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Men's toys
by Valerie Sartor
2016-08-20 12:15:26
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“We are floating in a barrel filled with gunpowder, down an unknown river,” said Tatiana, smiling. "Russians describe our current economic situation this way.”
“Americans have a similar saying like yours: sitting on dynamite,” I answered.
Tatiana and I had met at the posh Russian Petrushka Café to chat and drink tea, but both of us ended up ordering Americanos and savoring NY style cheesecake. “Try it,” she had insisted, “It comes from a factory in Moscow, like all the other desserts around Irkutsk, but it’s good.” Tatiana and her husband Pavel own and operate two American fast food franchises in town. She knows all the secrets around restaurant food.
“Are you worried about your business, with the sanctions, the fluctuating ruble, and the economy in crisis?” I asked her.
“Russians like me don’t worry. What can I do? Tell Mr. Putin to stop sending money to Greece and help me?” she replied, laughing. “He just conducted a five-hour talk show presentation dedicated to the Russian people, to show his gentle side, his Russian soul. When an Irkutsk lady called in crying, he spontaneously agreed to send money for our residents who lost their homes in recent wildfire, but I cannot dream of government help for small business folks.” She played with her cake and sighed. “Fortunately, my businesses are small and inside malls. The owner takes care of paying protection.”
rusmen01_400“Gangster thugs, you mean?” I asked, raising my eyes to her face.
“Yes,” she replied calmly, “The mall owner is powerful but he has what we call a krisha – a roof – to protect his assets from other thugs. It’s normal here.”
“And your future – as an entrepreneur?” I asked.
“We have just opened in the new mall. Much work, but our contract is excellent – we pay no rent until all the shops are established and open. We make some money; we raised prices to adjust to the crisis. Some foodstuffs are hard to get; the sanctions, you know…my business exhausts me, but does not cause me to lose sleep. What I worry about is the future of my son.”
“Why?’ I asked her, sipping my coffee.
“Education is broken here. It used to be, in Soviet times, if a child displayed talent he was accepted by a teacher; for example, in the arts, math, languages, or sport. Now, the deciding factor is money. And today’s teachers are not experts anymore. Teachers are dumb ducks sitting in their ponds, waiting to be shot.”
I understood her analogy, having heard that diplomas can be purchased in Russia. Domestic and international news report that by 2017 the Russian government will cut the total number of Russian universities by 40%; university branches will be slashed by 80%. Recently, my university colleagues had expressed anxiety about the upcoming academic year - our department head announced that many jobs would be cut in the fall. 
“What will you do, when your three-year-old son grows old enough to attend school?” I asked.
“I want to emigrate to Australia. Sell the businesses and go. But my husband is wishy-washy; he is afraid he will sweep streets and become a nobody, that our child will lose Russian language and culture. Pavel is 32; I am 30 – we must choose soon, as Australian emigration policy does not accept people like us who are over age 35.”
“His fears are real,” I replied, “but not insurmountable. You will start again; working for someone, but with your energy and drive, both of you will rise to managerial and eventually entrepreneurial positions. By working for others, you’ll learn the Aussie ropes. And as for language, you – as the mother – you control your child’s bilingual potential.”
“Yes, I understand,” Tatiana said, smiling. “I am female: I see emigration as a new world, new opportunities. But Pavel is male: he feels he will lose ground, lose face...he likes security.”
“Security is not floating on the gunpowder-filled barrel!” I retorted.
“Indeed,” Tatiana replied, laughing, “But men like explosions, playing with weapons. I must convince my man that the toys in Australia are better.”

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