By Kelly Raftery
As a newly minted Russian Area Studies degree holder, a chance meeting with another student led me to my first job in Russia--representing the western half of a joint venture in St. Petersburg. I had been a study abroad student in the same city a year and a half previously, except at the time it was still called Leningrad. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a great many new opportunities for those of us who spoke Russian. So, off I flew into dark and dreary St. Petersburg with just a duffel bag and the hope someone would meet me at the airport.
That first job crammed more life experience into nine months than I could have gained stateside in as many years. There was no gradual, planned out progression from one country to fifteen, from a command economy to a free-for-all capitalist system, it all literally happened in the space of months. There were no adequate laws on the books to address all the new commercial transactions, there was no concept of consumer protection, and even if there were laws on the books, enforcement was irregular and arbitrary. Those months in Russia featured experiences like being relieved of every single thing I owned by a robber who politely left me a single pair of underwear, socks, and my toothbrush, becoming acquainted with victims of mafia hits as well as a mafia hit man, and shopping for black market weapons with an engineer friend. Those of us who lived in Russia at that time are a funny bunch; I just recently renewed ties with someone I had known as a child, not knowing we had both lived in Russia during the crazy early 90s. She told me she had been kidnapped, I told her how impressive that was, but that I had been held at gunpoint, she countered with, “I've been shot at and held at knife point, but not held at gunpoint. Yeah my life seems boring now. I never get abducted and tortured by strangers.” This was the world we all lived in, those of us who worked in Russia and the other former Soviet Republics in the 1990s.
|A book of rationing coupons from the 1990s.|
In summer, the hot water was turned off to sections of the city in turn, ostensibly for maintenance reasons. I remember rotating among friends’ apartments for a rare hot shower and simply steeling myself for the piercing arrows of cold water that shot out of my faucet the rest of the week. Hot showers took on the allure of erotic fantasy. If you had asked my 23 year old self for a definition of ultimate pleasure it would have probably involved a hamburger and fries (a 30 dollar extravagance at the time), a hot shower, inch-thick towels and pajamas washed in a machine with fabric softener. There were no Laundromats, no washing machines or dryers at that time in Russia either. Dealing with dirty clothes boiled down to washing it by hand or paying someone to do it for you and my meager salary did not stretch to household help.
|The first McDonald's in Russia - still the world's busiest. |
Nirvana to my 20 something self.
Eventually I came home for good, but brought a bit of perspective with me in my husband. Despite being born and raised thousands of miles apart, we share common values, priorities, and outlooks on life. We have deep gratitude for all that the U.S. has materially, but remember living through a time when a person’s life savings disappeared in a heartbeat. So, on the days when reverse culture shock still strikes me over the head, at least I have someone by my side who understands those blank looks of confusion and shares those memories of struggling to just get by day by day.