Unknown Territories, part 2
“The sheer drabness of it all!” That’s not the tag-line for the next must-see Trans-Siberian tourist spot, but rather M‘s pervading lament on the state of Ekat’ circa 1995 after he and others like him were imported to urgently fix potentially fatal holes in the housing sector left by the departing (disintegrating) CCCP.
Consider this: that one of the tenets of the Soviet system was that in return for taking your allocated position as a spinning-gear in the machine, you would be provided for, from housing to medical care, to the job that you would daily attend. A quantifiable, human-engineered version of destiny, then.
Imagine this scenario being yours and your family’s only expectation across generations, and then having that security rug pulled swiftly from beneath your feet over a few short months. You’d better start thinking about how to structure and maintain a life and how to keep it all afloat, from a cold start. You’d better start swimming fast.
It’s impossible to imagine this prospect from our perspective or to imagine the weight of responsibility and sheer reality that must have descended upon M and his colleagues, not to mention the force of that collective gaze from all those expectant faces. These are people’s homes that we are talking about . They aren’t getting any newer or better as the clock ticks, the demand isn’t slowing and the old watchmaker has left the premises, for good. Here, catch. Think fast.
I can imagine a few “We’ve got to fix this?” moments at the prospect of instigating a viable housing model whilst being a fundamentally distrusted outsider, literally yesterday’s enemy! And where to start? Well, the bottom line M reveals is: simply by jumping right in.
He tells me that there was “no time to think”, that it was all a case of hitting the ground running. Perhaps it would have seemed (or even been) worse if there had been time to think about the sheer scale of change that was needed from mindset to concrete?
The Scandanavians were (still are) respected for their stance on health care and quality of life. M brings this up as if to illustrate a definition of the term: ‘polar opposite’. Hurray for the Scandanavians. OK, let’s not forget that M stood in a “closed” city a mere three years after it had fallen “open”. With the Soviets, he says, it was about a “focus on the military”, the houses were ghastly. Especially in Ekaterinberg. (See photos of downtown Ekat here.) The ‘military focus’ certainly dominated because of the City’s role as a centre for military research and manufacturing.
Oh, but there were survival strategies, that’s in the very nature of the pink, fleshy stuff flowing between the jutting machines, don’t forget. It finds ways and means to cope, whether by striking for time to gaze out of the window as an astronaut in low Earth orbit or by cultivating trusted human connections down here in the mineral-rich dirt with it’s drab surrounds. M‘s insight is that living amongst it all, a person could “block out the blight” by tending to, and living within a separate, inner world buoyed up by personal connections and often simple distractions: dinner parties, picnics, the small things that count big. The short-focus on the pleasantries of here-and-now, and the grasping of life-quality wherever it may be found.
It’s different when you are an outsider though, better or worse? Or just different? The locals have their social structure, their friends. Together: a collective that whilst “stuck” here, fundamentally “get it” because they are living it and have lived it. Camaraderie, understanding.
In M‘s position as outsider you have a roughly six-month apprenticeship to serve before that invisible wall of ice starts to melt and tentatively, assuming that you have proven to be an “OK guy”, native curiosity gets the better of distrust and those invitations start to appear. Baby steps and milestones.
At any rate, you always have “back-home”, don’t you? If it all ultimately, ultimately becomes too much, if it just doesn’t work out? Well, events would transpire that would cause M to cut that umbilical and be free-floating, adrift, and with the job still to do. That’s for another time.
Next time: Unknown Territories, part 3 The alternative now
[Photo by utype]