James Higham is my guest author today and describes his life in Russia, the reasons why he enjoys living there – he reckons the girls are peaches, that’s one attraction. Is it somewhere you would want to move to? It seems they are rapidly catching up with our Western lifestyle, but talking politics is still a bit tricky, so I might not be welcome with my naturally enquiring mind…
The changing lifestyle of the former Soviet Union
Fifteen years ago, on British television, there was a series of 10 minute glimpses into life in his country by a Russian expat and with hindsight, it has to be said it did a disservice to the image of his nation in the wider world.
Concerning itself with the bestial underside of life, there was one snapshot of a little girl begging from passing motorists whilst her mother stayed home drinking coffee, one of gang warfare, the list went on. The recent Litvinenko doings would have done nothing to dispel this image.
And yet Peter Ustinov also made a series of largely forgotten programmes, extolling a different Russia, of sunshine, warmth, love and deep traditions. When he showed how superior the strict but caring education system was here to Britain’s and America’s, unsullied by moral relativism and falling standards, something now generally admitted, no one wished to acknowledge that.
And yet when four youngsters from Russia, only one who could have been termed better than ordinary over here, stayed a term at my friend’s south London school in the mid 90s, all four swept the top places in every subject.
And yet, also, the fine blogging lawyer Tom Paine chooses to remain in this country.
And yet, again, I myself came over here, having met a certain young lady in London and I stayed. Why? The simple answer is that the place, with all its faults, grows on you. It’s certainly a wrench weaning yourself off the frozen convenience food and having to eat fresh; it’s a wrench not having the cricket to watch or rugby to play and until recently, the string of shopping malls to browse round. It’s a wrench not being able to walk out to your garage to take the car. It’s a wrench not having the British pub culture.
Then you find yourself slowly becoming more hardy, the drab housing blocks with their two foot thick walls become a boon in winter with their standard double glazing, central, furnace fed heating and hot and cold water pumped in from outside; the interiors of the flats, if not the appalling stairwells outside, are often Italian furnished and more than sophisticated and the food is readily available at either the plethora of markets open all day, every day or from the fruit kiosks or, if you’re determined to pay top price, from the shopping complexes springing up all over the city.
It’s changing. Yesterday, in an ungracious comment, I told a young lady, Alyona, munching on some packaged U.S. death food and washing it down with sugar water, that eight years ago, girls would never have let a well lined stomach see the light of day. I think I’m getting old. Yet the respectful politeness of the old for the young remains in place.
Obesity is on the rise, smoking and drugs for the young, junk food abounds and is sometimes virtually the only diet, parents are too busy chasing the dollar now that the nexus between the cost of utilities and salary has been broken and credit has sparked an explosion of buying, from Turkish clothing masquerading as Italian, to flat prices now 500% higher than what they were in 2000.
The ‘grandmother tradition’ is also slowly dying, the extended family, simple pleasures such as gathering mushrooms and picnics in the forest and with all this, conventional wisdom as well. I asked a group of girls if they ever went to the forest to walk. They laughed. Shopping malls, nightclubbing and the internet are their thing now. The traditional Russian is still there and not too hard to find but this is a dying breed.
I suppose you can’t blame them. Russians have always loved shiny new things and a high speed, workaholic life and yes, the alcohol too but now they’re blinded by choice, without the commensurate salary to buy it all. And that makes this country very fertile ground for consumer debt, which they’re falling into, lemming like, in droves.
So why stay? In this republic, unlike other parts of Russia, there’s excitement at the possibilities. It’s now de rigeur for young people to do their American or British summer expedition, the driver who takes me to the centre tells me that things are definitely better than they were, there is freedom of speech for all, barring the politicos, there’s no PC and the mood is hopeful.
It’s still possible to make ends meet, the infrastructure is improving, the men’s hearty handshakes reveal the warm hearts behind them and the young women are … well … stunning and look after themselves to a fault. They have to do so, with 58% of the population female. Self-employment of my variety is workable, the fresh produce from the south keeps you regular and having to walk most places keeps you healthy.
Do I miss Britain? Yes. Will I return? For now, sadly, no.