Orenburg 2013: ring out the old, ring in the new!

Regional journalist Elena Strelnikova takes a wry look at some of the events of the departing year. 

 

‘When I was a child, I remember waking up in the morning and smelling the pancakes my mother would make in the kitchen. The smell seemed to drift around for ever…and so did the time. No hurry to wake up, but Mum gets you up, you sit at the table and have breakfast. You’re in no hurry and time creeps by. You’re on your way to school, in no hurry because you’d like it to be over as soon as possible, but time creeps by and the lessons drag on… 40, 30, 10 minutes. The only thing that goes by in a flash is the lunch break. You go slowly home, where homework drags on…

But when you’re grown up, things are different. You go to bed, get up and it’s New Year again. You do the same routine… and it’s another New Year!’

I heard this incredibly precise comparison of childhood and adulthood from the lips of the actor and director Vladimir Grammatikov and have to agree: that’s just how it is!

Just don’t mention politics!

This last year has been eventful for me. Last January I moved to a different editorial post, adding creative work to my administrative workload, and we’re already drawing up lists of topics for the next year.

The topics are fairly standard, because the interests of our provincial audience don’t change much: family, health, education, and more family, then prices (which have reached the level of psychological absurdity for the average consumer), the housing system, and, finally, sport as a means to a healthy lifestyle. Not much politics; or what there is has to be moderate and in measured doses, because people are heartily sick of the subject. In Soviet times it was the main topic of conversation round the kitchen table, but today people prefer talking about social matters: what they’ve bought, how much for, where they bought it, where they are intending to work/study and where they’re going on holiday.

My husband is known to lose his rag over politics. I have actually begged him not to watch TV or read the clever newspapers before supper, and to give the news websites only a cursory glance. Nerve cells don’t renew themselves, after all! He managed this for a while, but then we were off again: how much longer are they going to on lying to us? Dealing with corruption is a gala performance put on for the people. The authorities punish the thieves? Not likely!

Family political debates are enlivened by the participation of our grandfather and aunt: ‘That we should live to see this! People steal from the state budget, from the PRESIDENT for heavens’ sake, and all that happens is that they’re not allowed to leave the country. Millions of roubles are leaking away and no one gives a damn. And yet there’s no money left to pay our doctors and teachers.’

On the subject of doctors... this year our region has introduced a new programme called ‘Country doctor’. A doctor is given a million roubles [£20,000, US$30,000] to buy somewhere to live as long as he takes up a post in the country, because there’s a terrible shortage of rural doctors there. 183 candidates put their names forward for this programme: half of them simply moved from one district to another and the other half are graduates of the Orenburg Medical Academy. This means that of the 400 or so graduates, the number of people choosing to work as specialists can be counted in single figures. There weren’t enough doctors in either the towns or the country, and there still aren’t.

Orenburg local authorities have offered incentives to encourage doctors to work in under-served rural populations, but the low salaries available for doctors working in there continue to be a major obstacle (Photo: Georgii Milyanenko).

Officials declare that doctors in country hospitals earn up to 40,000 roubles a month [£800, US$1200]. That is, they can earn – but in such a case, they’d have to be working in a district hospital and the doctor would probably have to do 3 jobs concurrently, i.e. being at work round the clock. Not long ago I got to know a young therapist who works in the country. She’s a single mother with two children and she earns 7,000-8,000 roubles a month [£140-£160]. She bought her house with a loan of 1m roubles – in the city you can’t buy a flat for that, but the salaries are still 7,000-8,000.

Elections, corruption, explosions and football

What else has happened in the past year? Well, we elected a president. In our region the election passed by almost imperceptibly: we all knew what the result would be, so it can’t really be called an event of the year. On the other hand, no one expected that the battle with corruption would go as far as the Defence Ministry’s golden toilets and the uniform our army wears. Then again, everyone realizes that this is simply another round of lies aimed at calming the people. Orenburgers are more concerned with the military testing grounds dotted around the oblast.

In October the city was rocked by 3 explosions. Children were hurriedly evacuated from schools and kindergartens and the telephone at work was red hot. The authorities kept shtumm, but you couldn’t get through to the Emergency Ministry on the phone and for half an hour the whole city of Orenburg was in a state of shock. We thought a gas pipeline had exploded, but it turned out to be a freight train carrying shells to their point of use. It was 40km from the city and there were national servicemen on board. There were no fatalities, or at least the army only reported the heroic feat of one lieutenant who managed to evacuate the young conscripts in time. We’re a city with a population of 500,000 and both it and the areas around it were rocked by the explosion. But that’s not all. Earlier this year there were explosions in some military warehouses in Buzuluk National Park and there are still shells lying around there. From time to time the local inhabitants ‘use’ them, sometimes paying for it with their lives.

The area surrounding Orenburg is full of military testing grounds; uncontrolled and unexpected explosions are unfortunately not rare. (Photo: oreninform.ru).

2012 also saw the European Football Championship and the Olympic Games. One of the physics teachers at school used to say to us ‘Always remember, girls, that men are kids all their lives. Just observe your fathers watching football on TV: they shout, clap, stamp their feet and jump up and down, though no one on the other side of the screen can see or hear them.’ I would watch my father in the evening, all by himself and just like the teacher said. Mercifully, my husband is uninterested in football, so the championship passed by uneventfully… almost, because we could hear the fans in the street shouting, hooting their car horns at night and chanting slogans.

I watched the Olympics alone with my younger sister, who’s mad about sporting events. She also has a daughter, who’s a future Olympic champion, as we like to joke in the family. She’s only 4, but she goes to figure skating 5 times a week, though for reasons of health, rather than sporting success.

Orenburgers have become quite keen on sport recently. Some go skating, some skiing, others to the pool, the gym, running, or on long evening bike rides with the whole family. My sister enthuses about bikes, which she says she’s just discovered, and I actually cycle to work from spring into the late autumn. It’s very good to see that every year there are more and more people who think as I do.

Families

What’s going on in Russia is not very clear, but we’ve started producing more babies. 2012 was for Orenburg the first time that the birthrate outstripped the death rate. I have 3 pregnant friends and 3 who have just had babies.

Our children are great too. They’re so kind and affectionate. My husband was helping our youngest reach something from a high shelf and she thanked him by saying ‘Well done, Daddy. You’ll make a gallant knight!’ Our middle daughter listens to the talking-to I’m giving her and says ‘D’you know what, mum? I really like listening to your little sermons: they’re interesting and informative… and you have such a lovely voice.’ The oldest has done well in her state exams and got a university place all by herself. She adores student life and is currently in love for the first time. ‘Can we stand downstairs in the entrance for a few minutes?’ This was her asking permission at half past midnight. Of course you can. At half past one my patience ran out, but I tactfully didn’t stick my head out of the window. I sent her a text message and she was home in 10 minutes.

For all the negative developments in Orenburg over 2012, the unprecedented rise in the region's birthrate is a welcome positive shift 

Summer was seriously stressful because my parents were in a car crash. They are both alive, I’m happy to say, though the number of deaths on the roads every year is truly shocking. I would raise both hands in support of tightening all the rules, though my husband hisses angrily that all drivers have to suffer for the idiocy of a few. My parents are on holiday in Egypt. My father said that he didn’t want to go to a sanatorium because he wanted to relax and activity programmes in sanatoria are too energetic by half; he wouldn’t go to Israel, because there’s a war on there. In Egypt you can’t leave the hotel grounds because there’s a revolution going on and he wouldn’t bathe in the sea because of the sharks. He wouldn’t be ringing home, we could check the news on the internet. So they’re lying by the pool and soaking up the sun.

Next year?

‘The end of the world is some rubbish dreamed up by politicians and those around them, so as to distract us from the chaos in the country,’ was the verdict of my friends on the (supposed) events of 21 December according to the Mayan prophecy. True, the daughter of one of them was almost in tears when she read about the prospects for this date on the social media sites.

But no! Russians are an optimistic lot. ‘It always feels as though the new year will be better than the one before and we’ll get lots done. Forget the old year – it’s gone and so what? Everything is going to get better. We’ll deal with corruption, there’ll be a new generation of people in TV who are less interested in sacrificing the manners of the younger generation in favour of their own advancement and prosperity. Teachers will teach and doctors will heal; we’ll build factories, bring back the state farms and lock up all today’s farmers, because they don’t pay their workers, the swine. New Year is a time for dreaming of doing everything that failed to get done this year.'

We are stronger and calmer than we were a year ago. We’ve grown up, got older, wiser and more experienced. What would be really good at New Year, when we hear the chimes of the Kremlin clock, would be for everyone to remember the intoxicating aroma of mother’s crumpets and the endless expanse of time stretching before one. We could smile to ourselves, our neighbour and passers-by, hanging on to the moment of kindness for as long as possible. At least until the next New Year.

About the author

Elena Strelnikova is a journalist based in Orenburg (Southern Russia)