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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Will Capitalism Ever Penetrate the Russian Soul?

One weekend this spring some American friends stopped by campus and invited me to go for a drive. We'd only made it about 10 miles when suddenly they sang out happily: "Look! A yard sale!"


In a flash, we had pulled up to a lawn covered with bright clothes. Tables and benches had been set up to hold the dishes, housewares and knick-knacks. Off to one side there was a heap of old bicycles and strollers, whose original owners probably already had grown-up children of their own.


I tried to hide my disappointment: They'd invited me to look at the waterfalls and instead brought me to this junkyard. I stood near the car and watched from a distance as my friends picked through the trash, bought a few things, and even had a cup of coffee with the woman running the sale.


Of course, they called me to come on over; they even offered me a cup of coffee. And I really wanted to go. But I couldn't. I was ashamed. I was ashamed for my friends: They were both professors, intelligent people, successful, with plenty of everything and needing nothing -- and now here they were rummaging through someone else's junk! What a disgrace!


I was ashamed for the woman, obviously a respectable lady who was cheerfully chatting with her customers and treating them to cups of coffee and cookies. A perfectly nice lady, not poor (what a great house!), reduced to selling her good name. Disgrace!


And I was ashamed for myself. How did I end up surrounded by this junk? All the time, I was afraid that one of my students might pass by and catch me in this unpleasant situation: I would never get over it!


Later, we set up a little picnic on the bank of a babbling stream. Mostly we talked about the sale. My friends looked over their purchases, constantly finding new things to like about them.


"Just look! What lines, what an exquisite pattern!" I looked obediently: The lines and the pattern and the whole, delicate vase were indeed very nice.


"And for just pennies! Do you know how much this would cost in a store?" I didn't know.


"And do you know what we paid?" I didn't know that either, and I didn't want to know.


Later they drove me back to campus. I went up to my room. It was a standard dorm room that had everything necessary, but nothing personal that might transform the room into someone's home. My American counterparts always brought all sorts of stuff from home, but me -- was I supposed to drag things all the way from Moscow? All of a sudden I began to remember that lamp with the bright shade and that elegant candle with the pretty candleholder, which were selling for nothing at the yard sale.


I sat in my dismal room and ... marveled at my own stupidity.


In my own defense, I can say that it wasn't my personal stupidity. It was, you might say, social stupidity, inculcated in my generation by the society in which we were raised. Ever since we were kids they filled us with the idea that buying and selling is shameful. Of course we understood that there are some people who have to sell things, but we always thought of them with pity. And if we ever had to sell something, it was nothing short of a tragedy.


In the works of one of my generation's favorite writers there is the following episode. A young couple falls into poverty. The husband becomes sick and his family is left without an income. The wife cannot find work and finally resolves on a desperate step. Without a word to her husband, she gets up early and goes into the forest. She gathers wild strawberries and, pulling her scarf low over her face so that no one will recognize her, she sells them to people on the beach! Of course, someone later recognizes her and we readers would begin crying over her humiliation and marveling over the sacrifice that she brought to the altar of love. Funny, but neither the author nor the readers pitied the poor thing when she trudged off at dawn to the distant forest, but only when she began to sell her berries, that is when she received her hard-earned reward.


Now I'm grateful to American yard sales. They helped me get rid of one more prejudice that I had inherited from the Soviet regime. Once again, it occurred to me to ask, "Why not? What's wrong with that?"


That Sunday evening I began to think about the social significance of this phenomenon, which is so ordinary for Americans and so incomprehensible for us. I remembered the merry woman who was running the sale. She didn't get rich that day. And it was a lot of work: All the broken furniture and stuff had to be gathered, cleaned and arranged on the lawn. She had to prepare gallons of coffee and mountains of cookies. Then she had to work all day as salesperson and host, treating every customer like a guest. What made her do it?


I think it was a feeling of responsibility. She felt responsible for keeping her own home in order. She felt responsible to other people who might need something that her family didn't need anymore. She felt responsible to the things themselves that had served her so well and which she couldn't condemn to a degrading existence in some dark storeroom.


And what do we Russians do? In our family, we pack off our extra things to the dacha. The whole second floor there, where we could just as well arrange two bedrooms, is simply crammed full. Every once in a while I go up there and try to find something nice and take it into the village where we buy our milk. I'm always afraid of offending the woman because I'm not giving her something new and I spend a long time apologizing. So long, in fact, that she begins to look at the things scornfully.


In my imagination, I see this scene. It is a summer afternoon. On the grass in front of our dacha everything from our attic is beautifully arranged. Each item has a price tag bearing a purely symbolic price. The samovar is set up on the veranda and there are cookies and cakes for the children. The neighbors are actively picking out whatever catches their eye. They stop by for some tea and swap the local gossip. Everyone is satisfied and the next day we begin to set up those bedrooms in the newly cleared space.


It's the inexhaustible theme of Russian conversations: our poverty and "their,"American wealth. For some reason we discuss this as if it were something immutable, like a fact that has come down from the ages. But it seems to me that our national wealth depends to some small degree on each one of us. On our responsibility or irresponsibility. It even depends on how we take care of that little portion of the general wealth that falls to us. Are we going to let it rot in some attic, or are we going to put it to use?


Sofia Bogatyryova is a freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado. She contributed this article to The Moscow Times.