Most Russian men walk the Walk. You know the Walk. The Soldier Walk, the Gunfighter Walk, the I’m a Confident Bad Ass Walk. Feet slightly apart, elbows held out slightly from the sides, arms swinging confidently, striding with manliness. They learn it by age 12 and continue it until age 50 or so. No skipping, slouching, or lounging. Some Russians do slouch occasionally, but they aren’t real Russian Men.
Of course, it isn’t all that simple. People vary here as elsewhere, but Russia is a much more aggressive society with greater individual freedom and corresponding less protection. Aggression is a protective paint for many men. It reminds me a lot of America in the 40’s and 50’s before friendly fisticuffs became assault and battery.
Short skirts on the women, manly attitudes from the men. It sounds like simple Heaven until you meet our taxi driver.
For those of you who have not met a Russian taxi driver, I can only say that a taxi ride is as close to riding in a formula one race as you can get without a $100,000 dollar car and a pit crew. The most common taxi is a Lada. Not the 1952 Plymouth Lada or the 1975 Volkswagen Lada, or the 1954 Ford Lada, but the tiny 1979 Fiat Lada which they copied legally by buying a factory from Fiat. It carries four people (if two are midgets), has no seat belts, has a manual transmission and a tiny engine, and the safest thing about it is that it breaks down a lot and cannot actually hurt you when it is not moving.
We recently took a cab ride from our apartment to our cousin’s house about 3 or 4 miles away. In the first mile, the cab driver went 60 Kilometers per hour in a 30 zone, passed on the left on a two lane street with a truck coming head on, ran a red light, cut in front of another car that had to swerve to miss him, and passed on the right on the same road, missing a little old lady by about a foot. When Larisa told him to slow down, his response was a sarcastic “Do want to still be traveling there tomorrow?” She said “No, just alive.” He grudgingly slowed down a little.
His attitude fit the normal ambiance of a Prochlodney cab. There are some rational drivers with nice cars, but most cabs are OLD Ladas that have been poorly maintained and smoked in for a lot of years. The last one I rode in had home made wooden replacements for the inside door pulls. Most cabbies play loud music constantly, have icons on the dash board, fuzzy animals hanging from the mirror, and will chain smoke while driving unless you really complain. The music is about half American, but I had no idea that there were living bands that made those horrible sounds in English.
Then we met HER. Prochlodney’s only female cab driver. Well, at least she was as female as the old Soviet shot-putters. She was about as tall as I am, bulky but not fat, wore makeup, a long skirt, and had a nice hairdo. Best of all, her cab was clean. Spotless. Smelled good. She was cleaning it as she waited for a fare.
Finally, we found a sane feminine driver. We gratefully entered the tiny Lada and then held tight on to the straps as she cut into traffic at high speed, popping rotten rap music into the loud stereo while she cut off the driver in the next lane. So much for femininity.
Of course, all is changing. There are now new cabs on the street. They are large and comfortable Volgas from cab companies named Sputnik (Satellite) and Novya Joltay (New Yellow). There are still more Ladas driven by drivers with a death wish, but times are getting better. Someday we are going to miss the sensation of risking our lives every time we go for groceries.
We tried to buy a car yesterday. It turns out that there are no car dealers in Prochlodney and damned few ads in the paper. People buy and sell cars at the Prochlodney Car Bazaar, famous for miles around.
It is an area with the size and appearance of a large recycling yard, dirt and rock floored, surrounded by a block wall and serviced by vendors selling beer, soda, pishkis, and shish kabobs along one wall. The owners bring their cars and then sit in them all day while prospective purchasers wander through.
The cars are packed so tightly that a test drive is virtually impossible and people are constantly shouting “out of the way” as drivers try again and again to jockey cars in or out of the field.
One unexpected effect of being in the boonies is that used cars are relatively high priced here. There are a few new car dealerships in Nalchick, about an hour away, but nothing else even close, so cars depreciate slowly. Most of the cars are 10 to 20 year old Ladas, and the rest are very overpriced by American standards. Although there were many Japanese and German cars in good shape, I still never saw this many autos with cracked windshields, broken tail light lenses, and For Sale signs on them.
We looked, but didn’t buy.
We have to talk about Little Luda. She really is little, barely, maybe, five feet tall and slimly built. Little Luda is our 38 year old mildly retarded niece. A few months after our last trip, her mother died of a broken heart and starvation. The first caused by the loss her husband of 20 years and the second enabled by her uncaring daughter in law who spent her time partying and celebrating her husband’s army duty with 2 years of bedding every man in Premalka. Despite the family’s attempts to help, Little Luda’s mother faded away and died.
That left Little Luda, the sweetest little person in Premalka, alone with Elona. Elona is six years old. She is cute as they come and very smart. She smiles a lot and giggles good, and when she hugs you, you feel that you are the most important person in the world. Unfortunately, Elona doesn’t have a legal father. You see Little Luda was also a little retarded about men, and sex, and birth control, and as soon as she got pregnant, the boyfriend became a total stranger. A few years later, Larisa and I offered to hire a lawyer to get child support for her, but in Russia “unofficial” children have no standing at all. There was no help, no welfare, no child support, nothing.
But, in Russia, it is good to have a family. Luda didn’t have to worry about rent because she lived in the kitchen of her mother’s home. The home is one of the old ones where the kitchen and dining room were built first and were in a separate building. The main house was a few feet away and didn’t have a kitchen. These houses are now disappearing and kitchens being added to the main houses. This one still had the small building, so Luda and her daughter live there while her brother occupies the main house with this new wife and two new children.
But that won’t buy bread and milk – and there isn’t a lot to spare here – even among family members. So, my mother in law took Little Luda down to the local school for abused children and demanded that they give her a job. When they said that they were no jobs available, she told them “Listen, this girl needs help. Her parents are dead and she has a child to feed. No one will hire her and she can help you here. You have to give her a job!” So, they did
Its’ a lousy job, but she can take Elona to work with her and the child eats lunch with the students. It pays enough for bread and milk and an occasional toy. Her brother helps when he can and family members have found a used television, a cell phone and clothes for her and the child.
That’s Aid to Depending Children, Russian style.
P.S. Larisa told me after I wrote this, that Little Luda knew very well about birth control. She just wanted a baby to love at any cost. Normally I would call that poor judgment, but it is really hard to find anything bad about a decision that results in Elona.