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The Elderly

Khrushchev once joked that the Russian granny or babushka was the nappy-pin of the state, and indeed, many families have a little old lady living with them who may or may not be a relation.

Babushkas wear headscarves, and gossip, and go to church. In a mysterious way they are somehow made a whole size smaller than other Russians, but they make up for their diminutive height by being quite round. In character, they are sharp-tongued and opinionated. It is quite likely that when the President gets home at night, he gets ticked off by a devoted but critical little old babushka if his feet are wet.

Another group of old people used to be those eligible for the Politburo and the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party which ran the country. This special sub-set was formed because they all had information about each other and knew (in some cases, literally) where the skeletons were hidden. They are now either in jail or living quietly in rather nice flats and dachas around Moscow.

From time to time, on 1st May, for instance, or 7th November, a parade of elderly people appears on the streets carrying red flags and singing the songs of their youth in a nostalgic demonstration connected with the primitive 19th-century German cult or sect called Marxism.

The tradition of elderly rulers was held by many Russians to have been taken to extremes in the 1970s and '80s. In the days when Russia had a series of elderly and infirm leaders (Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko) a Chukchi rang the office of the Politburo, the powerful inner sanctum of the ruling Communist Party, to offer himself as the next General Secretary and Head of State. "Are you sick or something?" the politburo receptionist asked in astonishment. "Yes, yes," said the Chukchi enthusiastically. "I'm sick, and old, and I can hardly walk."

Old people continue to shuffle to work because there is no concept of honourable retirement, far less a generous state pension. For many of them, work provides one decent meal a day as well as company and somewhere warm to sit for eight hours. However, life expectancy has actually fallen for Russians in many parts of the country because of industrial pollution, radioactive fallout and other hazards, so the elderly may soon become a threatened species.


On the whole, childhood has traditionally been a great, even the best, time in a Russian's life. In his autobiographical memoir, Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov (author of Lolita) describes the idyll of growing up on the family estates in rural Russia before the First World War.

But in typically extreme Russian fashion, children are either doted upon and spoiled, or they are abandoned by their hopelessly drunken parents. Drugs and street violence are new and increasing threats to both categories.

National television programming is scheduled around the bed-time cartoon and Russians regard with horror the British middle-class practice of sending their children away to boarding school to be educated. Numerous private day schools have sprung up, but before that many Russian children were educated privately at home because their parents bought them tuition in such subjects as Classical Greek, Latin and French literature to compensate for the minimal timetabling allowed for these subjects in the state school system. Teachers' wages are hardly enough for them to survive, so they take two or three tutoring jobs in the evening to eke out a living. Peak demand nowadays is to help students pass their final school exams and university matriculation in foreign languages, physics, chemistry and maths.

Many Russian couples of late have only had one child, or, to put it another way, many Russians are themselves an only child. This is because living accommodation is scarce and cramped and the vast majority of Russian women have to go out to work and do all the housework.


The Russians love animals, particularly horses and dogs. One of their greatest contemporary conductors made special trips to London to get medicine for his French bulldog.

On the whole dogs are working animals rather than pets, so it is probably not a good idea to pat a Russian dog even when he is actually sitting on someone's lap, unless he is clearly a lap dog.

Inside every Russian there is concealed a hunter-gatherer, and given half a chance he will go off into the wilderness with his hunting dog, his trusty old gun and his fishing rod. Rural Russia still teems with game, and elks roam the outer suburbs of Moscow.

The Russians shoot bears and boars, and regrettably still use all sorts of animals as star turns in their famous circuses. A captive bear called Masha (short for Mary) is kept in a cage in the kremlin (fort) at Yaroslavl because the bear is the historic emblem of the town.


The concept of eccentricity is hard to explain to a Russian. Examples from other cultures, such as the wealthy founder of Glyndebourne opera who always wore tennis shoes even with evening dress because he found them more comfortable, elicit a puzzled and worried stare.

On the one hand, Russians are in a sense eccentric en masse, being indifferent to the many rules and regulations which are supposed to govern their lives. On the other hand, after 1917, many of those who did not conform were killed - so that disposed of them.


The Russians are quite politically incorrect as regards racial minorities and immigrants. In fact, it has to be admitted that they are - and have been since history began - fanatical xenophobes. In one of many testaments to this trait, Fred Burnaby, the 19th-century traveller to Russia, wrote in his Ride to Khiva: "The Russians are as suspicious as Orientals".

The word pogrom is the Russian word for an attack on Jews and comes from a root meaning "threat".

One of the first things that happened after the siege of parliament in October 1993 was that all "Caucasians" (i.e. easily-identified swarthy Armenians, Georgians and Azeris) were stopped by Moscow police and their papers inspected. If they did not have a resident's permit, they were bundled on to planes back to Armenia, Georgia, or Azerbaijan.

People joke that when the authorities decided to issue passports to the Chukchis, they decided not to bother with individual photographs since to Russians all Chukchis look the same. However, one Chukchi came to complain. "What is the matter?" he was asked. "Don't you agree the picture looks like you?" "Yes, the picture looks like me, but that's not my T-shirt."

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