February 19, 2003: Headlines: COS - Russia: PCVs in the Field - Russia: Personal Web Site: Steven Brown, PCV Russia VIII

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Russia: Peace Corps Russia : The Peace Corps in Russia: February 19, 2003: Headlines: COS - Russia: PCVs in the Field - Russia: Personal Web Site: Steven Brown, PCV Russia VIII

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-141-157-13-244.balt.east.verizon.net - on Sunday, January 16, 2005 - 2:46 pm: Edit Post

Steven Brown, PCV Russia VIII

Steven Brown, PCV Russia VIII

We came to Russia as part of the eighth group of Peace Corps Volunteers to serve in Western Russia, having arrived with approximately 80 other volunteers in August 2000. After three months of training, we served for 10 months in Cheboksary, a city of about 500,000 people about 400 miles east of Russia on the banks of the Volga River. Because our Peace Corps visas were not renewed in August of 2001, we have moved to Moscow and are now happily settled there. Jynks is working for the International Research and Exchange Board and managing international exchange programs, and Steve is making tortillas.

I had an interesting experience last Thursday in trying to get to Nizhny Novgorod, one that would never happen in the US. I am teaching a course there to a bunch of software designers on project management, and last Friday was the first class. Thus, I had purchased a ticket for the Thursday night train, which departs at 11:40 and arrives into Nizhny a little after 7 am the next morning. I got there in plenty of time, so I expected few problems.

I was very wrong. When I walked up to the conductor at my assigned wagon and handed her my ticket, she looked at it and quickly handed it back to me, saying “No, it is for tomorrow.” I handed it back to her, saying “No, it is for today,” but she simply repeated herself. I looked at the ticket and, with a sinking feeling in my stomach, saw that in fact she was right. I had mistakenly purchased a ticket for Friday evening instead of Thursday evening.

I said to myself “Oh boy, this is a BIG problem.” I knew that I couldn’t take anything the next day because I had to be there by around 3 pm, and it was already 11:30. So I told the conductor that I HAD to get on that train and what could I do. I asked her this knowing that it was possible to bribe your way onto a train and expecting that was what I was going to have to do. So she responds that I need to go speak to the nachalnik, which means chief or boss in Russian. So I ask her where to find this nachalnik, and she responds with one word – ‘middle.’

So I assume that she means one of the middle wagons, but since there are 20 wagons on the train (and thus 20 possible places for the nachalnik to stand), I patiently ask her which middle. The conductor, who is quickly tiring of me and my problems, says ‘tam’ (there) and gestures with her arm towards the middle of the train. I decide this is a pointless exercise and, noticing how I had less than 15 minutes until the train left, ran off in the direction she gestured. After asking a number of conductors the location of the nachalnik, I finally find her and start telling her my story.

Not much different from the conductor, this woman is not interested in talking to me. She quickly gets irritated and disappears into the train. At this point I say screw it and follow her on, telling her my sorry story the whole time. Once we are on the train I pull out 500 rubles (it was a 220 ruble ticket in the first place) and ask her if there are any free places on the train. No places, she responds, not the least bit interested in my money. I look in my wallet and, realizing I left my money at home, took out my last 500 ruble note (that’s about $17). I then offered her 1000 rubles for a ticket, not an insignificant sum. Davai (come on), don’t you have any places on the train?

Would you believe it that that woman wouldn’t even look at my money! Not only that, but she was getting more and more irritated. So I tried a tact I have seen people here pull when they don’t like the answer they hear and just started pleading with her. Please, I have a class to teach tomorrow in Nizhny, and I have to be there. . . On and on. My strategy was to prolong the discussion until after the train left, at which point we could agree on a price. After all, they wouldn’t throw someone off a moving train, right?

This approach was a definite failure, and only caused her to get more irritated. She stuck her head into one of the cabins and out came one of the policeman that are on every Russian train. “Young man, you need to leave” was his comment. He looked pretty serious, and started backing me back down the aisle towards the exit. I decided that I was going to lose this argument, and got off the train. One minute later it pulled out of the station.

At this point I feel totally defeated. I have no job in Moscow, don’t know anyone, I can’t even get to Nizhny to teach this course! All I want to do is go home, and I don’t mean to my apartment. But after taking two steps onto the street, I think that almost anything can be solved in Russia at the last minute, maybe even this situation. So I walk back into the train station and over to the cashiers, who are still open at almost midnight. I ask her how I can get to Nizhny, expecting that she might be able to get me there from one of the other train stations in Moscow (there are eight altogether). But luck was on my side – a train from St. Petersburg to Nizhny would be passing through the same station where I was standing at 2:30 am that night!

So I sold my other ticket back to her and bought the new one, losing no money in the transaction because the new ticket was actually cheaper than the old one. I then looked all over the train station for the right kind of pay phone (there are lots of different kinds of pay competing pay phones, a VERY stupid system) to call Jynks and relay the message to Nizhny that I would be a few hours late. After succeeding in this task, I settled into the waiting room, which of course you can only sit in if you pay or if you have a valid ticket. They do this to keep the homeless out, and periodically clear everyone out to clear away those who sneak in. The whole two hours in the train station was very depressing (I do not recommend to anyone staying in any of the Moscow train stations at night), but this was a small price to pay to get to Nizhny the next morning, well in time for my course.

Upon returning to Moscow, I asked my Russian teacher where I went wrong. She laughed and told me that I should have given the 500 rubles to the regular conductor, not the nachalnik. The nachalnik gets to be the nachalnik because she is a really serious worker, and thus is hard to bribe. Apparently everyone else simply pays off the conductors for the free spots, because Russian trains are never completely full (they always save spots for military and big shots). Who would have thunk it? You learn something new every day.

Written by Steve, December 7, 2001

Picture this - you move to a new city in a strange country where you only speak a little of the language. You are working with people who have agreed to arrange an apartment for you. On the day of your arrival, six people are there to meet you at the train station -- your counterparts and the landlord of your new apartment. Wonderful! About half the group speaks English, and they tell you you'll be staying in a three-room apartment with a telephone, more than you had hoped for. You'll go straight to your apartment so you can start settling in. There maybe one problem with the place, you're told, because it may not be in a convenient location, but other than that, it's yours if you want it.

You're whisked off in a van to your new place, excited to see your new home. You walk into the apartment, and you notice that there's food in the refrigerator. How nice of them, you think, to provide food for me on my first day in this new place. And, wow, what a lot of food! You walk a little further into the next room and you see a pair of slippers. OK, maybe the owners didn't clean the place out before they moved. This is a different country after all, with different customs.

Move into the next room and you see perfume, lipstick, a framed picture and receipts and other notes lying on a shelf. Now this seems strange. OK, the owner didn't move everything out and clean the place thoroughly before leaving, but why leave a photo and something like perfume? Finally, you walk into the bathroom, where you find a shelf filled with toiletries and the shower full of soaps and shampoos. Now something definitely seems amiss. Did they bring you to the wrong apartment? You are clearly in someone else's apartment. Why did they bring you here?

Welcome to our world. That was our first day in Cheboxary. We walked through our new apartment, slowly figuring out as we went along that someone else was clearly living here. When we asked, we were told, "Yes, there's someone living here, but he's moving out next week." This is OK, we thought. We arrived toward the end of the month, so maybe the person who's staying here must be moving out at the end of the month just as we would in the United States. We need to learn to stop thinking that way. We are definitely not in the United States anymore and things do not work the way they do at home.

As I'm writing this, we've been in Cheboxary almost one month, and we're still in the same apartment with the same person living with us. Only the story gets better. I assumed (again, something I should know not to do!) that if they were going to move us in with someone like this that chances are this person was just living here temporarily and the owners were just doing him a favor. In return, he would have to put up with their new tenants for a few days. Well, that hasn't turned out to be the case at all.

Andrei (our "roommate") has been renting this apartment for two years and was quite happy here with no plans to move out. He was as surprised to meet us as we were to meet him. The first time he knew we were coming was the day we arrived, when he walked in the door and found us sitting in his kitchen. Fortunately, he couldn't have been more good-natured, and he hasn't seemed fazed by the situation at all. On the first day, he simply welcomed us into his home, showed us where he kept a few useful things we might need, and went about his business.

It was only over time that we began to figure out what was happening, particularly as each day went by and Andrei said nothing to us about moving out. I assume he was also waiting for us to tell him when we were moving out, and must have thought it was strange that we were unpacking and settling in. Who really knows. But the bottom line appears to be that the landlord wanted to rent this apartment to us, and Andrei was just going to have to move out. Period. No questions asked.

Tenants' rights are as yet an undeveloped segment of Russian civil society, and, thus, if an owner decides that he wants to do something else with his apartment, all he has to do is tell his tenants that they're out. There's no lease holding him to a fixed period of time, no laws requiring 30-days notice, nothing of the sort. What the landlord says, goes. If the landlord wants to have other people come and stay in your apartment with you, then there's really nothing you can do about it. Though I don't think this happens every day, this is not the only time I've heard of it happening. If the owner sees an opportunity to make extra money, or if he simply needs a place for his long lost aunt from Ukraine to stay, then he can put anybody he wants into any place that he owns. In our case, the owner will most likely get more money in rent from us, so he's going to do what it takes to get us into this place.

So I suppose part of the reason Andrei hasn't seemed too terribly bothered by us living here is that he knows he has no choice in the matter. But, of course, he doesn't have to be nice to us. That he is doing completely on his own. I'd imagine other people wouldn't be so kind. We haven't gotten to be great buddies, but Andrei has been a model roommate - keeps to himself, cleans up after himself, and even locks the door behind us every time we leave. As of now, we don't know how this situation will be resolved. We think that one of us will eventually move, though it's unclear who it will be. And, much as would like to unpack our bags and settle into our new home, at least we have a good story to tell!

Written by Jynks

When this story was posted in December 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Personal Web Site

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