An Expat's Siberian Experience

by Sandy Krolick

Club Orlov (December 07 2010)

Another guest post by Sandy. There is something deliciously ironic in this
story of a former American corporate efficiency expert transplanting
himself to a place where time never goes any place special and patience is
too cheap to meter - and being happy there! Here's the executive summary
for all you "TL;DR" [Too Long; Didn't Read] hyper-efficient power web
surfers: as you prepare to leave the US behind - whether physically
(recommended) or just mentally - you should be ready to slough off your
compulsively American old self and be prepared to grow yourselves a new,
better-adapted, saner one.

For the past five years I have made my home in Barnaul, a town in the
Altai region of Siberia. Much about life here initially chafed against
some deeply engrained cultural assumptions that I carried around with me.
No matter how hard I've tried, sometimes I just couldn't quite fathom the
alienness of the Russian perspective.

I quickly became aware of an almost palpable sentiment that here in
Siberia there is space enough, and time, for anything to occur - and a
certain resiliency to carry one through it. The immense distances and open
expanses provide spatial and temporal horizons that seem to recede
forever. The endless boreal forests of the Siberian taiga and the barren
steppes are not typical "environments" in the Western sense. They are not
places. They have no frames of reference. These enormous expanses seemed
to set the rhythm for much of the daily life here, which is often spent
waiting countless hours, or walking endless kilometers, or just sitting
there. Americans would never have the patience for any of it.

Given this perspective, I found it curious that people here spent so much
of their time crammed into very close quarters in the bustling city of
Barnaul, located between Novosibirsk and the point where the borders of
China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together amid the snow-capped ridges
of the Altai mountains.

How do you suppose people here experience personal space and time in their
daily life? I will always remember my first of many trips around town in a
public transport van called "gazelle". Pleasantly named for its size,
which is diminutive compared to a full-size city bus, "gazelle"
accommodates as many as fourteen passengers, always uncomfortably.
Although there are plenty of automobiles in town, the majority of people
do not own vehicles or drive. "Comfort" is a term that Siberians do not
appreciate as we do in America; it is not something they expect or
particularly seek. They accept certain things as given. They can be rather
disparaging of our American habit of whining over the lack of comfort.
They see it as a weakness in our national character.

The first time I climbed aboard a "gazelle" with my wife Anna, I suddenly
found myself in very close quarters with about a dozen complete strangers.
Keeping our heads down to avoid bashing them into the low ceiling, we took
off like a shot through traffic barely before the door was closed. The
other passengers took no notice of our assault on their space as we
stumbled across their legs and packages to split between us the last
remaining seat in the back of the van. Here, the phrase "public intimacy"
takes on a new meaning: clearly, close physical proximity or bodily
contact is not something Siberians shy away from - not in the gazelle, or
the tram, or the bus, or the theatre. Our fellow riders seemed unfazed by
their close quarters during this galloping ride through town, maintaining
a stoic and formal outward appearance in the midst of this forced intimacy.

I imagined this to be a hold-over from the Soviet era when there was
little expectation of privacy. People seemed to understand the importance
of keeping up a dispassionate public appearance, especially in close
quarters. They were unruffled by the physical proximity. But their
complete lack of emotional closeness or openness in such circumstances was
a bit of a surprise. As an American, my first thought upon entering the
womb of the gazelle was to introduce myself, and then to apologize for
interrupting their ride, but luckily Anna stopped me before I had a chance
to embarrass myself. The silence was deafening, with not a word exchanged
among any of the accidental traveling companions. Even speaking with the
person seated on your lap is kept to a minimum because others would be
forced to listen to your conversation. The erupting blast of a cell
phone's ring tone made everyone reach for their purse or pocket. The
unlucky recipient answered, trying to speak softly and to end the
conversation quickly.

This was my first encounter with the different structure of personal space
within the public domain of the city, and coping with the huge mismatch
between it and my expectations became more and more difficult with each
passing day. It wasn't just when taking public transportation that my
conception of my personal space was being tested to destruction. It seemed
to be under assault in innumerable circumstances, but especially when I
found myself standing in a queue somewhere, waiting for service.

There is so much idle waiting in Siberia that, as one Russian writer
describes it, here the empty passage of time reveals its "authentic
substance and duration". But all this waiting did not seem to
inconvenience the local population as much as it bothered me. It appeared
as though our often frantic, Western sense of urgency was relatively
absent here, and that enormous amounts of time were regularly squandered
without giving rise to frustration. If the bus did not come as scheduled
we could idle away another thirty minutes anticipating the arrival of the
next one, or just walk home. We could easily linger for forty-five minutes
in line at the telecom office to pay our monthly phone bill. If the hot
water or heat in our apartment building shut off without warning (as it
frequently did) we could do without it for several days or even a week
until it would be equally unexpectedly restored.

What I found most striking was that all this waiting apparently did not
upset the locals as it would Americans. Even as time seemed to nearly
stand still, people would just wait it out. Everything seemed to be taken
in stride; things would work themselves out sooner or later. I observed
this attitude daily in the behavior of all those around me. There was
almost never the need to rush; there was time enough for everything to get
done. "Everything will be fine" was Anna's constant refrain in response to
my endless anxiety and frustration.

I sensed an unusual attitude here for ignoring or perhaps for denying
time's plodding passage, which became particularly apparent during the
endless waiting in queues - at banks, ATMs, ticket counters, the phone
company, the post office, the housing registration office, the tax office,
medical clinics, and at the innumerable public notary offices which
officially certify all documents. And I too waited, like everyone else,
because almost everything here must be done in person, and almost nothing
here can be accomplished by phone, or by mail, or via the Internet. It was
as if these modern efficiencies have not been invented yet, and perhaps
never will be. Apparently, there does not seem to be any premium on
"saving time". The massive state bureaucracies and even the commercial
businesses here require that you physically present yourself and wait
somewhere if you want to pay bills or to conduct any other business; and
make sure you can pay in cash, because nobody accepts checks or credit

Not only was such waiting an assault on my patience, but on my sense of
personal space as well. People stand literally breathing down one
another's necks, in such close physical proximity to each other that they
are very often touching. When it is finally your turn to approach the
service window, other people often flank you on either side, watching
everything that transpires. They might even interrupt your transaction,
finding any opportunity to make contact with the person on the other side
of the window before their turn. This seeming impatience, or perhaps a
lack of concern for others, seemed at odds with the general
disinterestedness in time's passage that I witnessed daily, but it turns
out to be another thing entirely: it's just that your time at the counter
is not strictly delineated as yours exclusively but overlaps with that of
others around you.

There was seldom any linearity to these queues, which look more like rugby
scrums than actual lines. There was certainly no queuing theory informing
waiting, as there is in America, no rope-barriers or other accoutrements
of control. Something that looks like a queue often materializes
spontaneously. As you approach a service window or enter a waiting area,
you find that people are not necessarily standing in single file. Some of
them might be sitting idly to the side, or outside having a smoke, or
leaning against a wall, or haphazardly milling around. You have to inquire
who is last in the queue, and often find out that nobody really knows or
cares, or that the person or persons in question just stepped out but will
come back later. The Russian queue is not so much a physical as a mental
construct, its details scattered across many distracted minds. When the
office closes for "dinner" for an hour or two in the middle of the
workday, the queue dissolves, then spontaneously reconstitutes itself
after the dinner break is over.

Back in the USA I always felt that a queue, like time itself, has to be
well-structured, arranged, managed, and always moving forward
productively. Space and time both have to be well organized for us, for we
Americans, it seems, are incapable of enjoying so-called "free time". For
us, free, unscheduled time is wasted time - time not filled with
meaningful content or purposeful activity. Even American vacations are
routinely crammed full of productive activities, and good planning is seen
as a crucial element in recreating with efficiency and purpose.

In America, time-consciousness is run strictly by the clock. Is Siberian
time our clock-time, or is it informed by natural and circadian rhythms
rather than by a strictly linear, mechanical progression? I surmised that
there are no unambiguous expectations of strict linear continuity here.
What at first appeared to me as interruptions in the queue, for example,
or a general disregard for overall time management, might not have been
construed in this way at all by the locals. This was further confirmed in
other circumstances. For example, when speaking by phone with Russian
colleagues or friends about arranging a meeting or rendezvous, they would
invariably suggest getting together immediately rather than scheduling
something for later. I found this to be true even of busy executives.
Trains and government offices have schedules, and mostly run on schedule -
except when they don't, but it doesn't occur to anyone that creating more
schedules, and then running on them, is something that they should be
wanting to do.

People kept telling me: "Sandy, this is Siberia; you can't plan things
here". It was hard to absorb the message that the American control of
time's passage is illusory, that the flow of events from past to future
can suddenly be interrupted, come to a halt, or change direction. After
all, the flow of heat, electricity, and water certainly can, and often
does. If Siberian experience of time is more naturally dynamic than our
artificial clock-time, this might explain their seemingly paradoxical
attitude toward time's passage.

Siberians seem to have a split consciousness of time, as though there were
two concurrent experiences of temporal movement. One is an archaic,
pastoral sense of timelessness, associated with a more feral existence in
the taiga and the steppe, lived in close proximity to nature and its
cycles. The other is a nascent and constraining sense of clock time, with
a focus on punctuality and productivity that is finding a tentative and
clumsy foothold in the complex framework of urban bureaucracies here. Is
it just the nature of life in the city that creates such temporal
incongruities and juxtapositions?

I began to see real challenges to the deeper cultural transformation that
Siberians have embarked upon. Or was this transformation being thrust upon
them, making the incongruities even more severe? Could Russia, could
Siberians, continue to survive in a world rife with such contradiction?
Should we presumptuously drag them kicking and screaming into our
long-gone twentieth century?

For me this was not simply a rhetorical question. The steady gallop of
Western-inspired progress is quietly overtaking Siberia, more rapidly each
day. "Business lunches" are now advertised by new American-owned cafes
with the promise that they are "served in fifteen minutes". Credit cards
are being offered more liberally by lending institutions advertising
"quick financing". A pricey fitness club called Aurora is all the rage in
Barnaul, claiming "fast results". (Of course, my friend Keith and I - the
only two Americans in town - are both members.)

I feel that things are fast reaching critical mass here, with what
remained of long-standing traditions eroding while society moves
chaotically into our Western historical present. What, if anything, could
or should be done to change the course of these events, or to circumvent
such a cultural transformation? I can hypothesize that the tensions
created by life in the increasingly anonymous urban sprawl of Barnaul,
which still seemed in some respects so foreign to these people, is
beginning to create fissures between the generations and between newly
emerging classes of citizens. But I can also imagine that this sense of
"quickening" is just part of the ebb and flow - of Siberia living through
its own version of the 1950s, made possible by Russia's sudden prosperity,
but that it is just a moment, and that, once it passes, Siberia will once
again relapse into its age-old timelessness.


Sandy's book, The Recovery of Ecstasy: Notebooks from Siberia (2009), is
available from Amazon.

Sandy Krolick graduated Magna cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with a Bachelor
of Arts degree in the History of Culture from Hobart College in the Finger
Lakes Region of New York, a Master's degree from the University of
Chicago's Committee on General Studies in Humanities, and a Doctorate in
Religious Studies from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
After a ten-year career in academia, including appointments at the
University of Virginia, the University of Denver Daniels College of
Business, and the Colorado School of Mines, he spent the next twenty years
in the partnership and executive ranks of several of America's largest
domestic and international firms, including Ernst & Young LLP, General
Electric, and Computer Sciences Corporation. Sandy has spent many years
traveling around the world, including parts of Asia, Africa, Europe,
Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, and of course North America. Retiring from
business at the age of fifty, he recently returned to the USA with his
wife Anna, after living and teaching for several years in the central
Siberian Steppe, at the foot of the Altai mountains in Barnaul, Russia.
His other published works include Recollective Resolve: A Phenomenological
Understanding of Time and Myth (Mercer University Press, 1987), Ethical
Decisionmaking Styles (Addison Wesley, 1986), Gandhi in the Postmodern
Age: Issues in War and Peace (CSM Press, 1984), "The Transformation of
Siberian Values" ?????????.??????.?????? .????????, ?????????????
??????-???????????? ???????????, (volume 10, 2008).

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