Judy Gilchrist traveled to Russia this past summer.
Her daughter Connie, son-in-law David Rohr and grandsons Zane, 15, and Grayson, 12, were working with a missionary on a short term basis. Judy joined them for a two-week stay in July 2007.
Her family lived 400 miles east of Moscow in a town of Cheboksary with a population of 600,000. This was a good sized city though it seemed rural because of the many trees.
Judy flew via Poland to Moscow and was met by her daughter and a missionary friend. They boarded a sleeper train to their destination. The countryside is beautiful with a lot of wooded land. The surrounding area is sparsely populated with three or four houses making up small villages.
There were few cars in the city. During her stay, Judy met no one who owned their own vehicle. Trolley buses, taxis, taxi buses were all inexpensive forms of public transportation. Bicycles were not as common as seen in many foreign countries. Judy saw only three while in the city.
She was surprised to see that all of the main streets were lined with apple trees, two trees deep, with wide sidewalks. There is often another row of trees in front of the buildings. She also saw that many of the main buildings had lovely facades. Inside, the first room was elaborately decorated while the rest of the building would be extremely plain with narrow hallways and staircases.
She estimated that probably 99 percent of the people in this town live in apartments, as in earlier Soviet days. Apartments are quite small compared to what we are familiar with in this country. The street floor of these buildings is devoted to small shops.
The Rohrs sixth floor apartment rents for $400 a month and was considered deluxe by Russian standards. Their kitchen had a small double sink, a shelf, several cupboards, and a camp size refrigerator. All spaces were small. The apartment consisted of a living room, bathroom, two other rooms and a porch with storage space and a clothesline for drying laundry. Floors, walls, and ceilings were all made of concrete. Wallpaper, rather than paint, is used to decorate. Hallways and staircases were extremely narrow.
Keys were required to enter any apartment building. Other locked areas divided sections inside the apartment buildings. Judy said she felt safe while visiting. Crime was at a minimum. There seemed to be no concern about pickpockets or robberies.
Shopping is done almost daily in small shops. Milk is purchased in small foil bags. The same is true of most products. Storage space is almost non-existent. Families shop on a day to day basis.
Judy had traveled quite a bit and found she could recognize the type of shop by the name, but could not read the names of the products on the packages. She said that they are beginning to modernize and have several large grocery stores. When entering these stores, your purse is plastic wrapped, to be unwrapped when checking out. Lockers are provided in some stores where purses and other packages are placed, locked and retrieved when exiting.
Small shops can be found throughout the town. Large outdoor areas are devoted to selling flowers and produce. Many people shop at stalls located in large buildings. One stall might have bath products. Others, fresh baked breads, meat, potatoes, cabbage, or berries. Ready prepared foods were also available. Everyone displayed their own specialty. A shopper needed to look around because other stalls might have some of the same products and you would want the best items at the lowest prices This could be a challenge and a time consuming adventure.
Judy purchased a pair of shoes that were displayed at one stall. She chose a style — a shopkeeper drew around her foot on a piece of paper, and then brought the shoes to try on. There was nowhere to sit. Judy stood on a piece of cardboard to keep the shoe soles clean while the shopkeeper held a hand mirror so she could see how the shoes looked on her feet.
Prices seemed fairly reasonable, but then she was told workers earned only about $200 a month. Wheeling and dealing for the best prices were common. Families usually double-up in apartments to save on rent. Everyone appeared to be well dressed. When asked about this, the interpreter said that in most cases a person owned very few outfits, but wore them over and over again.
There are several lakes in Cheboksary. Evening and weekend activities often included spending time in the parks, walking, roller-blading, and paddling paddle-boats on the lake.
David and Connie’s missionary work included witnessing, passing out tracts, and conducting Bible study classes, as well as teaching English. Judy told that song books used in the women’s Bible study class contained words only. Two of the older women, who knew the songs, would teach the music to younger members. All would sing the new songs during church services and would continue with the same song each week until everyone could sing along. Their only accompaniment was by a young man playing a guitar. Bible classes met in homes. Church services were held in rented office space.
Before leaving home, Judy had packed a suitcase full of taco shells, cheese and seasoning so her daughter could have a taco party. Connie invited friends to the special event. While waiting, the guests asked Judy to “teach us some games.” When Judy said that she didn’t know any young adult games, the missionary said, “Think about the games you played in grade school, these people never had the opportunity to play games as children.” She taught them to play “Simon Says.” Everyone laughed and had a great time. A month later, Connie reported the women were still playing and enjoying the game.
Judy is the executive director at Horizons Health Care Center, so was naturally interested in visiting a nursing home during her stay. Apparently this type of care is not available, at least not in Cheboksary. Older folks stay home with other family members. She did visit a children’s hospital. The six-story building had high ceilings and very wide hallways. There were 18 to 20 kids in the cardiac section, complete with a schoolroom and playroom. The kids live at the hospital while getting treatment. Their beds were low metal cots and much of the equipment appeared to be old and outdated. It was interesting to note that the staff wore cloth covers over their shoes when entering the area, though hand washing facilities did not seem to be an issue.
The Russians were eager to talk with Americans. They wanted to know what the country was really like. One older gentleman said that when he met Americans they weren’t at all like what he had been told by the government. He said, “We were told that Americans hated Russians, yet Americans come and they smile, they are happy and look for things to do. That’s not what we have been told.”
Checking out a bookstore, Judy found that books used for teaching English pictured housing in America as a mansion, a skyscraper, and a big lodge. The book depicted a sports car, a semi, and a model T Ford as U.S. transportation. No wonder there are misconceptions about the American people when even text books do not give a true picture of life here.
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This city is only a small part of Russia. It doesn’t give a full picture of the country. It would be like comparing Delta to Denver or apples to oranges. It does give a bit of insight as to how some of the people live in that country.