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Essay: Two Russian lives diverge

How college friends, in New York and St. Petersburg, live starkly different lives.

Not to say my mother’s life turned out perfectly. She went through a horrid divorce. She is in ill health and worries constantly about the cost of health care. Her savings are small and financial security is far from sure.

But she lives in a nice apartment in New York, and when she has to go to the doctor, she does. She has a good car, and doesn’t scrimp on food. And, she would likely say, she has three children who are living the successful lives she imagined and so meticulously planned for them.

Visiting Natasha after having had a 700 ruble ($24) lunch in an average St. Petersburg cafe is the sort of thing that makes me feel guilty. She counts every kopeck — 72 rubles for a packet of cheese, 40 rubles for the tomatoes that lie sliced on the table.

Natasha worked for the customs service for over a decade and left five years ago after her boss decided her position would better suit his nephew. She is of pension age now, and receives a monthly 6,000 rubles from the state. But that’s not enough to live in Russia, where yearly inflation regularly reaches double digits, the price of food and transport is steadily rising, and things like clothes, shoes and electronics remain out of reach even for the average lowly Western freelance journalist.

So, after retiring, Natasha made the daily commute — 45 minutes, two buses — to a job selling beauty supplies. Then the financial crisis hit in late 2008 and demand dried up. Now, more than ever, she scrimps and saves each ruble to pay the bills — and bribes — needed to treat her acute osteoporosis. Most days, she can barely walk.

“It’s a hard life,” Natasha told me during my most recent visit. “Everything costs so much. I don’t know what the future will bring.”

For a while, she relied on Maxim, who followed his mother into the customs service. As the crisis unfolded, his employer — the state — stopped paying his salary. A year and a half later, he still goes to work every day, thinking that will be the day the payments start coming in. At 39, Maxim has no professional training and sees looking for work elsewhere as an impossibility.

Maxim’s wife kicked him out of the house after he stopped bringing home a paycheck. Maxim visits his two daughters regularly, doting on them, trying to find them presents.

His wife’s sister, meanwhile, shows up to family events with bruised eyes, once with a broken nose. Her husband beats her, but he has a steady job, so he is allowed to stay.

It’s a difficult life, one full of hardship and little joy. Whenever I see Natasha, I bring her clothes from the States, or give her money. Sometimes we go to a cafe in the center, something she doesn’t get to do very often. She likes to remember her youth, telling stories of her affairs, or what my mother was like when she was my age. And always, there’s that tinge of sadness when she wonders why she never left.