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Russian Grandmothers Russian Grandmothers
by Valerie Sartor
2019-07-09 09:01:00
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They’re pushy. They’re odd looking. They grumble, sigh, moan and bless. Today’s post-Soviet Siberian grandmothers are just as tough, and just as sweet, as those I encountered in Moscow during the USSR Era.

Currently, I live in a shabby cement block building that is located one-hour’s walk from my institute. As you enter through the two wooden doors – an outer door, then an inner door, both needed to protect against the harsh Siberian winters, the first thing you encounter is a grandmother guard. We have four of them, all rotating after 24 or 48-hour shifts. They have a little room where they make tea, cook cabbages, and smoke, snooze, or watch propaganda on RusChannel 1. Even if they are eating, chatting or eyeing the TV, no one can enter or exit the building without these granny guards knowing. Of course, the security forces have also posted cameras that watch the outer perimeters and maybe the hallways as well, but the grannies know all your secrets, and unlike a videotape, they comment on them as well.

“So why aren’t you going to work today?” is a typical quip by the big bleached blonde. Lena is 74 and shaped like a walrus. She loves cheap marmalade chocolates coated with chocolate (180 rubles a kilo) and she also wants to know why a woman of my age has no children, no husband, and is destitute enough to live in the dorms. To please her, I’ve confessed my life is devastated living without a man, and that I had “terrible” gynecological issues and was unable to do my duty and bear children. She nods in sympathy, spitting sunflower seeds nonchalantly into her palm, and says, “That’s why, dearie, you don’t look your age. You never had to suffer and bring up children or feed a man. You’ve never done your duty or really worked.” I smile faintly, grab my key from her claw and exit as demurely as I can. All four grannies love to compare and compete, and judge me as their inferior. “Women are catty but Russian grandmothers are ratty-catty,” I think smugly – “But not me, I’m a nice girl.”

rus01_400A few weeks ago I got, by accident, a ticket to see Hamlet in Russian. Waiting inside the luxurious old drama theater on Karl Marx Street, I bumped into Georgia, a pleasantly plumy young Italian girl who was studying Russian at the institute. We gave our coats to the grannies at the guarde robe; they looked at us as if we were crazy. “Why aren’t you girls dressed more warmly,” one little bird like woman with orange hair scolded. “It’s minus 18 outside and you are wearing only jackets?”

Because the crowd surged, we smiled and swam forward, instead of apologizing, and headed for the open seats. The stage was set up like a runway, and chairs had been placed in a series of rows. Because we had entered first, we choose front row seats. But I had come directly from work, and had my huge leather bag. This Lizard Jolly bag has been a godsend to me in Russia: today I was carrying many things. My laptop, and some groceries I’d bought at Central Market earlier: my kilo of apples and chunks of cheese, a bag of milk, 250 grams of delicious caramels, and my money, phone and personal accessories in another inner bag, plus whatever else I I had found that day as I journeyed to and from the institute. Often the bag weighs 10 kilos, and it will not break. It’s precious, its old, it’s useful and it was full of cash and my stuff. 

Sitting peacefully, I suddenly heard some screeching in Russian: “What do you think you are doing, with that THING in the way?” It was another old granny, wearing a pink twin set from the 1940s and stubby shoes. Like a Shakespearian character of doom, she pointed a daunting finger at my bag, which sat on my lap like a sedated tabby.

“It’s my bag,” I replied.

“How dare you talk back to me! Get that thing checked at the cloakroom,” she commanded, and tried to push me to rise.

“Leave me alone, grandmother,” I replied tersely, “I’m not one of yours.” 

She stared, huffed, and marched away, turning once to glare at me like a thwarted rooster.

“Gosh, these old ladies are bossy,” said Georgia, starting to giggle. “You’re almost as old as she is, but she was trying to take your bag.”

But when another grandmother tapped her on the shoulder and told her to “hush” Georgia stopped talking immediately, despite the fact that the show had not yet started. Russian grandmothers instill the fear of God into everyone, Russian or foreign alike.

Another granny story pertains to the bus. I was sitting on the bus, heading home, around 6PM one wintry evening. That evening was -22 and dark, too cold to walk. Luckily the institute is the starting point for the 16K, so I could easily get a seat. I sat, and the bus slowly filled up. A granny, wearing a brown sable coat, a red headscarf, and Siberian deerskin boots, sat next to me. She nudged me with her rear to move closer to the cold window. This old lady was more than a bit plump and smelled like a wet hamster. I moved.

My action must have caused her to feel some amity, for she said, “It’s cold today.”

“Yes,” I answered, “I usually walk but it’s too chilly today.”

Hearing my accent, the old woman immediately turned to me and asked, “Where are you from? You’re a foreigner.”

“Yes,” I replied, “I’m an American.”

My response started a tirade, with the elderly furred creature telling me that my president was a monkey, a fool, and the cause of the war in the Ukraine. I tried to ignore her, but she tapped me repeatedly, sometimes forcefully, and continued to tell me that the Americans had caused all of Russia’s woes. When I stood up to move, she shouted: “Why don’t you go back home and tell them the truth! Tell them what I explained to you.” 

I usually am polite, but this time I shoved my way to the front of the bus, and escaped from her. I stood, clutching the bus ring, another three stops, and then exited as fast as I could.

The last grandmother I will mention is a woman I know well, have known for many years. She’s a Buriat granny; she’s the one who forced herself to accompany me to the fasting resort last year, and ran screaming up and down the fasting corpus stating that I was starving. The nurses had to politely throw her out. Afterwards, she refused to talk to me, because I had not visited her in the non-fasting corpus, and because I had refused to eat. But this year, Tamara Vasilnova met me at the train station when I came for a brief visit, once again on my way to fast again on the shores of Lake Baikal.

“Ha ha ha,” she cackled from the front seat, where her grandson was driving, “You think I’m going there with you? No way! Starve and have a good time! But don’t expect my help and support again.”

I smiled, and told her I was glad to see her.

“Are you really?” she asked, turning her old turtleneck around to face me. “Or are you trying to solicit me to accompany you again? It won’t work, my dear, no, it will not.”

She smiled, flashing gold front teeth, and turned to the front.

“Don’t drive so fast,” she ordered her grandson, “Listen to me.”

He nodded and turned up the radio, looking at me in the rear view mirror. We smiled a secretive smile and let grandmother lead us onward. 


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