Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 25
13 December 1999

S L I C E   O F   L I F E:
Postcard from Ul'yanovsk

Derek S Hutcheson

I write as a PhD student at the University of Glasgow in Scotland conducting research into "The Development of Party Activism in Russia: A Local Perspective." The "local perspective" bit means that I am currently in Ul'yanovsk, a Russian city about 600 miles east of Moscow (birthplace of Lenin), conducting the fieldwork. At the moment, I am writing two studies: my dissertation and a second volume, provisionally called "A Scotsman in Ul'yanovsk: Revolutionising Russia," about everyday life in deepest Ul'yanovsk. Whilst the former will hopefully contribute something meaningful to the discipline, it is the latter which will provide a more entertaining read. I thus invite you to read a very much condensed version of "The Story So Far."

Getting going

Before I could get going on my research, it was first necessary to buy some food; so before long, I had made friends with the local shopkeepers, none of whom had ever seen a real, live foreigner before. Shopping in Russia is even more of an ordeal than in Britain, since all the shops are compartmentalised, with one central till. You need to go to each section in turn. Once there - say, at the dairy counter - you choose what you want, go over to the till, try to remember what it was called in Russian and how much it cost, run back across to the counter again to check, run back across to the till before you forget again (by which point you're at the back of the queue again), get a receipt and go back to the counter to pick it up. Then you move on to the next counter - for example, the meat one - where the whole procedure starts again. When I was learning Russian, I concentrated mainly on reading political texts. Thus I could discuss meanings of democratisation in contemporary post-Soviet society with no bother whatsoever, but buying groceries proved a bit more of a challenge.

Russian bureaucracy

For a foreigner, by far the most daunting aspect of life in Russia is the bureaucracy. If I were to detail every incident I've had since I came here, I'd fill up most of the journal; so you'll have to take it on trust that it is something quite extraordinary. The procedure for registration was quite a complex one and involved a week of sitting around various highly unpleasant offices being shunted from queue to queue. At one point, I was accused of being a Chechen travelling on a stolen British passport, and it looked like I might be spending a night at the Ul'yanovsk town jail pending deportation. Luckily, however, they sorted that one out and realised that I was just a slightly incompetent Scotsman.

There is a phrase the Russians use to describe this sort of thing - "Eto Rossiya." This translates literally as "It's Russia" and is used in connection with Systems (with a capital "S"). What it means is that however illogical the piece of bureaucracy you've just encountered, that is the way things have always been done and always will be done; hence it is as well just to accept it. In another case, I was questioning why the bus ticket from Kazan' to Ul'yanovsk cost RUB 129.21, whereas the ticket from Ul'yanovsk to Kazan the previous week had only cost RUB 107.03. Somebody even more inquisitive may have had one further question: namely, why are all prices in Russia for such illogical amounts (viz the two figures above)? The answer to both these questions is "Eto Rossiya." What is more, when I was buying the ticket, I went to desk No 2 and had got as far as mentioning the day of travel when I was told, "If you want a ticket for Thursday, you need to go to desk No 6."

Weather report

Since not many PhD students are foolhardy enough to embark upon research in Russia in the middle of winter, it may be of interest to know that at the moment (early December 1999), it is generally about -20C every night and about -15C during the day and is likely to get down to -40C later in the winter. This would be fine, were it not for the fact that Ul'yanovsk has problems with its heating system. "Central heating" in the Russian sense is interpreted quite literally and is regulated by a central heating facility in the town centre, and very often one ends up without heating altogether. This is inconvenient but not entirely insurmountable, since I have my trusty fan heater for emergencies. One night, though, I came in to find that I did not have any electricity either. Thus I was reduced to heating the place with a candle. You, too, could be working here!

Meanwhile, in Samara, I stayed in a freezing cold hotel. The temperature outside had dropped to -26C, and when the temperature in my room fell to 13C, I asked the hotel staff if they might possibly be able to lend me a fan heater. They could not but managed to produce an amazing gadget instead, which was a bit like a toaster without an outer case and with lots of dangerous-looking live wires trailing out of it. Fortunately, it turned out not to work. So they moved me to a different room, which, I was assured, had better heating. This was certainly true, and the radiator was so hot you could hardly touch it. However, the temperature in the room was only 14C, since the radiator was completely enclosed in a big wooden box. "We thought it looked nice," they said when I mentioned it.

However, the climate is generally quite bearable. It is much dryer than Scotland, with much less wind, and if you wrap up well, weather is not a great problem. I am now the proud owner of a thermal jacket suitable for polar exploration and several pairs of "Rusteks-176" long combinations. It took quite a bit of ingenuity to work out the Russian word for "long johns," but their sartorial inelegance is outstripped by their effectiveness!

Travels in the name of science

Lest you think I spend my whole time just causing chaos in shops and fighting the bureaucracy of Ul'yanovsk, I should mention that my research also encompasses two neighbouring cities, Kazan' and Samara, and that in the course of the election campaign I have travelled 5,500 km in the name of political research. So I've been causing chaos in other places too.

On each occasion, I've travelled there with the early morning bus. I have to say that I think it showed great dedication to my work to get up at five o'clock in the morning two weeks running and hump 20 kg of luggage half a mile through the snow to the nearest tram stop in the face of a -22C gale. It is at these moments that you wish you studied party activism in the Caribbean.

On the way to Kazan', our bus was late, and thus I had to stand in the biting wind for nearly an hour. Eventually, it appeared, and we all piled on. Three miles up the road we all piled off again, since the bus had to re-fuel. Soon, we were on our way again, though, hurtling over the iced-up roads of southern Tatarstan at speeds of which you'd never have thought a Russian bus capable. Comfort stops were determined mainly by the driver's need of a cigarette, and toilet facilities consisted of a wall, tastefully divided into "M" and "F" sections, in the middle of a chicken farm. Believe me, you haven't lived until you've been to the toilet in the dark in the middle of a chicken farm in a -20C blizzard…

However, both cities are very nice indeed. Kazan' is the capital of Tatarstan, a relatively autonomous republic, and Samara is one of the most economically powerful cities in Russia. The funniest incident in Kazan' came one night when the phone rang. It turned out to be a Tatar schoolgirl who was trying to call her friend in Kremlovskaya Street, and, by sheer fluke, had accidentally managed to get connected to Kazan's one and only Scotsman instead. She spent a further half hour speaking to me, asking all about Scotland, the weather and what sort of fish we eat. Since I was the first foreigner she had ever spoken to, she wanted to phone again to talk a bit more about Scottish fish and culture. Unfortunately, the next morning, some workmen accidentally severed the telephone cable to the whole block, and reconnecting it proved a challenge beyond them. This rendered me and 200 other people incommunicado for the rest of the week.

My greatest triumph of the week in Samara came when I ended up on the Russian TV news. I had arranged to meet the local leaders of one of the political parties I’m studying, and they, unbeknownst to me, invited every TV station in Russia to film it. Normally, when I do my interviews, I am alone in a room with a politician. This time, the room contained me, two politicians, a professor from the university and 11 TV cameramen and sound engineers clattering around in the background. The result of all this was that there was a story about me on the Eight O'Clock News that night; thus at a stroke making me more famous than the politicians I was interviewing. I featured on several other channels in the course of the week, and will now be able to put "As seen on Russian TV" on my business card.

But seriously...

Anybody reading this would probably think that my life in Russia so far has been one long catalogue of disasters. However, this would overlook the one aspect of living in Russia which more than compensates for the bureaucracy, the dodgy plumbing and the weather - namely, the people.

Russians are an incredibly hospitable and welcoming people, especially in this region, where there are very few foreigners. With the sheer warmth of people and their cheerfulness (with the possible exception of the woman behind the counter at the post office), this country never loses its capacity to amaze. Everywhere I go I am the subject of much curiosity. Even going to the kiosk to buy a tube of mints usually involves talking for 20 minutes about Robert Burns and ends with an invitation to pop in again any time I need a tube of mints.

Even officialdom is not immune to this. One day, I was pulled over by the militia on the way to the shops. When I produced my passport, they realised for the first time that I was foreign. "Oh, great!" they exclaimed, and my heart sank, expecting that they were now going to find some obscure law that I'd broken in order to fine me a huge amount. But it turned out that, on the contrary, I had just fulfilled their lifetime ambition of meeting a foreigner, and their attitude changed completely. First of all, they looked at my passport with great curiosity. "Don't worry - there's nothing wrong with it," one of them said. "We just want to have a look at it because we've never seen one of these before." When they discovered I was Scottish, there was no stopping them: they informed me that they'd seen the film Braveheart (about William Wallace) and considered it one of the best films they had ever seen. "Here's a present from the Russian Militia!" one of them said, handing me a commemorative medal from some festival in St Petersburg. They were most disappointed that I didn't have any souvenirs of Scotland on me, which they could take to prove to their colleagues that they had actually pulled me over. I learned my lesson from this, too, and I now carry a picture of Glasgow University in my pocket, lest I should encounter the long arm of the law again.

All in all

To conclude this whistlestop tour of the last two months, it would be fair to say that it has been eventful. There are various other aspects of life in Russia which I haven't mentioned, such as the amazing inability of the country which sent the first man into space to construct a toilet that flushes, and, on a more positive note, the absolutely fantastic tramcar system, which runs like clockwork even when there is three feet of snow on the ground. When you're Scottish and used to having about one bus run a day - that usually comes late - this is one of the more pleasant aspects of living in Russia.

But as I mentioned earlier, one of the best aspects of Russia is the people. The warmth and diversity of people more than compensates for the more problematic aspects of living here, and I have already made a few firm friendships.

My advice to anybody who might be considering venturing into a similar experience is not to hesitate. Life has its ups and downs, but few people get such opportunities. At the end of it all, I'm going to have a PhD not only in Politics, but in Survival as well!

Derek S Hutcheson, 6 December 1999

Derek S Hutcheson is a PhD student in the Department of Politics, University of Glasgow, UK.



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