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Taking Tea With Natalia Ivanovna

This morning I ran into Natalia Ivanovna on the street. Clad in trademark billowy beret and gold wire rimmed glasses, our resident cutie pie babushka classic and veteran of the Leningrad Blockade, gave her customary firm handshake–the only woman I know here to do so. When I asked how she was, Natalia Ivanovna answered soberly, "Wondrously, thanks to your prayers."

In St. Petersburg there are days when strangers assault you, or acquaintances dupe you, or close friends betray you, and the older generation seems like the only people that make life worth living. Bathed in the harsh Northern sunlight, babushki feed the city's stray cats in courtyards, they gather to gabble over canes, they stroll proudly with grandchildren. Many view the them as the backbone of Russian society. Back one January in the early eighties visiting Novgorod on a college trip, a gaggle of babushki accosted the group of companions I was with.

"Button up that coat!" they barked as if Marine drill instructors. "Where's your hat? Well put it on! She doesn't have a hat. Lordy! You catch a cold, then where will we be?"

Today, all too often, the pensioners who built this country with their lives' energy appear on the streets hawking personal belongings, plastic shopping bags or a pack of cigarettes, begging funds or rutting for scraps in dumpsters with the cats.

During the anniversary of the U.S.S.R.'s victory over Nazi Germany, a woman posing as a social worker came to Natalia Ivanovna's door, told her that tomorrow there would be a devaluation of the rouble, and consequently talked her into handing over all her money. Exploiting the mawkish mood prevailing during the anniversary, the woman plied our neighbor with "spiritual" hocus-pocus about the joys of helping people. She claimed to attend the same church as Natalia Ivanovna. A trusting sole, bewildered by the changes enveloping the country she has never been outside of, Natalia Ivanovna went to the bank with the woman, withdrew her life savings of 822,000 roubles {$150.00} earmarked for her own burial and handed over the entire sum. The confidence woman asked Natalia Ivanovna what she planned to do with her apartment upon her death. When the survivor of the blockade said that she already had in mind someone to give the apartment to, the woman tried to pry her with a story about a homeless woman with hungry children. They parted company with the promise that the woman would be back in two hours to present the new currency. Of course the "social worker" never returned.

My housekeeper, the building manager and I pooled money and formed a delegation to visit Natalia Ivanovna who bowed us into her immaculate and sunny apartment up among the trees. A Mexican or Venezuelan soap opera mumbled on the tube in the corner. Exhibiting remarkable sang-froid, Natalia Ivanovna confessed she had felt guilty letting her "aid worker" go without feeding her.

"She looked exhausted to me." Natalia Ivanovna explained. "Here she was, running around the neighborhood to all the veterans on Victory Day trying to help them." The Russians are a shrewd people, proud of their ability to understand human nature so the greatest wound was delivered to her pride.

Yesterday on the street I explained to Natalia Ivanovna that my housekeeper had gone away on vacation, leaving me alone, and suggested that we meet some time for tea. Tilting her head back with a distant smile, she said, "No thank you."

I walked away from her with confused feelings of dejection, and thoughts about people's insurmountable isolation from one another. The exchange also provided further irrefutable evidence of Natalia Ivanovna's boundless pride and dignity. I've tried to give her a tin of Earl Grey tea, but she vociferously refused. One day after the swindle and our consequent visit, Natalia Ivanovna stopped in to discuss the latest utilities rate hike. After she left my housekeeper discovered a box of homemade cookies on the table. Natalia Ivanovna stands out in a country where it seems that everyone from the president on down constantly has his hand out or in someone else's pocket.

This morning I picked up the ringing phone to hear Natalia Ivanovna's cheery voice address me, "Bill Billich"-an ironic moniker used only by my cheekiest friends-"won't you come up for tea?"

She pored from a seemingly bottomless tea pot.

"Mmm. These are good." I exclaimed after biting into a homemade pastry. "What do you call them?"

"Of course they're good. I'd spank you if you said you didn't like them. They have no title. I invented them myself. I call them "Thingies.""

Natalia Ivanovna told me that she began working as a factory lathe operator, then studied to become a construction engineer. Avoiding the holocaust of the blockade in which nearly a million and a half people perished, we discussed Soviet architecture, identifying the various periods by the general secretary of the time. Natalia Ivanovna impressed me with her firm grasp of the profession she had retired from decades ago. She gave a thorough critique of the apartment building going up next door. As always, her lucid mind surviving eighty two years of Soviet reality, including the blockade, never ceases to astound.

Our chat was not all sweetness and light. Pouring yet another cup of tea, Natalia Ivanovna asked me point blank why I'd "abandoned" one of the young women in the neighborhood. Taken aback and forgoing the existential-feminist interpretation of the word "abandonment," I commenced giving her an earnest rundown of the irreconcilable differences, only to realize that it was a trick question in the same vein as, "When did you stop beating your wife?" Natalia Ivanovna told of a radio report declaring American chicken parts, which have recently flooded the market, to be too fatty. The predominant architecture on Manhattan she views as too grandiose. Despite her chauvinistic inclinations, she maintains a decidedly progressive political outlook and remains an avid supporter of the arch reformer, Yegor Gaidar. Natalia Ivanovna will survive.

In most instances Russia is a study in how not to do things. As P.J. O'Rourke observed, she awakes in Americans the urge to roll up their sleeves and start rebuilding. But, generally speaking, life in America is easier than it is in Russia, and our problems pale in comparison to theirs. But the Russians give good lessons in dignity in the face of daunting adversity. For this I am eternally grateful and they have my undying admiration.


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