From Russia With Love

Moscow at night

Putin. Vodka. Bears. When most people hear “Russia,” they think of these things. Turn on the news or browse the web, and you’ll read about the latest and most terrible thing Russia has done. All people and all countries have some skeletons in their closet. Some have some bodies on the floor. But the government of a country isn’t always what the people are. Many people in the States honestly believe that all Russians must want to leave Russia or are brainwashed. No “good” person could possibly want to stay in that frozen wasteland!

But we can find good people in Russia who want to live nowhere else. Yulia Brown, Ekaterina Tishkovskaya and Lena Lovak live in or near Moscow, Russia. More than just a place to live, it is a home. History, tradition and love of the way of life ties them to this place.

Yulia’s mother’s family is from Poland. “Well, it’s a long story” she says about her family. They were a small, aristocratic family serving the czar, and when World War I started, they fled to Riga. Her grandfather was sent to a Gulag, a forced-labor camp for political prisoners and convicts, and met his future wife there. “My dad’s ‘family’ started in Siberia in a Gulag. She (grandmother) worked there and he (grandfather) was in the Gulag. She was from a small native tribe, the Evenki, and wanted a good place to work. My grandfather told a joke.”

Yulia’s grandfather, who was from a Ukrainian aristocratic family in the same region as her mother’s family, was sent to a Gulag after telling a joke that reached the wrong ears. The government gave him an apartment in the 1960s by way of apology, and no one remembers the joke. After two World Wars, lots of ties were broken. Part of one family fought against the Communists during the revolution. Another part fought with the Cossacks for the White Army. Yulia’s family story is not unique–many people have similar stories from nearly 50 years of social upheaval and war.

Although none of her relatives are from Russia, she says “Oh yes, I am Russian. My background is from different Slavic…well, and some not very Slavic…parts of the Soviet Union, but a main culture cements them.”

Lena Lovak is also Russian, though her family ties are directly connected to Russia. “Yes, I am Russian. Lovak is a Ukrainian name, but my family is from Russia: in the south near Krasnodar and from near Moscow. I am definitely Russian.”

Ekaterina, or Katya, laughed. “Where shall I start? My mom’s dad was born in the Ukraine but grew up in Estonia. My (extended) family has lived in many places. It is easier to say they are from the Ukraine and Russia.” Katya works in Moscow but says, “No, I am not a Russian. I do not have a Russian passport. I am Ukrainian. I am frequently mistaken for a Russian because of my accent. That’s fine for me, I don’t feel much difference. I just love my native land in general.  That’s why I consider myself Ukrainian.”

Many cultures and ethnicities come together in Russia. People in the West often see Russia as being “one color,” but that is far from the truth. The Soviet Union often shifted entire populations around, then families themselves moved from one place to another. War displaced families. Millions of new immigrants bring new ethnicities to Russia.

To Yulia, this is a big advantage. “I can see any culture of the world in Moscow. There is everyone here: Korean, Chinese, Tadjik, Latvian, American. They say ‘all roads lead to Rome’ and you know that Moscow is the Third Rome!” she says with a laugh.

All three women love living in Russia, and Moscow. Yulia says, “I like the lifestyle and people around me. I like perfumery, the cultural background, the museums. I like that I can get everything here in Moscow. There are many stores open 24 hours, and there are many cultures.” More than anything else, she likes the system of medicine and childcare in Russia. She will soon be returning to work after three years of maternity leave. She gave birth for free, and health care is free as well. “I think our doctors are more attentive as well, because there is no insurance.”

Both healthcare and education are big plusses for the Russians here. Lena nods emphatically as she speaks.  “Russia has never left me without support. It gave me an education and medical support. I didn’t pay anything for it. I had some serious medical problems with my daughter, and we had free medical support (when she was 1). My granny gets a good pension and I can even borrow money from her. She’s 84. I feel I’m protected here.”

Katya nods at Lena. “Yes, in Russia the healthcare is much better (than in the Ukraine). Living conditions and social support are much better here. People are much friendlier, and strangers will help you if you need it. You can see it in Crimea: the pension there has gotten better, and the medical system.”

That doesn’t mean everything is perfect. There is a waitlist for kindergarten.  If a working family hasn’t reached its turn yet, then it will need to find family members to help or pay for private services. Waiting in hospitals and clinics can take half of the day, as well. “I use private clinics sometimes because it is faster,” Yulia mentions. “When I didn’t have a kid, I never used a private clinic. Now I don’t want to wait sometimes. The doctors are absolutely the same. But it is expensive. Some people can’t afford it.”

Yulia has something to use as a comparison. She works as a stewardess for Aeroflot, a major Russian airline. She flies all over the world, including to the United States, several times a month. The crew stays there for a few days while they wait for the return flight, and to rest. Yulia doesn’t do much resting, however. “I like to walk and sightsee. It depends on how tired I am, but I walk from two to six hours a day.”

While on maternity leave, she spent the last three summers living in the United States, visiting her husband’s family. “I felt stuck without a car. There are no parks to walk in and few playgrounds. And there are many fewer things available for people. If you want something you have to make special plans to go there and get it in a special part of the city. You must have a car. In Moscow, you can get anything you want very close. I think that in Russia it is more convenient, and I personally like to live in Russia more. Someone can always help you, and I feel safe,” Yulia says, echoing Katya’s sentiment.

Politically, there is a lot of tension between the West and Russia in large part because of Ukraine. Asked about the political situation, Yulia heatedly replies, “I think that the Western world tries to get more than they are supposed to and tries to provoke Russia. It’s like they try to distort the meaning or the situation and create a negative background. Russia is a huge country with a very difficult history. We are not a solid group with one opinion. If you look at the history of any country, you will see more negativity toward different neighboring countries and aggressive trade policies. Russia was not very aggressive historically. We have a lot to deal with domestically. Our people are not focused on the outside. We have always been attacked, historically.”

Two of the largest hotspots for tensions are in Ukraine: in the Crimea, which was annexed by Russia, and in the Donbas region, where fighting is still ongoing. Yulia’s eyes flashed, thinking about the subject. “Russia taking Crimea is a perfect example of a Western distortion of logic. Historically, Crimea is Russian and was Russian. It would have been used as a knife against Russia, to benefit others. Russia never benefited from being in other countries. We were always fair. We built schools and universities and hospitals and roads in the Soviet Union. Crimea was recently given as a present to the Ukraine in the Soviet Union only, like from one family member to another, thinking we would always be together.”

Lena Lovak agrees. “Everyone understands the truth. Crimea has always been Russian, from Imperial times. They are Russian, they continue being Russian. Most people there are Russian. The history of the place is Russian.”

Katya is quieter about Crimea. “A lot of people left Crimea (when it was annexed). Some people there are very happy.” She speaks very diplomatically about the situation and is very aware that in general she is a foreigner in Moscow–despite being culturally and linguistically similar. “Most people are happy. They have some bureaucratic issues.”

Yulia believes that most Russians believe the way she does. “Ukraine wanted to use this territory, to let other countries use it to build and use for military reasons to be used against Russia.” On this topic, Yulia and many other Russians are very heated and very passionate.

Katya, who has Ukrainian nationality, says, “I think both Russia and the United States have an interest in the parts of Ukraine that can bring money: Donbas and Crimea. I think they have an interest in creating influence there, to control it. The U.S.A. spends and has spent money in the Ukraine to create influence, and so does Russia.”

Most Russians are strongly patriotic, something that most Americans can empathize with. Russians don’t understand the American fascination with having a flag outside their home, but there is a portrait of the President of Russia in every school.

At the end of the day, Yulia and most others simply want what is best for their children. Yulia shrugs.  “I just want Russia and her people to live for a long time. When internal pressure stops, external pressure starts. Russia cannot rest.”