers in gray headscarves that dutifully sweep the frozen streets of Moscowor the fantasy of long-legged Russian beauties, seductive KGB agents in a James Bond movie. Both impressions were and are valid, of course. Indeed, much is written and photographed about the beauty and charm of the young Russian women, but it is the babushka that is the anchor of Russian society. When I first came to Russia I was shocked by the number of fatherless homes. So often what I found was a mother, one or two children, and the babushka. The mother worked and supplied the cash, the grandmother raised the children, and pretty well managed the home.
In the city, there is often a small park surrounded by tall apartment buildings. In the park are trees, maybe some flowers, a play yard for the kids and cement benches. On one bench often are the babushkas, discussing life with each other and bragging about their grandchildren and yelling at them as they run around. On or under another bench are often the drunks, There is a clear reason why the life expectancy of Russian men is about 59 and of the Russian woman about 73. The woman is always doing something, caring for the family, or today, earning a salary to feed the family.
As a member of the Los Angeles-St. Petersburg Sister City I visit the grandmothers in their flats in St. Pete. They are amazing. Many are in their nineties, alone for decades in a five-building with no elevator. They are happy; they play music, write poems, and tell stories. One I met was 95 and commanded artillery against the Germans in the infamous Nazi siege. No complaints and happy. They are heroes.
And babushkas are determined. The road along side my apartment building, next to a new embassy, ran down steep wooden stairs to the embankment and was our straightest pathway to the corner store, the Moscow River and the bridge over it to Kievsky Rail Station and the Radisson Slavanskaya Hotel. So when a fence appeared one day blocking the road, it was a momentary cause for concern. But, not for the babushkas. With burdened shoulders and determined heads, they walked undaunted toward the fence as if they were blind, then sidled to the end of it, where, unseen to me, there was a babushka sized gap against the wall. They slipped right through and continued on their way.
The workmen, pretending to work, said nothing. What could they say? Their job was to erect the fence, and that was done. Was it their fault it was not quite long enough? End of responsibility. I followed the babushkas. There are so many other stories. With so much changing in Russia, maybe the role of the grandmother will change, too. I hope not. They are the most dependable element in Russian society.
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.