by Gary Samson
Another Place, Another Time
By Cathy Frierson
When I was a graduate student at Harvard, my peers in the Soviet Union Program were puzzled by my presence among them. Since I was neither a descendent of Russians, nor a Marxist, nor a Jewish student championing the cause of Soviet refuseniks, why would I want to specialize in Russian studies?
Few people in my hometown of Nashville, Tenn., could comprehend my choice of profession either. As the mother of one of my friends commented during a Christmas cocktail party, "Who gives a damn about the Soviet Union?"
It's not easy to explain why I became interested in Russian culture and why it continues to fascinate me after almost 25 years, but I think my childhood in the South had a lot to do with it. Growing up with one parent from the gentry and the other from the working poor prepared my imagination for an early exposure to Russian literature. I intuitively understood the world described by Dostoevski--a world populated by emancipated peasants and their former masters.
But why have I lingered so long in this distant culture? The primary pleasures of my research visits to Russia derive from the sense of time travel they afford me. When I go to Russia, I feel as if I am returning to the home of my grandmother in middle Tennessee in the 1950s.
My grandmother was a motherless child who married at 13 to create a family and home for herself. The dining area in her kitchen was just big enough for a square table with six wooden chairs. Heavy ceramic bowls of vegetables and pickled fruits from the garden held down the table's oilcloth cover. The kitchen cabinets were white-painted tin, and there was a deep, deep sink, where she bathed her grandchildren when they were small. She had a cedar closet stuffed with cotton fabrics, which she would stitch on her pedal machine, all the while telling stories of her youth.
When I visit the apartment of my surrogate family in St. Petersburg, I step into the arms of another grandmother. She reaches up from her diminished height to pull me into her arms, her big-knuckled hands patting my back as she kisses me on one cheek, then the other, then on the first again. We take four steps into the narrow kitchen and squeeze around a table covered by oilcloth, worn by Babushka's constant wiping. Heavy cut-glass and ceramic bowls are filled with vegetables, pickled fruit and preserves from their country garden. The electric samovar bubbles. Soon the air is hot and humid and as full of stories as my grandmother's house on a Tennessee summer afternoon.
When traveling in Russia, I often take refuge from the dirt and noise of the streets by going into the linen section of any department store. I run my hands over the bedclothes and tablecloths, admiring the simple floral patterns, so reminiscent of my grandmother's calicoes. And when I pack my bags to return home, they are heavy with oversized pillowcases, dish towels, napkins and tablecloths--cherished textures of my childhood, no longer available to me here.
These talismans compensate for the many unpleasant aspects of Russian life today. For the charming artifacts of a material culture stuck in the 1950s are accompanied by the harsh consequences of the Soviet state's failure to attend to domestic needs: blood-tinted sputum spat on the sidewalks by tubercular citizens; varicose veins on the legs of women who stand for hours in long lines and lug purchases home in heavy bags; dark gaps in the smiles of men and women in their 20s; urine-stained entryways in the cement-block apartment buildings that most Russians still call home; and everywhere bilious pollution choking out the light.
There are some other compensations that result from the Russian people's escape from the shallowness typical of America's consumer culture. Denied the opportunity to develop shopping as a national recreation or to watch 56 channels of cable entertainment, Russians still enjoy conversing with one another. And they still touch each other in ways we no longer do. Women and girls stroll arm in arm. Men kiss each other in greeting. Partners in street conversation stand almost nose to nose. Older women reach across a bus to stroke a child's face.
When I am in Russia, I feel more fully human in a wash of words, ideas and physical contact. Life there is still defined by the peasant proverb, "In close quarters there can be no offense."
That is why I am a Russian scholar.
Professor Cathy Frierson specializes in Russian history and is the director of UNH's Center for International Education.
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