E-MAIL FROM VOLGOGRAD
The Sweetness of Raspberries
A Peace Corps volunteer finds the seeds of Volgograd's capitalism in the stalls of a city market.
By Mike Smith
It's Saturday morning and that means food shopping. But this is no trip to the supermarket as I know it back home in Chico, Calif. For me, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Volgograd, Russia, even shopping is a cultural adventure.
I walk over to the central market and seek out Iza among the three rows of fruit vendors. I buy my usual 2 kilos of bananas from her and still marvel at how they get here from Central America. She sells them at 3,800 rubles a pound -- approximately 75 cents. Iza slips a couple of oranges into my bag, but won't let me pay. I move on, browsing through the mounds of fresh vegetables brought in from the country dachas, tomatoes, green onions, raspberries (the sweetest in the world), cherries and apples. My favorite pickle vendor, Ledia, is not in her usual place, and a woman nearby convinces me to sample hers. These have some red pepper added to the brine and the price is a little steeper than I want, but I like the taste and buy a kilo.
At the milk store, they are out of my favorite Russiskii cheese, but the cheddar looks good. After I buy it, I walk an extra block to a bread store where the crowds are smaller and each saleslady usually manages a smile. The bread is wonderful. I buy a loaf of my favorite, their light rye, and a couple of sweet rolls. What a bargain -- great tasting, freshly baked bread for 1,700 rubles -- about 35 cents.
I take a moment and look around. Sometimes I still find it hard to believe that I am here in the heart of European Russia, working a minimum of 50 hours a week, not receiving any pay, and yet having one of the most rewarding and enjoyable times of my life. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I work at the Volgograd Foundation for Business Development (VFBD). We started the center last year to service the business needs of local commercial enterprises, and it is now managed and staffed by Russians. I usually work part of Saturday, but I love also visiting the market, walking around the city or visiting friends.
After shopping, I set off for the gym. My friend Volodia, a gymnastics coach, has invited me to join him at the gym's bania. It is reserved for the coaches, a sort of sauna with a separate room for social gatherings. On this occasion, Anatoli announces it is his birthday, and a bottle of vodka is opened. He gives a ringing toast to "the plot of land on which we are born." As I drink I find myself wishing that I could make such a toast as this -- in any language.
Leaving the bania, I decide against taking the tram and walk home. I walk everywhere in the city and feel very safe here, day or night. Even though it is relatively large, with a population of 1.2 million, Volgograd has much less crime than Moscow, or even than U.S. cities of similar size, such as San Jose or San Francisco.
My apartment is a two-roomer, large by Russian standards. Built in 1953, it is called a "stalinik" by Russians, more comfortable than "krushevniks," which were built at a time when there was a drive to rapidly increase the amount of housing.
I unload my groceries, have some lunch and then leave for our office, which is attached to the Panorama Museum, overlooking the Volga River. It is on hallowed ground. The Nazi army was not able to take this plot during the epic battle of Stalingrad (the former name of Volgograd). As I walk past the two historic T-34 tanks placed near our building, I recall the terrible events that took place here during that cruel winter of 1942-43. Soviet casualties totaled more than 400,000 during this one bloody battle.
The office is closed. This gives me a chance to catch up on my projects since during the week there is a steady flow of clients. Irina, the director, and her staff are writing an electronic newsletter about business opportunities in Volgograd--and I have work to do configuring it for the Web.
I send a couple of e-mail messages to American companies with which local firms want to communicate. Seventy years of commercial isolation is finally being broken, and electronic communication is an important tool. Russian business people are catching up fast, but they had a long way to go. Sometimes I need to explain basic business terms or assist with marketing strategy, but other times I just sit back in admiration of their commercial instincts.
After closing up the office, I stroll down to the central embankment area near the river port. It's a beautiful day to sit and watch Mother Volga, a different scene from last winter when the river was frozen solid for four months. Looking upriver, I can see one of the large manufacturing factories spewing smoke into the intense blue sky. But the rest of the stacks are silent. The big factories do not operate at capacity. The medium-sized firms and the newly created ones are most active, and they are the key to Russia's economic health.
That evening as I make my dinner, I brood on the silent smokestacks. But I recall the resilience of the Izas and the Ledias in the vegetable market and the business instincts of the Russians with whom I talk every day. As the busy sounds from the outdoor cafe below my window drift up, I take the noise as a vote of confidence in the future.
Smith, '64, MBA '71, is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in Volgograd, Russia.
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