Wednesday, August 30, 2006

It was fried eggs and bread fried in butter for breakfast at our guesthouse, The Prophylactoria, in Malaysheva where we have come to visit an emerald mine. The butter came from our supplies, purchased on the way down from Ekaterinburg airport, and was used lavishly until Elena, our translator, saw fit to rescue large dollops from the pan and demanded discipline in the kitchen. Toast seems not to be a Russian dish although it can be found in the major hotels that cater for foreigners. But here, on the flanks of the Urals, where Europe meets Asia, it appears, when requested, as small slices of baguette browned on either side in a buttery pan.

The white-coated ladies also rustled up blinis (pancakes) filled with cottage cheese and we made our own tea and coffee. On the first morning I made a feeble attempt to get some hot water but with non-existent language beyond, spaseeba (thankyou) and dobra outro (good morning), which doesn’t get you far and faced with a natural Russian tendency to respond aggressively in the face of confusion, or any possibility of a mistake being made, I soon made a tactical retreat and scuttled back to my side of the servery to wait for Elena to appear.

It is something I will notice often in Russia, the nervousness and embarrassment which becomes impatience and even anger when people fear they may be wrong or in danger of making a mistake. It is different to the importance of ‘face’ that is found in Asia and perhaps has more to do with the fact that for so long in Russia, to be ‘wrong’ was at best dangerous and at worst, deadly. No doubt there is also an element of pride involved, even more so now that people feel they have less of which they can be proud.

But beyond the confusion and frustrations that people seem to reveal when there is not a common language, resides a warmth and easy humour. Sign language is what draws us together and which readily brings smiles, even from the most stern-jawed babuschka. I am finding though, despite the stereotypical portrayals of the large-breasted guardians of the many portals, which has been so long depicted in various writings, that it is the men who are severe and humourless and the women who are warm and ever-ready to laugh.

The hot water situation is ultimately resolved by borrowing an electric kettle from the mine manager’s office which we carry down each morning along with our teapot, coffee plunger, Vegemite and marmalade. The marmalade goes particularly well with the blinis and even Elena decides this is a good combination. She has less interest in the Vegemite and agrees that it is an ‘acquired taste’ and, on reflection, one that she has no desire to acquire.

After breakfast we head outside to make phone calls. Our mobiles barely function inside the building and usually only work on one particular side if they work at all. But even in the carpark we are called upon to perform the ‘signal dance’ in order to find the right ‘spot’ where a connection can be made. The mornings are crisp even at the end of summer, following in the footsteps of cool, fresh nights. Every now and again, a breeze passes, rustling like shaken sellophane through the branches of the trees; whispering of winter despite the warmth of the sun.

Within weeks, we are told, the temperature will drop and the freeze will begin. It can get to minus 30 around here without even trying. The pipes that run, head height, along the road, rising higher above driveways, twisting around obstacles, will carry heating through the winter, for as long as the municipal source is operating. It’s probably a better bet than the Prophylactoria boiler which has condemned residents to cold showers more than once.

The gardens surrounding the Prophylactoria are lush, green and littered. It is not filthy litter but paper, bottles and cans dropped, no doubt, by the locals who use the area for picnics in the evening. They say that once all of this was immaculate. Now the roads are rutted, the footpaths broken, the fences sagging and the buildings stained and mouldering.

But the people walking along the street look healthy and well dressed and the cows that graze in the overgrown gardens are fatly content. There is an air of poverty but it is more the poverty of Portugal than Africa or India, although one is reminded of Zambia’s copper belt where the same sort of decay has dribbled slowly but surely over decades, from the cup of former glory.

When we drive to the office which is just around the corner, we pass the local supermarket where the babuschkas (grandmothers) sit in the car park behind piles of large, scarlet, home-grown tomatoes, chatting contentedly with each other while keeping a weather eye out for the small children playing in front of them. No doubt the mothers are at work and the State-run daycare centres have long since closed their doors.

Visiting the mine at Malaysheva is like entering a Soviet time-warp. Reality taps loudly on the scene with an all pervading sense of shabbiness and decay. We drive past the huge red hammer and sickle sculpture by the front gate and rattle down the long driveway, flanked on either side by unkempt vegetation. One of the first tasks that the mine manager, Jimmie, undertakes is to tidy all this up, and, when he does restore it to order, the old ladies return to sit on the park benches, nodding their heads in satisfaction and saying: ”This is how it used to be. This is how it is meant to be.”

The mine was built in the 1970’s but has a distinctly fifties feel. It’s a world of vinyl and veneer run to seed, which is saying a lot given that it wasn’t particularly tasteful to start with. The language of the glory days was florid and loud, from the now rusting Soviet symbol at the front gate to the huge stainless steel human figure in front of the office building. This gigantic metal sculpture seems to have weathered the years far better than the decorative concrete pillars in the forecourt and the colourful mosaic by the sagging front door; now broken symbols of broken dreams.

The sculptures and the mosaics, there is another one on the inner stairway, are designed to immortalize the proletariat and glorify the worker and yet the Soviet era saw those who ruled living as elites, separated by power and privilege from the ordinary people. The Soviets created no more than a variation on the theme of Russia’s eternal divide between aristocrat and serf. There may have been greater opportunity and justice for those at the bottom but there was not equality.

In the Soviet era, says Elena, it was all about power not money. She says this in a way that suggests somehow it was more honourable to grasp simply for power. These days it is clearly about both; the twin fires of human ambition sourced, as always, in fear.

The boardroom looks for all the world as if someone quietly closed the door one day and walked away. Which is in a way what happened, and which is what continues to happen whenever management leaves the mine. But someone has been here for there is not a speck of dust on the faded red of the upholstered chairs, the brown veneer table or the piles of yellowing notepaper, curling gently at the corners, waiting only to be useful. Nothing is out of place. Everything has been dusted over the empty weeks since the last visit and replaced exactly where it was; even down to a paperclip.

Many of the doors still have their sealing thread to show that the rooms have not been entered since the last visit. Everything has been kept safe; no-one can be faulted. The system works. It is a mindset that will need to change as Russia opens up to a world of individual responsibility, trust between employee and employer and all of the uncertainties that exist in a non-Soviet and less regulated era.

We are served instant coffee, black, there is no milk, and plates of sweet biscuits. People are friendly, reserved and attentive. They may prefer that management were Russian, but mostly they just want things to work again. They are probably both pleased and nervous that, this time, the mine manager is here to stay. The yellowing notepaper will probably be one of the first things to go.

There are three stars that can be seen rising high above the mine shafts at Malaysheva. In the good years they shone through the days and the nights, but their light has long been extinguished. What the people at the mine and the people of the town want more than anything is for those lights to shine once more. It’s a worthy goal in a world where time has stopped and chairs are more likely to be missing one arm or both and where people are missing a level of certainty upon which they too can rest.

When it comes time to leave Malaysheva for the highlights of Ekaterinburg there are few regrets. A grudging agreement has been reached between body and the sullen bulge of mattress but it has a limit of days, not weeks. At least we have made Nellie smile. The guardian at our gate, was, at the beginning, a past master at Soviet-style ‘grim’, but even she has a sense of humour that can be prodded into being by ridiculous foreigners. With a name like Nellie, and given the remnants of titian hair that remain upon her authoritarian head, it’s a sure bet that some Scottish ancestor was drawn to Russia for work, as so many have been, over the centuries.

It’s well worth spending just over an hour making the long, crazy drive to Ekat, just to swap the Prophylactoria for the Hotel Octoberskeya and a real bed and a real shower and telephones that work, and internet access, and mobile phone access, and restaurants and a sense of bustling efficiency. I use the word ‘sense’ reservedly, as I do the word ‘efficiency.’ But all things are relative. I had also hoped to leave behind the all pervading smell of bleach, it being the cleanser, I thought, of necessity in Russia, only to find it must be the cleanser of choice.

Not that I was so convinced about it being an extremely worthwhile drive while we rattled along worn roads, choked with traffic where dirty rattling cars and dirty rattling trucks weaved their erratic way around potholes at terrifying speed. I am probably more aware of speed since we had a car accident in Zambia a year ago, where experience gave substance to mere belief that ‘Speed kills.’ I know now that it does make a difference. You would think after so many years in less ordered worlds I would be more fatalistic. Or maybe I just need to drink more vodka.

At least our driver, Valery, seemed able to drive at a sensible speed, his large hands, and incredibly long and angular thumbs, wrapped firmly around the steering wheel. But perhaps it was because the suspension had still not been fixed, and with every turn, we axle-scraped our way into position. His forehead would furrow slightly at such times, as if waiting for something more serious to happen that would propel us into the vehicular insanity which roared past on either side.

Arriving safely in Ekaterinburg was as much a relief as an achievement.


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