A foundation of Russian society...
Many people think they have a grasp of modern Russian history but few acknowledge the importance of propiska, permanent apartment registration. It is the basis for the stability that most Russians still want, and is one reason why the people here are less mobile than those in other nations.
American mythology about risk takers...
I love the stories of the classic risk taker in America, who left a plow in the field, loaded up the wagon, and along with the wife and children headed West. Yes, the pioneer was subjecting his wife and children to the possibilities of scalping, hunger, and failure, but he had a vision, a dream, and worked to accomplish his goals. Even now 13% of all Americans move each year (of course, not the same people every year!). We see moving as usually a positive event, a time to clarify objectives and to clear the air.
The story goes that Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, was driving west to California when he decided Washington state would be a better place for his company, and changed direction to the northwest. Going somewhere far away without a job or place to live are still considered stupid things to do in Russia... but are the beginnings of many success stories in America.
Propiska affects how the Russian people live...
Propiska provides stability for housing and employment. Today propiska is largely in force. Every legitimate resident of Russia, including me, has a stamp in his internal passport saying that he lives at the address entered in this document. You may not move to another region without securing a job first, and you must have housing arranged. Russians rarely move from their birth city. This approach has continued in different forms since Tsarist times, was abolished by Lenin, and reintroduced by Stalin.
In recent years if you are one of the rich New Russians you can be an exception and buy a place to live far from St Petersburg on the Black Sea or in another country.
Propiska makes it a challenge to buy some apartments (in the Soviet Union, you couldn't) as you not only need the OK of the residents, but also have proof that any stray husbands or children have a legal residence elsewhere.
For example... Suppose your daughter marries and she and her newly resident husband have a child. Now there are two more people with propiska added to the (not your) apartment. With the years, it is a usual family adjustment for the older people to take a smaller room and give the large room to the younger people with children.
Keep in mind that Russians can have three generations living in a two room apartment... parents, grown children and spouses, and grandchildren. They accomplish this feat with pullout bed-sofas and considerate living.
Propiska affects expectations...
I was surprised when Larissa told me years ago in New Jersey (albeit jokingly) "starost ne radoct", being older limits your happiness. I answered that in American we say, "Freedom is when the dog dies and the children go off to college". We talk about the Golden Years, when if you have your health and enough money (two big if's) you are free to do anything you want. You can tell your pain-in-the-neck son to move out and find a life once he is 18.
Hit the Road!
My mother told me that Scots are known for pushing their children out of the nest early, around 15 or 16 years old. I returned from the Navy in the summer of 1970 and planned to live home while I got a master's degree. That autumn she suddenly decided to sell her house and move to a retirement village. Within a few months she told me it was time for me to find a place of my own. There was no propiska, she owned the house 100%, and her decision was normal for an American.
Even now this event couldn't happen in Russia because the grown child has guaranteed rights to continue living where he is. However, parents and children, if they agree, can sell their large apartment and buy two smaller ones.
Emotionally Russians can not understand how Americans can kick out their children, even if they are in their 20's. Many people here live all their lives with their parents.
Propiska can be blamed for a lack of get-up-and-go, and sometimes youthful arrogance, as you have to live with your grown children no matter how they act or what they think of you. When women get older they are not free as birds, but more likely busy as mother hens. In Russia you are stuck living with your offspring... and their spouses, and children.
The good side of Propiska...
Russians as a people are not mobile, but the results of propiska and other laws can be viewed as an advantage as people live near their families and friends all their lives. Grandmas take on much of the responsibility of raising their grandchildren, while the daughters usually work.
The purpose of the law was to guarantee that everyone had a place to live... to end homelessness. To a degree this objective was successful... certainly people have more life-long security, but at an emotional price. Adventurous or spontaneous life decisions are not in the Russian character. With fewer options visualized on the horizon, the people see fewer paths open to them than do their opposites in America.
It also means that many Russians don't have to worry about monthly mortgage or rent payments (and for that matter health insurance) so they have a high disposable income, apparently a lot more than most Americans. You can buy that dream car now, go on a vacation abroad, and party, with no fear you will be out on the street if you lose your job. Maybe that's why most Russians are less worried about the financial crisis.
Old Blue Eyes...
Russians value stability more than the chance to take risks such as frequent moves. I think Americans would quickly go crazy if they knew they no longer could live anywhere they want, with or without a job.
Frank Sinatra sang the lyrics of "That's Life" which to me is a good illustration of the verve and excitement Americans feel about a lifetime of risk taking. The song contrasts well with prevalent Russian attitudes.
I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate,
A poet, a pawn and a king.
I've been up and down and over and out
And I know one thing:
Each time I find myself, flat on my face,
I pick myself up and get back in the race.
Lyrics by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon, music by Kelly Gordon
So, what is more important as a life-long value... stability or freedom of mobility? Are these values mutually exclusive? Click Contact Me to send an email.
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