A Weekend with Two Russian Families

We are in our last week here; I taught today, will teach tomorrow and Friday, and Laura will teach on Wednesday and Thursday.  This post reports on our weekend activities, which were fascinating and elucidating; while it would be wildly presumptuous to claim any real knowledge of “Russia” based on such brief anecdotal experiences here in a small corner of such a vast and complicated country, we do feel that we have been given at least a glimpse of some of the nature of things Russian.

We spent Saturday at the home of the Professor on the law faculty who has principal responsibility for our scheduling here in Belgorod.  We were driven by a family friend, in a small Ford, to a somewhat rural setting about 20 minutes from the University.  In Belgorod, you go from town to country pretty fast; no suburbs such as surround Boston.

The Professor lives in what he describes as a modest or typical home and while we suspect his circumstances are not wholly typical, the house was not lavish.  It was however multi-faceted and warm and wonderful to visit.  We were met by the Professor, his wife Lena (a chemist), and several younger friends and a nephew, his wife and two small girls.  The house is not imposing, indeed its facade does not even stay in my memory.  We walked around back and the richness of home life started to become apparent.  We walked past some grape vines (the Professor makes his own wine), past a pen of chickens (maybe a dozen, with home-grown eggs of rich yellow yolks as we learned when we cooked our gift of eggs the next morning), to one of several small out-buildings in the small back yard.  The building, open at one side facing the house, had a shelf set out with salad and cold fish and of course vodka and wine and juice; we stood covered from the  light snowfall drinking vodka and watching the Professor feed the grille with wood and corn cobs until the fire was ready for an appetizer of grilled pork loins and ribs, eaten with fingers and washed down with (too much) vodka.  Further exploration led us to a two-part structure with a cot and a stove, a curtain separating a back room, I believe a Russian bath house.  Somewhere in there was a small underground wine cellar with brick arched ceiling. In the rear, a large open field owned by the Professor, an acre or more of open space up to an edge of woods.  It was explained that in summer a greater number of chickens were kept here.

Into the house for lunch, with two large tables set with benches and chairs in a relatively rustic room, long and wood-panelled running along the back of the house.  Numerous dishes with salads, blinis, cold fish, breads with black cavier, and much more vodka.

To visit the toilet, at this point you take off your shoes, which are pretty caked with the ubiquitous muddiness of a near-rural spring landscape, and step into a small, cozy and modestly decorated living room off which is a small bathroom.  I believe this is the only toilet in the house, and that of the three houses we have visited as of this writing each had only a single bathroom.

After much discussion and revelry and too much food, we were driven back the our dorm (6 hours later) with a supply of fresh eggs, a large portion of stuffed fish prepared by the Professor’s wife that to my best recollection we never even got to start to eat, and the welcome comfort of at least my own bed; I am told by Laura that she and  Matthew stayed awake, skyped with family and friends, etc., but I can only report that I fell immediately asleep and stayed that way for a mere 13 hours.

Sunday: always get back on the horse that threw you.  We are off to Elena’s condo.  Elena is the sister of Olga, one of our English guides at whose parent’s house we were guests last weekend.  Elena, who (as I had reported previously) has had a career as (among other things, she is a university trained manager) a singer in Dubai, had cooked some of the great food we had eaten  at her mother’s house that last weekend, and we were invited to her condo on Sunday for a relaxed afternoon of Russian cooking.  We showed up, arriving by cab at a modern apartment complex about 15 minutes from the university, bearing a gift plant and a box of chocolates; the condo is in a five or six story building, no elevator (as is typical), a bunch of brick buildings surrounding a muddy play area with a few pieces of schoolyard equipment.  Up the four flights, into a “mud room” leading to the apartment itself.

Let me pause to make a point about what we observed about Russian houses (remember please this is anecdotal, I don’t presume to set forth a universal description of Russian homes): the inside of the homes are modest but very warm and personal, but the entry ways are more like the front porch of a farmhouse.  Perhaps the rough-cut general exterior landscape has leaked over into the entry ways, but there is no pretense to establish a grand entrance.  Elena’s mud room held boots, slippers to put on when you take off your boots, some large jars of preserves on the floor, some tools, a couple of boxes of stuff, a metal ladder, etc.

Off with the boots, on with the slippers, and you step into a condo that is modern and decorated in the style of Ikea (it turns out that there is an Ikea presence in some Russian cities, an an Ikea catalog in Russian sitting on a table in the living room).  Elena’s husband,  an attorney and a building contractor of sorts (this partly illuminates one of the questions one of my students asked me, as to what other job I held in addition to being a lawyer, in order to support the family), had moved some walls, installed wooden floors, modern doors and fixtures, and was working on the enclosed front balcony (a ubiquitous fixture in all Russian apartments we have seen); the brick walls were partly covered with drywall, plaster patches,  and there was a smattering of construction tools in one corner).  There were nice Oriental rugs just about everywhere, a bedroom with modern furniture and a TV, a living room with an upright piano and a couch and tables and a large desk with an array of modern computer equipment, and in the middle the kitchen table had been relocated to serve as our dining table in a larger space.  On the walls: one small painting (no house we were in had what we would call any real “art”) and a wall clock.

The kitchen was wholly slick and modern, built to Elena’s specifications by Nikolai her husband.  Laura, Elena and Elena’s sister Olga began cooking several Russian dishes, with Laura taking notes as to ingredients, amounts, etc.  The kitchen had a US brand refrigerator, a Bosch stove and oven, a microwave, and although reasonable compact it was efficient and fully equipped.  No dishwasher or disposal (we did not see a one in the houses we visited).

We started the visit with hot borscht and wine; it was explained to us that borscht is not a soup.  The explanation made no sense to us, so I won’t repeat it. I think it is a distinction merely of nomenclature.  What is clear is that, once you add cabbage to a base broth made with some/any meat or poultry (ours was lamb based), you can add damned near anything else by way of vegetables, potatoes, etc.  You just have to cook the heck out of it.

While Matthew read and I took pictures and just relaxed, Elena and her two helpers then prepared a couple of salads, a chicken dish with vegetables and cheese baked in small pots, some ancillaries.  They cooked for a couple of hours, we walked around the neighborhood for some air, and returned to a delicious meal.  The meal they cooked was supplemented by a rabbit in sour cream sauce, prepared by Nikolai before he left for a business trip.

After dinner, a brief concert on piano with Elena singing, and then a pretty spiritual conversation about people, life, Russia.  At the end, we were presented with a triptych of Jesus, Mary with the infant Jesus, and Saint Nicholas.  Although Elena and Olga described themselves as (in substance) not very observant, they were fervent in their admonition that we display the triptych in a prominent place in our home, and travel with it, and draw from it peace and happiness.  Afterwards, Laura and I agreed that this gift encapsulates our general observation about the role of the Eastern Orthodox Church at least here in Belgorod: it is the only Church (the population, unlike the US, is of course, “native” for thousands of years), people are quietly respectful of the Church, everyone who discusses it expresses fervent belief, and the iconography of the Church is indeed everywhere: in each taxi we have taken, on the walls of virtually all the Court offices I have visited, in the statuary in front of this government-run nonsectarian university, in wallet pictures I have observed when several different people have gone to pay for their food or purchases and I am behind them on line, even in the explanation our principal guide gave to us for choosing not to read The DaVinci Code (its irreverance).  I have read of the deep unbreakable unity between Slavic peoples and the Eastern Orthoodox Church, an affinity that 70 years of Soviet rule did not shake, and it is clear that the sense of separation of religion and government that is an element of at least the Eastern US establishment is not going to be understood by the people here (I had an interesting time on the US Constitution in class, describing the anti-establishment clause to my totally Russian-ethnic students).

One might speculate that indeed the Soviet attack on the Church did nothing except to culturally strengthen it; there are many new Churches we have seen, and whenever someone describes an old Church they seem to apologetically describe its misuse during the Soviet era for some secular purpose.

Bottom line: to our limited experience, the stereotype of the warm and effusive Russian family, welcoming a stranger into the home in complete fashion, driven by not only a desire that different peoples be friends but also by a desire that specific people also be friends– they personally and YOU personally — is not just a stereotype, but rather something that is just plain true.

While I think it important not to get  carried away here — many people are warm and caring when it is one-on-one in many places I have visited, and people as a polity have been able to muster great inhumanities when roiled by politics or religious bigotry — there is no doubt that the Russian people we have met have universally been almost unbelieveably warm and accepting.  It is making our visit memorable in a dimension we had by no means anticipated.

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