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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Sad Farewell To the Best of The Old Russia

It's definitely possible to live in Russia," said my friend Sonya the other day. "It's just that people like us don't know how."


She was sitting in her elegantly appointed apartment, surrounded by museum pieces -- silver spoons and samovars, cut-glass door handles in cobalt blue from pre-revolutionary days, a portrait by a well-known artist, old photographs of major literary figures, priceless manuscripts.


Sonya and her husband Yury were preparing to leave Russia to take up permanent residence in the United States, and I, for one, was desolate.


It's happened to all of us, of course -- close friends leaving. But Sonya was Russia for me -- everything that was best in this country and its culture.


She is extremely well-educated and her manners are impeccable. She has a literary quotation for every occasion, and has taught me everything I know about poetry. She is beautiful and empathetic -- she can always put herself in another's place, see things from a different point of view. This makes her kind, but she is not without a biting wit.


I knew her first as a professor, when I was enchanted by her analysis of the importance of children's literature. Thanks to Sonya, I may be one of the few foreigners for whom the name "Gaidar" conjures up first the image of Yegor's grandfather, Arkady, the author of one of the Soviet Union's best-loved children's books, "Timur and his Band."


I have since grown close to her as a friend, someone I can discuss fashion with as easily as politics, and with whom I can sit for hours and gossip, who will give me good advice and scold me when I ignore it, who can compliment and criticize with equal sincerity.


The kind of friendship I have with Sonya is, I think, peculiar to Russia, something that we all reveled in back in the "good old days." Friendship was everything then -- your safety could depend on having people around you who could be trusted. On a more mundane level, getting a decent cut of meat or tickets for the ballet were also tasks accomplished most easily through the intricate web of friendship and acquaintance.


A lot has changed since then -- almost everything is available for cold hard cash, and having an informer in one's midst is no longer necessarily dangerous.


But a lot has been lost in the transition to a market economy, if the funhouse world of the Russian economy can be called a market. Traditional values have given way in the struggle to survive, everyone is being swept along in the drive to make a buck (or baksy as the Russians say).


Russians no longer have the time or the energy for the close, almost suffocating relationships of an earlier era.


But the worst thing, to me, is that people like my friends Sonya and Yury no longer see a place for themselves in this brave new world. Sonya will shake her head admiringly when she hears of friends who are starting businesses, working for Western firms, or finding other ways to survive in the new reality. Then she sighs and tells me how her new book of literary criticism will probably not bring enough for an afternoon's trip to the market -- after she spent almost two years on it.


The departure of people like Sonya and Yury is a very deep loss for this country. We can only hope that, a few years down the road, Russia will have recovered enough to provide a livelihood for its intellectuals. The future depends on it.