From Kolomna, we catch an electrichka train to Ryazan. The car is hot, but not overly crowded, with bench seats that apparently had padding around the time Khrushchev was stomping around in the Kremlin.
Then in Ryazan we catch our first overnight train toward the East. In all, over the coming weeks we plan to spend five luxurious nights in the coupé bunks (four per cabin) of stuffy, bumpy train cars, numbing our nerves and toughening up our spirits for journalistic battle. That, plus saving a bit on lodging as we cover the kilometers between interviewees.
The overnight from Ryazan to Samara is uneventful and nicely timed. We arrive at our hotel early in the morning, freshen up, and head out to see our first of two centenarians in this sprawling Volga city.
* * *
Vera Yefimova is a spry woman who lives alone and rues her loneliness. Visited a few times a week by a social worker, Nadezhda, who cares for her deeply, Vera was the child of literate city workers, was born and raised in the city, and started factory work at 17, after seven years of education. She worked the better part of her career at the city’s Maslennikov Factory (ZIM), in the cadres department, and seems to derive a good measure of her personal self worth from that work. We see a picture of her from that time and it is of a stern, severe woman with a broad, imposing face. It bears little resemblance to the energetic, humorous woman before us.
Vera has an incredible memory (recalling the family’s first yolka in 1926, and hearing the radio for the first time in 1927), but no family. She has fallen out with what relatives remain, and all she has left, it seems, are her memories and the visits of Nadezhda, who is caring and patient, but has 11 elderly patients she must visit, each several times per week.
Vera still goes out to stores on occasion, taking a long time to trod slowly up and down the four flights of stairs, resting on each landing, often leaving goods with neighbors to bring them up to her apartment later. There is no elevator, and her stuffy, unkempt apartment has no air conditioning. She has no money on her miserly pension to pay for a cleaning person to come in and help her with things like that.
We ask her many questions, but one of them nags at us and we can't seem to get her to understand our meaning. After three attempts, we finally get our meaning across in a way that makes sense to Vera: while her passport may say 99 (she turns 100 on September 30), surely she feels younger inside?
“I can’t even say. Maybe 92. I was still in pretty good condition at 92…”
Later, she gets a bit impatient when Misha is shooting her portrait, asking why he is taking so many shots.
“I need to shoot lots in order to pick the best one,” Misha says.
“I am the best one,” she replies, laughing.
The next day, we meet another Samara centenarian struggling with a different sort of loneliness. Lidia Motina also lives largely on her own, on the seventh floor of a high rise out toward the city’s outer orbit.
Her family has arrived early to clean up the apartment, but it is still stuffy and reeks of urine to a degree that only a gallon of bleach and a lot of swabbing could remove. Ever since Lidia fell and broke her arm two years so, she has been less able to take care of herself. Eight or ten years ago, her daughter says, she could still easily get out on her own, go to the stores, recall long-distant memories and acquaintances.
Interestingly, Lidia’s work life was also connected with the ZIM factory where Vera Yefimova worked. Lidia’s father, Nikolai Ivanovich, was one of the factory’s first builders, and Lidia herself headed a planning bureau there for many years.
While well taken care of by her loving family (daughter, granddaughter and great-grandchildren are all swarming around the apartment as we work), Lidia’s memories of her long life are all but nonexistent. We try to draw some memories out, but get only simple one or two word replies to our direct questions. Her facilities are rather diminished, and we learn that, after a few incidents where Lidia left the apartment and started bothering neighbors in a disoriented state, the family has had to lock her into her apartment at night.
I ask if they have thought of getting a local social worker to come and visit her, as Vera Yefimova does.
“I wouldn’t even know where to go for help like that,” her daughter says. “We just look after her on our own.”
During the free time around our interviews over two days, we explore Samara’s downtown streets and its exceedingly long and impressive Volga embankment.
The city is full of hundreds upon hundreds of nineteenth century wooden houses, some of them with very impressive nalichniki (carved wooden facings for windows and eaves). They in fact appear in a far greater number than I have seen in any other Russian city, nestled between more modern constructions, most of which are far less impressive or interesting. But almost without exception, the old wooden buildings are in a horrific state, falling down and uncared for (though of course many are still inhabited, despite being apparent fire traps). And it is a shame, for if they were restored and better cared for, it would turn the city into a tourist mecca, perhaps even a UNESCO Heritage Site.
We cannot help seeing a similarity between the neglect of these aged structures and the sad predicaments of the two centenarians we visited here. Both have rich histories to share, long lives to honor, but little is being done to give them the measure of dignity they deserve.
Russian Life is a 29-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567