Steppes Away: A Lawrentian’s Siberia

Adam Berey

This term, I’ll be passing on bits from life in Irkutsk, Russia, where I’m spending the fall.
We’ll get there next week. For now, I’ll start you off in Moscow, the introduction to Russia for most Americans (including this one).I got my first glimpse of Slavic chaos the moment I arrived in Moscow.
My suitcase, with all my clothes save one change, did not follow me to Russia’s capital, nor did it ever.
In fact I didn’t see it for a week, until after I had left for Siberia and the bag had spent some dusty time in an Aeroflot warehouse, waiting for me to call enough times to get something done.
It’s understood in this country that you can’t count on systems to work according to plan, and that you shouldn’t lose a single opportunity to press your problems on the people who gave them to you.
After a few days of sweating around Moscow on two sets of clothes, I was in the right state of mind to start trying out that tactic.
During the Soviet years, economic scarcity meant that an opportunistic mindset was appropriate even when things weren’t so bad, just so long as you could get something extra out of it.
But now capitalism has entered Russian life, and city dwellers are looking for ways to show off their prosperity–I saw more than a few schoolboys walking around in double-breasted pinstripe suits, playing Capone on their parents’ rubles.
But having more doesn’t mean trying less, and opportunism is as much a part of the culture as ever.
An apt example of that persistent Russian trait is the amateur taxi driver. The Russian word, “chastnik,” could be literally translated as “privateer,” which is probably a better description.
Russian chastniks usually drive as a second, third, or even fourth job. They carry no permit and drive their own, normal-looking cars. Their driving is even more dangerous than certified drivers, and they often cram in as many fares as they can.
And that’s just the type the hostel sent to meet me at the airport. Even at two in the morning, the driver stopped his breaking-down station wagon twice to pick up extra passengers. He refused the first, whose destination was out of our way.
The second, a girl in her 20s, apparently didn’t notice me when she got in the front seat. I watched the driver, a middle-aged Azerbaijani, look her over as he asked her if she’d like to “relax” with him at her place.
“No, it’s late. I don’t want to relax. I want to sleep.”
“Sleep? Sleep with me.”
“No, I don’t want to. I want to sleep alone.”
“And I want you, get it?”
That went on until we reached her building–his propositions, her calm refusals.
One gets the sense from this, and from the occasional black comedy in which the hero woos a girl by raping her, that hassling a woman for sex is about as casual here as asking her for a light or directions to the post office.
That of course isn’t quite true; it’s just that you have to seize whatever chances you get, be it for a few extra bills or some other reward.
When the girl got out, the driver looked back at me and shrugged, saying, “She’s Russian.” Then he started in on me, asking me if I needed to exchange for rubles.
“Not now,” I said quickly. “Already got some.