Fasting for your motherland
Saratov train station, second day of my train trip from Moscow to Makhachkala (Daghestan).
A skinny middle-aged man dressed in a black leather jacket enters my compartment. A quarter of an hour later, a corpulent woman bursts in, panting. “Oh my goodness, I almost missed it! And the ticket was so expensive!” The train takes off, and my new mates wait in anticipation for the carriage attendant (known as provadnitsa in Russia) to bring them a clean bedding set. The woman pulls some clothes out of her suitcase and kindly asks the man to step outside for a minute. I make a move to leave, but the woman, somehow startled, says or rather orders, “No, why, you stay.” I sit down feeling uptight as I watch her undress. She takes off her pearl necklace, then her white, perfectly ironed blouse. She asks me to help her unzip her bra. “My name is Tatiana, by the way.” She puts on a white T-shirt with a butterfly pattern in silver studs, then pulls up pinkish sweatpants over her tan tights. When her outside-world-clothes are neatly hung, she opens the door. “We’re done,” she says to the man looking out the window, making sure he hears her. It is now his turn to conform to the Russian-train-dress-code. From behind the door I hear the muted sounds of his belt being unfastened.
After a while, they are both settled with their beds neatly made. Magomed, as he introduces himself, wears a navy blue sport suit with “Russia” embroidered on it in blue, white, and red letters.
Past Saratov, the Russian birches and wooden cottages slowly give way to the endless, quiet steppe covered with the melting snow. There is a pleasant atmosphere, the calm beginning of the long, relaxing train journey, when you still feel clean and you have not been to the restroom yet.
I offer to bring some tea, half asking, half already leaving the compartment with the intention to ask the provadnitsa for three glasses with metal holders (podstakannik) decorated with Lenin’s heads or Stalinists skyscrapers. I fill them at the coal-heated samovar at the end of the carriage. “Do you want some sugar?” I ask Tatiana, plunging a tea bag in what was supposed to be the boiling water. White foam spreads over the surface. “Oh no, I am on a diet,” she says while the man helps himself to five diamond-shaped sugar cubes.
“Everything got so expensive, hasn’t it?” I strike up a conversation.
“Yeah… That’s true, we can’t buy half the things we were able to” she says. “But you know what my son said to me?” He said: “Mom, it’s not fair to complain about the crisis. Does it matter in the long run?” “He became such a patriot recently. No idea why. Maybe because his uncle is in Donbas? I mean, officially he is in Rostov. My son has always looked up to him. I never brought him up this way, but now he dreams of joining the army!” Tatiana pauses. “I am really curious to learn about the uncle sent to the war in Ukraine. One of the thousands of Russian soldiers officially ‘on-vacation’ in Rostov, the Russian town on the border with Ukraine. The vacation they often come back from as ‘Cargo-200’ in zinc coffins.” But Tatiana just shrugs her shoulders. “It’s just his job, he is a lieutenant, he needs money to support his family.”
“My son keeps on telling me that I don’t love Russia enough,” Tatiana continues. “He is always scolding me for my complaints about prices. He says that we only have to eat a bit less. It will only make us good! I totally agree with him! It certainly will!”
I couldn’t help thinking that Tatiana meant the diet not the sacrifice. The man must have seen my grin because his cheeks raised a bit and his eyebrows seized slightly, but he said nothing.
“My son says,” Tatiana continues, “you shouldn’t think just about yourself and your family! You should think about your country! Once in a while you should do something for your motherland (rodina). Isn’t he right after all?”
“But what has the motherland done for you?” I grin as if I do not mean it, although I do.But Tatiana is not offended.
“Exactly! What has our country done for us?” Magomed joins the conversation. “They don’t give a shit about us. They just stole all the money and left us with nothing.”
“But…” Tatiana tries to say something.
“Everywhere they ask for money: kindergarten, school, work,” he continues.“I just gave away my two-month income so that my son can graduate in Saratov! They have no mercy! What kind of state is that?”
“Oh really, how much did you pay? My son studies in Saratov too, he graduates next year” – Tatiana continues without waiting for an answer. “I really worry about his future. I am a doctor, I can’t complain, but I don’t make enough to secure him a position as a lawyer. Nowadays you need to pay so much to buy a position at the House of Justice… and it will take a while till it pays off. I don’t have that money. I raised him alone, he is my only child.”
In the evening we share a hearty dinner together. On the small table covered with the Daily Saratov Tatiana squeezes her two fried chickens, two handfuls of boiled potatoes, and four home-made pies filled with meat (pierozhki) – the very reason why she almost missed the train.
She is certainly not tightening her belt for the sake of the motherland. Not yet.
Iwona Kaliszewska has been researching the North Caucasus since 2004. She teaches anthropology at the University of Warsaw. She is the author of numerous publications, including Veiled and Unveiled in Chechnya and Daghestan, a book co-written with Maciej Falkowski, recently translated into English.