Russia will tame even the most overprivileged princess

By Joy Carrico | Published Saturday, November 28, 2015

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As a consequence of being married to someone from there, I had occasion to visit Russia in the mid-’90s. I stayed there for more than a month and lived like a native, as I was staying with in-laws who were, in fact, natives.

Russia was under extreme change at the time. I went there three years in a row, from ’95 to ’97, and things were drastically different each year. Today, I am sure Russia is quite different than when I was there. So much has happened.

Joy Carrico

Joy Carrico

While I was there, however, the value of the ruble was tanking and was less valuable at each of my three visits, and everyone was broke. Many, many people were going to work every day but not being paid because their employers did not have the funds to pay them. The Russian mob was becoming increasingly powerful. Putin was not yet a household name. Yeltsin was in his second term and not yet drunkenly rendering himself useless. There was a lot from the Soviet Union still hanging around, and there was much hope for a better Russia.

When I got there, the first thing my sister-in-law said was, “There’s no water.” In fact, there was a trickle of rusty water that they collected in a bucket all day, but that was it. I naively asked why they had cut off the water, and she shrugged. For the entire six weeks of my visit, we did not have water. No one in the area did. It got stinky.

This was just the beginning of my introduction to what it meant to live day-to-day in Russia at the time. My then brother-in-law went to work every day, despite no paycheck, and in order to do so, he had to walk to the train (20 minutes), take the communter train into the outskirts of Moscow (45 minutes), then take the subway into the center of town (20 minutes). He had a 90-minute commute twice a day, six days a week, for the hope of eventual payment.

My future ex-husband and I took lots of trips on trains while I was there, to various surrounding areas, and a longer trip down to Ukraine, where the rest of his family lived.

Traveling by train in Russia/Ukraine at the time was an experience to be missed. The train ride to Ukraine was a stuffy, smoke-filled, unairconditioned sauna-like 24-hour crawl across the country. In fact, I had a panic attack on the ride back to Russia from Ukraine because I knew what to expect – but that is a different lesson that Russia taught me.

Commuter trains would sometimes just stop. There was no explanation and no one ever said anything or acted like anything was amiss. They just sat, expressionless, and waited. If the train was, for some unexplained reason, done taking them wherever they were going, they would simply pick up their stuff and start hoofing it. No complaints, no reactions. An absolutely unflappable people. I, at the time, was highly flappable.

I started complaining right away.

There were many things that made me feel like I was being pecked to death by chickens. Officials were dismissive and just said, “no” without explanation. Museum crones would yell at me because I was not going through the exhibit rooms in numerical order. There was no toilet paper anywhere, ever. The public bathrooms were awful in general. I have memories around that particular issue that I have put in a locked box in my mind.

I was struck by the irony of being at the Kremlin, where not a single bathroom stall contained the slightest hint of toilet paper and then being taken through a display of diamonds that I was meant to “ooh” and “ahh” over. My response to the impressive array of diamonds was to comment that they make ineffective toilet paper. I could not comprehend a country of such crazy paradox. At my wits end, I asked my brother-in-law why they didn’t do something about all this. Why didn’t they protest? He said, “Joyushka, people are still afraid of being taken away in the middle of the night.” I stopped asking.

I complained continuously during my first trip to Russia until my ex finally lost his unflappable Russian patience (the U.S. had softened him) and exclaimed, “quit complaining” (although he used a different word). I was taken aback by this, as he wasn’t someone who said such things regularly, but I quit complaining. And it was then that I learned the Russia Lesson. When everyone is suffering the same fate, do not complain about your discomfort.

I had no idea what a princess I was until I went to Russia. When I was back in the States, things had changed for me. I no longer experienced road rage. I didn’t get upset at the weather anymore, no matter how hot it got. I suddenly had a Zen-like quality when traveling. I had all kinds of new-found patience with waiting in lines, dealing with county employees and general life frustrations that I had not previously possessed. Lots of little things that had once bothered me were no longer on my radar. I still get worked up from time to time, but in general, I feel much less entitled to have the world cater to my comforts.

I went to Russia to meet my in-laws. I had no idea I was also undergoing a princess-ectomy. It turns out that’s a Russian speciality. Although I’m much less reactive, I know I’ll never reach a Russian’s mastery of non-reaction. I am, after all, still a privileged American.

I am deeply grateful for the Russia Lesson. Life is much easier to bear when I remember not to take things personally, and not to add the hot air of my venting to the experience of everyone around me who is just as uncomfortable as I am.

Today I catch myself being surprised when people complain about things we all experience, like the summer heat, traffic or the chaos of DFW Airport, as if they are the only ones experiencing it. But then I remember that not everyone has had the benefit of the Russia Lesson. Once I remember that, I can listen to their complaints with patience. I’ve been there. But I’ve also been to Russia.

Joy Carrico is a graphic artist for the Messenger. She takes advantage of her American right to walk through museum exhibits in whatever order she wants.

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