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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

SAY WHAT? :Naked and Not Alone In Our Grief




When I was about 4 years old, my grandmother took me to a public banya. I remember the steam, but most vividly, I remember many naked strangers in the room - women - all of them so big and glossy with sweat.


I remember being intimidated to wash as the strangers looked on. In protest, I began to cry and my grandmother had to take me home. I never went to a public banya again.


But come to think of it, a trip to the public banya is perhaps one of the lesser violations of privacy one can experience in Russia. After all, you're just taking a bath, right? The most blatant violations interfere with even more personal events.


Like weddings, for instance. A trip to ZAGS, the big "wedding palace" bureacracy, mocks the mystery of marriage.


The masters of ceremonies - in normal countries they would be priests - conduct up to three weddings per hour, and as soon as the newlyweds step out of the ceremonial hall, they can hear another Kolya and Sveta say "I do" behind the shut door. Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" plays non-stop, and confused brides bump into each other in the narrow hallways.


Or trips to the doctor. Any encounter with the medical profession in Russia is a nice violation of privacy as well. Doctors save time by examining two or three patients at a time in the same room. And women who seek abortions find the procedure is to be performed on eight other women simultaneously.


Finally, there is death.


Last week, we went to bid farewell to a friend who had died in a car accident. When we entered the city morgue, we couldn't find him at first. His was one of the nine bodies in the open caskets lining the wall. The most near-sighted of us had to squint at the strange bodies - somebody else's friends and relatives - to finally find the familiar features.


At each casket stood a small crowd of mourners. At one casket, a woman was weeping. At another, a Russian Orthodox priest conducted a memorial service. At some point, the morgue workers wheeled the corpse of an old man into the room on a stretcher and unloaded the body, dressed in a suit and tie, into an empty casket behind us with a big thud.


In the crematorium, our group was finally given a separate hall. But even as we gathered to say good-bye to our friend for the last time, we could not do so in private. A crematorium worker stood by and herded us in and out, seeing to it that nobody spent too much time at the casket.


"Time to go, time to go," the woman said as the last person approached the casket. She was running late; the half-hour allotted for the ceremony had expired. She had to bring in the next coffin.


I wanted to ask her if she thought it was appropriate to herd crying, shattered people like that. I wanted to tell her to stop interfering with the privacy of the last good-bye.


I started to put the sentence together in my mind but couldn't finish it, since there is no word for privacy in Russian. Centuries of slavery and decades of communal apartments did not provide for such a concept.