25 September 2009

St Petersburg Secretive About Good Works

Listen closely to what I'm whispering...

They don't like to talk about it, but I believe Russians are the most secretive people on the planet.  Europeans are more reserved than Americans, but the reticence I know in St Petersburg goes beyond to a need to keep information about oneself private. 

We Americans like to say, "A stranger is a friend that I haven't met " while in Russia... a stranger is a stranger.  A woman and her adult son shared our train compartment to St Petersburg for seven hours.  They never introduced themselves and we didn't ask.

People here learn at their mother's knee to give personal information only to life-long friends.  To yammer about family problems to a stranger sitting next to you is considered rude and unwise.  Amazingly, to this American, Russians are very slow to offer even positive information about themselves.

The World War II US Navy expression, "Loose lips sink ships", echoes more strongly to a Russian than any suggestion to be more social.

These nine years I have become accustomed to ignoring or complaining about our neighborhood in northwest St Petersburg, with its broken windows, vandalized and uninspected elevators, graffiti , abandoned cars, and litter.  Now, I am startled by the many improvements since May. My first impulse is a wish to thank all the people responsible.

We Americans believe that if someone does good work, even if paid for it, they deserve a sincere Thank you!  In this way the individual is encouraged to continue to do exemplary things.

Thanks a bunch, but no thanks!

I encountered three hurdles to expressing my gratitude... lack of information, the custom here to not express gratitude for paid work,  and the surprising fact that many individuals do not wish to be thanked.   Every time I tell Larissa I want to thank the people who improved the neighborhood, we get in an argument.  Seems sometimes I hit a nerve that raises her hackles. 

She says with some exasperation...

"It wasn't individual initiative that improved things!  This was done by the city in no special order because they had some money for a change.  You can't go asking who was responsible... They will think you are criticizing them and asking inappropriate questions.  Good and bad happens... leave it alone and stop giving me a headache!  This silent improvement was normal in Soviet times, so now they are just doing what they are supposed to do!  Now the city departments are held to their responsibilities and are getting better results.  They are just doing their jobs as they should, and they are paid for it, so they don't need or deserve anybody's thanks.  If you single out some individuals they will be targets for envy, criticism, and embarrassment.  You and your American gratitude... we don't need it and they will think you are strange, at best."

Looking out our windows, or stepping out the back entrance, the large courtyard that was a sorry sight is now that of a model apartment complex.  New grass (trimmed!), and geometric crushed stone walkways are in place where before there was mud, trash, and tire tracks.  Crumbling concrete panels on back entrance are now replaced with attractive stone and metal, and the icky green patchy paint now is an attractive gray.  I haven't seen an abandoned, burned out, stripped car for months!  I sort of miss them!

A jumble of old unappealing play equipment in an open area is now replaced with some new colorful pieces of equipment in smaller spaces with an adjacent half circle bench for the old people to sit and talk conveniently.  Now it's a joy to walk in the courtyard, and the people seem to be more lively and positive.

I keep thinking...Things are better in our neighborhood.  But should I thank anybody?  Who should I thank, and will they be happy for the gratitude or embarrassed by it?

Today Larissa got up at 830 to get two litres of fresh unpasteurized milk from the small truck that stops twice a week in our courtyard.  She spotted some people setting up low fencing in such a way as to allow only pedestrians on our new paths.  She asked them, because of my constant questions, who was responsible for all the improvements.

An older man said that it came from the city soviet (council), as they had gotten funding for this project, as well as some money from Moscow.  I asked the wife what were their names? 

"Robert, you just don't understand the system here.  There are no names available, and it would be silly to ask!"

So I have to live an ungracious life without expressing thanks for much of the good that happens around me.  As we say in New Jersey, "Live with it!" or "Get used to it"    It's the way of life in St Petersburg, Russia.


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