Living in a city where most of the women wear nicer clothes than I will ever own and where most of the men drive nicer cars than I will ever drive, it’s easy to forget how they suffered ten/twenty/thirty years ago. I’m not saying that Russia is rolling in the dough – I’m very much aware of the ridiculous lack of a middle class. Every day I see how my host mom economizes (and she’s fairly well off) and yet it’s still easy to forget.
For Americans, the phrase “food stamps” brings to mind the unemployed who are currently on welfare. It’s certainly nothing the average American even has to consider and sometimes carries with it a certain shameful connotation. For Nina and her family (as well as the rest of Russia), it was their day-to-day reality.
As with most of our topics of conversation, I have no idea how it started, but I definitely remember her saying: “Every month we would get a stamp for a kilogram of meat per person.”
As an American, I have no idea what a kilogram is in terms of pounds. She takes out here cooking scale and fills up a glass that previously held jam with water. It’s 1.3 kilograms. She empties a little out – 1.1. Again she pours a little out. Finally, it read 1.07 kg. “It’s still a little more than a kilogram, but you get the idea.”
This wasn’t just for meat; it was for everything: food, clothing, etc. – basically everything that wasn’t grown or made locally. To exacerbate the situation, the stores were only open during working hours and the lines were the stuff of legend. A person could wait up to three hours in line waiting for a loaf of bread or a carton of milk. “My husband and I didn’t have time to go to the store. What was I supposed to do? Get myself fired?”
And so her little son, Alyosha, would go straight to the store after school and wait patiently in line for a good hour or two. The phrase “little” refers to how he was then, not to how he is now. He’s now a loveable, yet somewhat imposing (over-six-foot-tall) Russian bear. Even now he remembers: “I didn’t have a childhood mama. I spent it all waiting in line.”
Once she’s started speaking about her son, she usually cannot stop herself from singing his praises for a bit (and not without due cause – he’s a great guy). I get comfortable. She tells me how they used to hand out food to the children at school. Nothing much, mind you, just an apple or an orange or a candy or something. Apparently, every day, while the other children were eating their snack, Alyosha would quietly pocket his own. The teacher would come up to him and ask, “Alyosha, what’s wrong? Don’t you like it?”
“I like it.”
“Then why aren’t you eating?”
“I’m taking it home to share with Mama.”
He’d do this every day. It didn’t matter what it was. He’d cut the tiniest piece of candy into two pieces – one for him and one for his mama.