‘A’ and ‘L’ and Irkutsk Part 2: “Mentalities”
So what’s it like? What is the “feeling” inside Irkutsk from the perspective of bona fide residents? There’s a pause whilst ‘A’ and ‘L’ bat some ideas around… Well, at least that’s what I think they are talking about… And then: “Healthy” is the considered opinion.
Immediately I’m thinking of clean air… but no they say, not with the traffic congestion or the rank perfume of industrialisation wafting in from the outer edges. Instead ‘A’ is referring to what we would call a “vibe”… Do Russians use that term? I didn’t ask.
You see, ‘L’ elaborates, over half the population of Irkutsk are students, young energy incoming from the outlying regions to learn something useful and generally make a go of it. A lot of them, most of them, stay and build lives there, injecting … as with University towns and cities in the West … a certain youthful positivity. Even if they don’t at times realise it.
Just the mindset of actually wanting to do something can make all the difference to the feel of a place. Having lived in small towns where those with a spark of something leave and the rest hang around waiting to die, I can certainly value anything that brings a flavour of life-before-death.
In Irkutsk, this spirit transcends the infrastructure. ‘L’ tells me that there’s not much laid-on in terms of “everyday” entertainment… There’s only two main streets, cinemas, bars… Nothing out of the ordinary. OK, enough “touristy” sites and sights, but which native residents go to those… anywhere? Instead, the likes of hiking and snowboarding are popular. That’s encouraging: these are things that you have to go and do for yourself… a certain motivation is required. Life-before-Death indeed.
So does this vigour rub-off on the locals? Is everybody enthused? Well… no, actually. ‘L’ presents an interesting scenario: “They come to make it, the locals just take it”. I’m paraphrasing but only just. She refers to that world-over “us-and-them” phenomena that reaches even here. Humans, eh? Who’d have ’em? It’s a marked difference between those who arrive to achieve and those who just drag along the bottom… before dropping off the end. Yes, the same everywhere.
I’m wondering though if this is exacerbated by the old Soviet legacy… I get the feeling that it is, though maybe that’s my apophenia in action… Consider this scenario: one of the Communist tenets was that the state would provide – a job, a place to live, a life of sorts, a place somewhere in a pre-defined hierarchy. Whilst some dedicated party-members may find themselves “more equal than others”, for the majority of the population this often meant a damnation to mundanity, in a life predefined. Never to fly, never to fall, never to taste Heaven or Hell but to exist in a stifling “security” between someone else’s parameters. So why try to better yourself? Why try at all?
Conversely, when the old-regime fell… suddenly all bets were off and the state was no longer there to prop up (many would say: promote) the inept or to clip the wings of the ascendant. OK, now you could try to better yourself, in fact you better had try… otherwise you may find yourself slumping to find your own depth.
Well, it’s a theory, but born out by ‘L’s comment that it tends to be “generational”. One day it’ll be down to 2nd-hand memories and history books, but for a while yet we are still close enough to the Soviet collapse to readily find people still invested with the “old” mentality.
Speaking of mentalities, what do ‘A’ and ‘L’ think of Westerners? “We love them!” says ‘L’ enthusiastically, and with a touch of humour… well, they do work in the tourist industry after all. It pays to love those who contribute to your livelihood! Westerners are regarded as “people from another world” and welcomed with interest. She explains further that those who do not share her vocation automatically assume that these interlopers live better lives than they do, whilst people like herself and ‘A’ who actually work with them and perhaps get to know them better have a more incisive perspective…
She sees Westerners as more relaxed in lifestyle, even to the extent of relinquishing securities that most Russians would not dare to. In the extreme: giving up a job or a selling a house to go travelling, say. (Going on the equivalent of the Trans-Siberian experience … stopping over in places such as Irkutsk … )
Of course, this is a skewed perspective… In the same way that I don’t generally meet foreign citizens who are blandly content to sit in their home country and do nothing… (by definition that would preclude them from travelling here…), ‘L’ isn’t that likely to meet wage-slave Brits who just stare into the TV when off-duty and wring their hands over the mortgage.
‘A’ has an interesting insight: that Westerners seem more “individual” … and not necessarily in a good way. It could be generational… but in his experience he explains that Russians see themselves more as part of a group… part of “something”, and that the souls around them are important. (Does that apply in the more brutal Moscow I wonder?). Touchingly too, that “you are responsible for your friends and they are responsible for you”. I can envy a society bonded by mutual support… but is that over-stating what I hear? Is he just referring to “the good old days”? In any case: sometimes I think that we still have so much to learn.
More insights from Irkutsk next time.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 70) ‘A’ and ‘L’ and Irkutsk Part 3: “The Good Old Days”
[Photo by seseg_h]