Tuesday, February 23, 2010

In a Moscow Tunnel

I related this story some time ago on my main blog, Blest Atheist, but since it has become buried over time and at the same time is pertinent to the H2 Helper theme, I decided to re-relate it here.

The story took place in Moscow, Russia not long after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

I was providing consultation to the Ministry of Higher Education, and every day during the three weeks or so I spent there I had to pass through the tunnel connecting transfer stations on the metro line I was traveling. In that tunnel, I would pass by a squatting woman, dressed all in black, with her hand held out and her head hung down. Beside her, a little girl of perhaps 3-4 years, was sometimes leaning against her knee, sometimes squatting in a similar posture with her hand also held out, and sometimes twirling around, dancing from tile to tile that lined the metro floor. Mother and daughter, I assumed. Passersby (more frequently than I usually see happening in the USA) would drop some coins or press some paper money into the woman's hand. I never saw anyone speak.

This scene was more remarkable because it was occurring right after raspad (the dissolution of the former Soviet Union); during Soviet Union days beggars were unheard of and, for that matter, not permitted. Panhandlers and beggars were a new-order phenomenon, one with which contemporary Russia would become all too familiar. What put this woman on the streets, I wondered? I, too, was unused to seeing beggars in Russia and certainly not a mother and child.

Although I never handed out any alms to her and cannot say why I did not, I felt uncomfortable each morning and evening that I passed her. The last day I was in Moscow, I was making my final trip back to where I was staying with friends and realized that I had forgotten to change my leftover per diem rubles to dollars. My friends would not be able to do that for me; they did not have dollars -- it was still too early in post-Soviet history for dollars to have appeared in the households of everyday people and too early for the appearance of those exchanges that now appear on every street corner in large cities like Moscow. Further, I was leaving at pre-dawn hours, long before the airport exchange would open, and once I got back to the USA, the money was useless. Rubles are not tied to the gold standard and hence cannot be converted into other currency outside Russia. Moreover, I had more than the amount that visitors were allowed to take out of the country so the money would have been confiscated by Russian customs with the chance of getting in trouble.

Just then, I came across the lady and girl. It was before the great evening hordes would sweep through the tunnels and carry anyone standing still past their preferred stopping points, and so I had a chance to meet these two. I squatted beside the lady and asked her why she was on the street. She told me a little of her story, much of which I have forgotten. It rang true: an abusive alcoholic husband without a job (being on the street was safer than being at home and certainly she did not want to leave her child at home with him when he was drunk) and the vicious cycle of not having money to obtain care for her child (child care had not been a problem in the Soviet days of ever-present yasli, or children's centers) and having a child with her getting in the way of getting a job, plus a depressed and changing economy where many of the traditional jobs were no longer viable. And, of course, there was that problem with lack of knowledge (how to survive in a more capitalistic manner, how to be independent, how to problem-solve) that comes with mother's milk in the USA and had not been required before the raspad in Russia.

In an instant, this mother became for me an archetype. Anyone could have been she, given a similar unfortunate set of circumstances. In fact, there were times that, except for God tossing me some contemporary manna in the most critical moment (only God knows why because while I desperately needed it, I did not particularly deserve it), I could have been she. Talking to her, I realized that I knew how to handle my per diem money. While I could have used those dollars at home for any number of things, they were, in reality, "spare" rubles that I should have spent for per diem but had not needed because friends had seen to it that I was well fed and had a bed to sleep in (although I did share it with the daughter in the family, Russian apartments being miniscule by American standards). I explained my dilemma in converting rubles to dollars to the lady and asked her if she would take them for her child. Giving her that many rubles straight out could have been quite embarrassing even for a panhandler, but for her child, nothing would have been embarrassing. The amount of money would either keep her off the streets for a couple of months or provide her with the means to look for work; I hoped she would choose the latter but have no way of knowing how things turned out. The thought that she would not simply be benefitting herself but would also be helping out a foreigner (whom Russians feel committed to help) let her maintain a sense of self-respect. I suppose the self-respect of a panhandler should not have been important to me, and actually the self-respect of a stranger would not have been. However, thanks to our short conversation, I had now met this woman. She was no longer a stranger. She mumbled something about God bringing us together for mutual help, but at the time I was an atheist and did not understand what she meant. I do now.

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