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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lives Apart: A Tale of Two Siblings

MOKSHAN, Central Russia — Tatyana Shalimova's high heels sink into the mud as she rounds the corner to her brother's house. To her left, four chickens feast in a large open garbage bin. Ahead, her brother's wife stands alone in the kitchen, a gigantic pot of slops simmering on the stove to feed their pig, Masha. Inside the house, there is no toilet, no hot water and no telephone.

Pulling on her Ray-Bans, Tatyana shakes her head as she considers the gap separating her life in Moscow from her brother Misha's here in the "workers' settlement" of Mokshan. "I can't stay here for more than a few days at a time," she says. Then comes a question: "Why don't the people here change their lives?" Her unspoken rebuke hangs in the air: "I did."

Almost a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, sister and brother live in different post-Soviet realities, one reflecting the promise of an unfinished capitalist revolution, the other trapped in isolation and neglect.

Tatyana's is the world of Moscow's emerging middle class, a whirl of Paris vacations and after-work aerobics classes, supermarkets and traffic jams, rising expectations and perpetual insecurity. Misha's Mokshan, 700 kilometers to the southeast, is a place of narrow horizons, rusting factories and Communist-era bosses, where money is more concept than reality, and the summer harvest of cabbage and potatoes supplies food for the long winter.

"All the positive changes that happened in my life are the consequences of the new system," she says.

"Things are harder now," he says. "There's not enough jobs and not enough money."

At 34, Tatyana is part of the transitional generation, the last to have received a fully Soviet education and the first to have worked mostly in the free market. She grew up with Soviet stagnation in the 1970s, came of age during Gorbachev's reforms in the 1980s and became an adult in President Boris Yeltsin's 1990s.

Ten years ago, she had never been outside the country. Now she is fluent in world capitals — most recently Paris and London — and a connoisseur of beaches from Spain to Egypt. When the Soviet Union collapsed, she lived in a crowded communal apartment with four roommates, one grimy kitchen and no shower. Today she rents a tiny studio of her own.

"I am between the two worlds," she says, sitting up late on the overnight train to Mokshan. "I remember life in the village so well, but as some separate life. You get used to good things very easily, but still you don't forget. … I know what it is to save money just to buy a pair of new boots."

While the gulf between Moscow and Mokshan has always existed, it is wider today. It is the difference between the $1,500 a month Tatyana considers "normal" for herself and her Moscow friends and the $70 monthly salary of her brother; between the French cognac she has learned to prefer and the home-brewed vodka he keeps in his cupboard.

On the short walk one recent afternoon from Misha's house to the now-polluted river where they swam as kids, he described the berry-picking season just ended and the mushroom-hunting soon to begin. In September, he hopes to buy a cow.

Tatyana, meanwhile, was looking back at his crooked wooden outhouse. "I can't imagine living in such conditions," she said. "I can't believe this is where I came from."

After leaving Mokshan in 1984 for a foreign-language university in Moscow, she graduated in 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell. In 1991, she was working as a translator at a secret defense factory at Sergiyev Posad, about 60 kilometers north of Moscow. She went home to Mokshan often for supplies; her mother stuffed her suitcase full of potatoes and even hand-wrapped fresh eggs in newspaper.

By late 1992, she had quit the factory and moved back to Moscow. First, she worked for an Indian firm importing everything from tea to toothpaste, then for a British company, then for American Express. In 1995, she switched to a U.S-funded consulting firm advising on land privatization. And in 1998, she moved to the Russian-American Judicial Partnership, where she is executive assistant to the director.

On the whole, hers is a story of rising expectations. "The appetite grows while eating," she says — and only Moscow can feed those new hungers.

"There's such a discrepancy between people living in the capital and anywhere else in Russia," Tatyana says. "I would never complain about how I'm going through life."

Tatyana's salary may be significantly higher than the Moscow middle-class average of $500 a month, but she owns nothing of real value except a television and a home computer. She has no credit card and no bank account. Her rent is $150 a month. Foreign travel is the one big-ticket item. She and her friends are eager jet-setters, their passport stamps freedom's most visible trophy.

Back in Mokshan, Tatyana's father Gennady is standing in the kitchen bragging about his potatoes again.

"I am proud that these are my own potatoes. That we have them through our own labor," says Gennady, an engineer at the telephone company who counts on his garden, not his paycheck, to supply their food for the winter.

"I don't agree," Tatyana interrupts. "I've offered to buy them three sacks of potatoes, which is enough for the whole winter."

"Why do you need to do this work?" she asks her father. "It's not good for you at your age."

"No, no, no," he sputters. "It's our work. We are proud of it."

For Tatyana, every visit to her parents' apartment is a series of confrontations between their Russia and hers. Although she is close to her mother, their everyday lives have little in common, from the way they spend their time to the food they eat. ("I like something low-fat, not fried," she says on the train; within hours, her mother is frying fish and potatoes.)

From Moscow, it takes 12 hours and 45 minutes by train to reach the regional center of Penza; Mokshan is another 45 minutes by rickety taxi. The cab is the last car Tatyana will ride in while she is here; no one in her family has ever owned a car. For her, travel in Mokshan is exclusively on foot, down muddy, rutted lanes, dodging stray dogs.

A town of about 11,600 founded in the 17th century, Mokshan retains its Soviet feel. Average wages are $35 a month. Her father's family has lived nearby for generations; her mother Valentina came here in the 1960s after studying to be a pharmacist in Moscow.

Brother Misha is five years younger than Tatyana; an army veteran, he works as a repairman at the telephone company and supports his wife and year-old son.

Born in 1939, Valentina grew up poor. Her abiding memories are of starving as a child. Sitting now at the kitchen table, pushing her daughter to eat more, smiling at the jug of fresh milk on her counter, she says the biggest change of this 10 years is the reliable food supply.

"I always used to tell Tanya when she was little — 'Eat up, just in case,'" Valentina says.

When Gennady retires in November, their household income will fall to $70 a month. But Valentina says they are lucky. "It's a lot for Mokshan," she says.