One of the questions that I wanted to answer in coming here is: how are our lives different. Sounds kind of silly in a way. If I wanted to see difference I could drive 2 miles from my house to North Portland, and get just as far outside my stable, middle-class life.
But the question was about more than economics or education, I wanted to get outside my system. And to see how a different history, a very different story shaped what people want, what they hope for, and aspire to achieve in life.
Growing up as an American, the American mythos is like the water a fish swims in. The Calvinist/Horation Alger/rags to riches/land of opportunity/up by your own bootstraps/We shall overcome/I have a dream/ Great Society/Westward Ho/Tipping Point/Just Do It/ Self-determination/Manifest Destiny/Yes We Can American Dream is hardwired into my psyche, mainlined into my bloodstream, shapes my every idea. I have only come to realize at this late date just how much a member of the talented tenth, affirmative action, post-civil rights, African-American overachievers my family raised me to be.
So in simple terms, I’m an American Optimist. I believe hard work pays off and the course of the world, at least on some level can be bent by my own will and actions towards the just and the good.
And deep down I came Khabarovsk to see if that was true-not just in Portland, but here too.
Katia & Anatoly
The flat I’m staying in is very nice. Not from the outside. On the outside It looks like a project. I see from this building what they mean by “Soviet-era construction.” The stark blocky towers with heavy metal doors, the grafitti, the tiny unlit elevator, the iron bars and 5-deadbolt locks, all present a pretty daunting exterior. And this is a nice flat. But on the inside, total different. The apartment is warm, inviting. You do take your boots off at the door and put on the little flip-flops like I read about. Nice linoleum floors throughout. A bathroom and a WC.
My hosts Katia and Yefgeni could not be nicer. Katia is the sister of Ilya Lushnikov, the pianist who came with the group to Portland last fall. They are both economists. She works for the police, he, for a state environmental bureau.
“Russia has many economists,” Yefgeni says, “but not good economy-now not enough workers.”
“It’s the same in the states,” I say., “too many bankers, not enough workers.
Katia and Yefgeni live in this relatively spacious two-bedroom apartment for free, because of his job for the state environmental bureau. It has a small compact kitchen, the kind I’m used to in European houses. Bright white, compact appliances-refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, washing machine, microwave, the same Chinese & Korean made goods that a young couple living in a 1 bedroom in Boston or Brooklyn would buy- only smaller.
The apartment is uncluttered, maybe that’s what makes it seem not so small. In my room, which, because it is the only room with a double bed, I assume must be their bedroom, which they have given to me, there is a dresser, a metal rack for hanging clothes, a ceiling light, and that’s it. I compare it to the master bedroom in my. house- Queen-sixed bed, 2 night tables, Zimbabwean wall-hangings, photos on the walls, and a closet bigger than their kitchen full of clothes, shoes, and stuff.
They have internet- not wi-fi, but pretty high speed, and a nice big flat-screen TV. Otherwise the living room contains, a small desk with their laptop and sewing machine-her hobby, she says-a dining table, and an ironing board. There is, I confirm, no dryer in the house. Still not sure how they dry clothes in the winter, but I think they hang them up on the indoor balcony, which though not as warm as the apartment, at least is dry and out of the elements.
Khabarovsk is expensive, they tell me, just as expensive as Moscow, which I’ve read is the most expensive city in the world. Khabarovsk is so far away from anywhere that everything is expensive- clothes, food, household items, houses-especially houses.
Katia and Yefgeni both tell me that there dream is to have a house. A little house. Not a big house. There are no houses in the downtown, but just the other side of the main road that we cross on our walk, I see some. For us these would be less than small, from a distance they looked like prefab mobile homes. Smaller than a Sellwood bungalow by a lot. I couldn’t do the translation on the cost, but it was in the millions of rubles. Beyond their means. And an old house, unthinkable.
They ask me if my house is big. “Yes,” I say.
“How many floors?”
“Two and a basement, “ I say.
I’m thinking how Anne and I bought our 100 year old craftsman house 5 minutes from downtown, at about their age, on my salary as a PSU Assistant professor. I’m thinking that it was all we could afford, and even it they work their whole lives, these two Russian economists will never have a house anywhere close to this big.
I naively ask if they shop on the internet. Katia looks at me quizzically? I explain that in the US, I save money by shopping online. If I don’t like the price in the store, I find it cheaper and have it shipped to me. She shakes her head and with a wry smile says, “Russian service not so good,” which I take to mean that she as a reasonable person wouldn’t expect a product purchased from some far-away “online store” to ever arrive.
I think of how I confidently buy everything from clothes to computers online without the slightest doubt that my order will be fulfilled, that I can get my item the next day if I feel like it, and that I’m entitled to my outrage if it should it show up a fraction of a day late. I decide not to ask if they have something like Amazon.com here.
They have a little dog named Julia, She is a 1-month old miniature Yorkshire Terrier. It’s hard for me to imagine an even smaller version of a Yorkie, which the second smallest dog I can think of, But looking at this little puppy, which fits in the palm of your hand, I can see that even full-grown, she is going to have a hard time giving even a kitten a fair fight.
The call it the “big dangerous dog.” I guess because this is the closest that Katia is going to get to the big dog she really wanted.
“It is hard to get dogs in Khabarovsk,” she tells me, “and expensive.”
I sit there trying to figure out how this could be true. I don’t even know what question to ask. I’m thinking “is it a purebred, don’t they have a Humane Society here.? I mean they practically give dogs away to a loving family in Portland. And then I think about the doggie hotels and the pet spas and pet health care, and pet amenities and accoutrements.
But they love this “big dangerous dog.”
Katya father was a famous Russian traditional musician. He played balalaika, accordion and guitar. I ask if there are clips of him on YouTube. She doesn’t understand. I say that in the states I find everything on YouTube classic recordings, old TV shows, videos of historic performances. “The Internet is only 10 years old here,” she says. And when her father was performing in Russia there were no films or video. His performances were not recorded or broadcast. She cannot find him on YouTube.
Katya studied piano, but gave it up. Her brother Ilya is one of the best jazz pianists in Khabarovsk. I’m trying to figure out if that is like being the best jazz pianist in Portland or the best in Cedar Rapids. He is very good. Ilya tells me there are three pianos in Khabarovsk. I’m still chewing on that one. There is one at the college, one at the Philharmonic Hall, and one at the State something theater. Now I know when he says this he means decent grand pianos worth performing on, but still- three pianos? I think of the 80 Steinways we have at PSU alone. I don’t even know how many are grands, maybe 25. I do no that any room that I teach any class in has a Steinway grand in it. My office has a Steinway grand it. The four piano student practice rooms have Steinway grands in them. The two piano teaching studios have two grands each in them. And that is just my school. Think of all the other high schools, colleges, churches. And beyond that there are probably enough unused high quality grand pianos collecting dust in Portland homes to put six or seven in every performance venue in Khabarovsk that has a door large enough to move one in.
One of my students at PSU ran into the Dean of our school the other day. She asked him how he liked the brand new fancy glass main entrance to our building that they just completed this fall. He, politely (so he tells me) said that while it was nice, he wished they had spent that money on more practice rooms.
The first thing that struck me opening the doors to the Khabarovsk College of Arts & Communications was a blast wave of almost every conceivable kind of musical sound from all directions. It took a second for the din to resolve and then as I wondered how it could be so loud in the hallways, I turned the corner into the main hallway and I saw why. All the way down this hall students are sitting in chairs, sitting on the floor, standing in corners, playing instruments. At first I think, are they warming up for an audition or something. Then it dawns on me that they are practicing. Three feet from their fellow students, sometimes in the next chair, they are all practicing.- different things.
At the end of one hall are three accordionists blistering away. Monster chops all of them. In another hall there is a line of balalaika players, maybe 6 of them, strumming, plucking and picking.. I heard violin. I heard piano, and I can’t remember what else. Coming from around corners, down stairs, everywhere. And I’m thinking, why are they practicing in the hallways? Where are the practice rooms? Are there practice rooms? I still don’t know because I’ve only been on the first floor. Then I’m thinking about my students at PSU, and their complaints about practice rooms and I’m wishing they could see this.
I don’t know if my American eyes are looking at an exercise in futility, and a bunch of young lives doomed to failure for lack of adequate resources, or am I looking at an incubator for the kind of robust, resilient pursuit of mastery that my soft American students could well take a lesson from. I mean, do we really need more practice rooms? Do they?
As I reflect on this scenario, it seems like the two ingredients that are needed in order to give this story a happy ending are hope and opportunity. As an American optimist I have the first in large supply. Of the second I’m not so sure. Coming from the “land of opportunity,” I never had to question how new opportunities will be received.. I never had to be surreptitious, or circumspect in their proposal or presentation, not in the land of the great society and the 501c3. But this is Russia, and I’m not yet sure how hospitable a welcome that new opportunities receive here. Our translator Maxim told me that every time a local business becomes successful in Khabarovsk, some billionaires from Moscow come in and by it. And then it fails because they have no idea how to run it.
I have had opportunities to take other jobs during my time at PSU. Though some were prestigious and (for me) financially tempting, they weren’t compelling enough to leave Portland and PSU. I’m happy at Portland State in part because I like rooting for the underdog. While it is wonderful to have plentiful resources at your fingertips, to work exclusively with the most skilled, best-trained students, for me there is nothing that can replace the thrill of seeing the dark horse blow past the field. And I feel blessed that I get to see that on a regular basis at PSU. We are not a rich school, not a place of entitlement and privilege. We are scrappy, can-do underdogs. Our faculty and our students are skilled at being creative, doing more with less, believing in possibility and potential and finding a way.
I know I have counterparts here in Khabarovsk. I think I have met some of them, I feel it even as we struggle past this language barrier to understand each other. I think Valery Khusainov is one of these people. I think it when I see his college, with these bright eyed-young people teaming through it, and as I watch him working his behind off to get us face time with the movers and shakers in his city-hoping to have a real discussion to make SOMETHING happen. I know without asking that he probably makes a third of what I make and he is not being paid for any of this.
I think Vladimir Siderov is one of them. I still don’t know what he actually does for his job, but what I think I know is that he is a kind of rainmaker here. He greases wheels. He gets things going. He smooth talks and persuades. In the states I would call him a hustler. But not one hustle I’ve heard him talk about thus far seems to involve him personally gaining. He is hustling to help his friend Anatoly start a live music club-one of three, they tell me, in Khabarovsk.
Anatoly tells me their first commitment is to safety. Hmm. Never heard a nightclub owner say that. Don’t think I met a nightclub owner who had to.
“No fights,” Vladimir says, “no drunken criminals.” I get the impression this is harder than it sounds here.
Vladimir has hustled us a gig in Anatoly’s rock club, where people have to wait sometimes month to get a table reservation, so we can raise some money for Christmas presents to give to kids in the children’s oncology ward at the local hospital. That is a pretty altruistic hustle.
Both Anatoly and Vladimir are in their late 20’s. I think of my students, many about the same age. Some are working at Starbucks it’s true, but others are starting non-profits, and creating performance opportunities, and new venues. They too are hustling, trying to do good.
What feels kindred is the idealistic streak. It makes me happy is that we get to connect in a in a realm where it is not about money. Where we get to hustle in the service of about things different. My minister Bill Sinkford calls it ‘bending the world toward justice.
I started this post off thinking about the differences between what we have and what they have. On the outside they are many. But I didn’t come to Khabarovsk to look at the outside, not really.
It’s only been one day, but I’ve been touched many times. Their hospitality puts me to shame. From the breakfast Ilya made for me the minute I walked in the apartment to the apartment, to Katya’s incredible russian borscht, to Ilya’s determined efforts to speak English with me, to Yefgeni’s willingness to put back on his coat and boots after coming home from work so I could “go for a walk” in -40 windchill for no particular reason except that I wanted some air. Somehow before I leave here I have to find a way for this generosity to make such a deep impression on me that I can remember it when I return to the land of plenty.
And I hope that my hope and optimism can do the same for them. I’m hustling too. I hope that that in the next 10 days we can unearth some opportunities that are robust enough and meaningful enough to thrive.
Bricks in the bridge.