When Maxine Gallagher travelled on Intrepid’s Trans-Mongolian Express trip she expected to be moved by historic sites and the iconic journey, but it was also the ageing women of Russia who left an indelible impression…
“They line the streets, they fill the shops, they push past people in queues to grab 15 ruble bottles of vodka, they sell their motley selections of mushrooms on an old blanket, they walk slowly but purposefully, they stand still against walls, they stare in wonder at garish posters, they hold hands outstretched with dignity. They are Russia’s ever-present babushkas.
Representing the shards of a communist era, they wear their headscarves, no longer to shield them from the sun as they labour, but as part of a uniform of an elderly, not forgotten, but largely ignored generation. Each wrinkle represents a year of the hardship they have faced, and yet the canvas of their crumpled faces still seems to yield space for more.
I went to Russia with little expectation. I didn’t know a lot about its history. I had resolved to keep an open mind. I was prepared for a grey country, still wearing its suffering on its sleeve, whilst displaying a sense of pride in the strength of its people who have triumphed over so much. But I wasn’t prepared for the heart-wrenching sight of this fallen generation standing still and stooped like lampposts at every street corner, train station and alley way.
The most degrading sight was not the babushkas at train platforms, trudging up and down selling blinis and fir cones, nor those with hands outstretched at the entrance to shops. It was the babushkas I saw in Moscow, crowding like pigeons around a circle on the pavement, grappling for coins that tourists threw over their shoulder for luck.
The presence of so many elderly women makes the absence of their male counterparts so glaringly obvious. The glimpses of a lone headscarf, or thick wrinkled brown stockings serve as a continuous reminder of the loss of so many young men. The loss that deprived these hardy women of husbands, children, happy homes and secure futures.
Surprisingly though, unlike homeless people under blankets asking for change, people don’t walk past avoiding their gaze, feigning deafness and blindness, they more often than not give them money. And no one bats an eyelid as they might in other countries. There’s no sense of “How dare you support these people? It’s their own fault”; there is a sense that the Russian people are proud of these women. They acknowledge their hard toil and appreciate their resilience in unimaginably tough times. Yet why won’t they do more to help them?
The Russian government has gone to great lengths to conceal this problem, and appears to care so little about their desperate situation that they have even taken measures to transform their already paltry benefits into an even more meagre monthly pension.
I tried to take photographs, to document what I saw. But even after attempting to get spontaneous shots, I could not do them justice. From a distance they look like an ordinary collection of elderly women. Up close though, looking at each face is like looking at a history book. It is like seeing a kaleidoscope of the pictures and statues that adorn the walls and ceilings of Moscow metro stations. Pictures of women proudly holding the Soviet flag aloft, mosaics of girls cutting sheaves of wheat, statues of women holding guns.
But it’s a history book with a tragic ending. Even after surviving those troubled times, they face a fresh agony. The USSR took away their youth, and now the new Russia is taking away their old age.
This is a situation that is not going to change soon. But it has a sell-by date. The babushkas will die out and young label-obsessed Russian girls will take their places, rejecting house coats for Gucci jackets. For now though, it looks as though these women will continue to struggle on, as they always have.
All I can do is encourage any travellers to Russia to lose those ingrained inhibitions about placing coins in outstretched hands, and to offer a few rubles to these worthy, unassuming women who helped Russia survive.”
As a footnote to Maxine’s heart-felt story of Russia’s resilient babushkas, Intrepid travellers are helping support the women of Russia during our local homestays and banya visits, plus many Intrepid staff in Russia are involved with projects, such as adopting babushkas. The Intrepid Foundation also supports Nochlezhka, a local organisation that looks after Russia’s homeless population and your donations can be doubled* by Intrepid Travel.
* Donations to The Intrepid Foundation will be matched by Intrepid Travel up to AU$5000 (or equivalent) per donor and a total of AU$400,000 each financial year.