Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Space Enough and Time: An Expat's Siberian Experience

[Another guest post by Sandy. There is something deliciously ironic in this story of a former American corporate efficiency expert transplanting himself to a place where time never goes any place special and patience is too cheap to meter—and being happy there! Here's the executive summary for all you “TL;DR” hyper-efficient power web surfers: as you prepare to leave the US behind—whether physically (recommended) or just mentally—you should be ready to slough off you compulsively American old self and be prepared to grow yourselves a new, better-adapted, saner one.]

For the past five years I have made my home in Barnaul, a town in the Altai region of Siberia. Much about life here initially chafed against some deeply engrained cultural assumptions that I carried around with me. No matter how hard I’ve tried, sometimes I just couldn't quite fathom the alienness of the Russian perspective.

I quickly became aware of an almost palpable sentiment that here in Siberia there is space enough, and time, for anything to occur—and a certain resiliency to carry one through it. The immense distances and open expanses provide spatial and temporal horizons that seem to recede forever. The endless boreal forests of the Siberian taiga and the barren steppes are not typical “environments” in the Western sense. They are not places. They have no frames of reference. These enormous expanses seemed to set the rhythm for much of the daily life here, which is often spent waiting countless hours, or walking endless kilometers, or just sitting there. Americans would never have the patience for any of it.

Given this perspective, I found it curious that people here spent so much of their time crammed into very close quarters in the bustling city of Barnaul, located between Novosibirsk and the point where the borders of China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together amid the snow-capped ridges of the Altai mountains.

How do you suppose people here experience personal space and time in their daily life? I will always remember my first of many trips around town in a public transport van called “gazelle.” Pleasantly named for its size, which is diminutive compared to a full-size city bus, “gazelle” accommodates as many as fourteen passengers, always uncomfortably. Although there are plenty of automobiles in town, the majority of people do not own vehicles or drive. “Comfort” is a term that Siberians do not appreciate as we do in America; it is not something they expect or particularly seek. They accept certain things as given. They can be rather disparaging of our American habit of whining over the lack of comfort. They see it as a weakness in our national character.

The first time I climbed aboard a “gazelle” with my wife Anna, I suddenly found myself in very close quarters with about a dozen complete strangers. Keeping our heads down to avoid bashing them into the low ceiling, we took off like a shot through traffic barely before the door was closed. The other passengers took no notice of our assault on their space as we stumbled across their legs and packages to split between us the last remaining seat in the back of the van. Here, the phrase “public intimacy” takes on a new meaning: clearly, close physical proximity or bodily contact is not something Siberians shy away from—not in the gazelle, or the tram, or the bus, or the theatre. Our fellow riders seemed unfazed by their close quarters during this galloping ride through town, maintaining a stoic and formal outward appearance in the midst of this forced intimacy.

I imagined this to be a hold-over from the Soviet era when there was little expectation of privacy. People seemed to understand the importance of keeping up a dispassionate public appearance, especially in close quarters. They were unruffled by the physical proximity. But their complete lack of emotional closeness or openness in such circumstances was a bit of a surprise. As an American, my first thought upon entering the womb of the gazelle was to introduce myself, and then to apologize for interrupting their ride, but luckily Anna stopped me before I had a chance to embarrass myself. The silence was deafening, with not a word exchanged among any of the accidental traveling companions. Even speaking with the person seated on your lap is kept to a minimum because others would be forced to listen to your conversation. The erupting blast of a cell phone’s ring tone made everyone reach for their purse or pocket. The unlucky recipient answered, trying to speak softly and to end the conversation quickly.

This was my first encounter with the different structure of personal space within the public domain of the city, and coping with the huge mismatch between it and my expectations became more and more difficult with each passing day. It wasn't just when taking public transportation that my conception of my personal space was being tested to destruction. It seemed to be under assault in innumerable circumstances, but especially when I found myself standing in a queue somewhere, waiting for service.

There is so much idle waiting in Siberia that, as one Russian writer describes it, here the empty passage of time reveals its “authentic substance and duration. But all this waiting did not seem to inconvenience the local population as much as it bothered me. It appeared as though our often frantic, Western sense of urgency was relatively absent here, and that enormous amounts of time were regularly squandered without giving rise to frustration. If the bus did not come as scheduled we could idle away another thirty minutes anticipating the arrival of the next one, or just walk home. We could easily linger for forty-five minutes in line at the telecom office to pay our monthly phone bill. If the hot water or heat in our apartment building shut off without warning (as it frequently did) we could do without it for several days or even a week until it would be equally unexpectedly restored.

What I found most striking was that all this waiting apparently did not upset the locals as it would Americans. Even as time seemed to nearly stand still, people would just wait it out. Everything seemed to be taken in stride; things would work themselves out sooner or later. I observed this attitude daily in the behavior of all those around me. There was almost never the need to rush; there was time enough for everything to get done. “Everything will be fine” was Anna’s constant refrain in response to my endless anxiety and frustration.

I sensed an unusual attitude here for ignoring or perhaps for denying time’s plodding passage, which became particularly apparent during the endless waiting in queues—at banks, ATMs, ticket counters, the phone company, the post office, the housing registration office, the tax office, medical clinics, and at the innumerable public notary offices which officially certify all documents. And I too waited, like everyone else, because almost everything here must be done in person, and almost nothing here can be accomplished by phone, or by mail, or via the Internet. It was as if these modern efficiencies have not been invented yet, and perhaps never will be. Apparently, there does not seem to be any premium on “saving time.” The massive state bureaucracies and even the commercial businesses here require that you physically present yourself and wait somewhere if you want to pay bills or to conduct any other business; and make sure you can pay in cash, because nobody accepts checks or credit cards.

Not only was such waiting an assault on my patience, but on my sense of personal space as well. People stand literally breathing down one another’s necks, in such close physical proximity to each other that they are very often touching. When it is finally your turn to approach the service window, other people often flank you on either side, watching everything that transpires. They might even interrupt your transaction, finding any opportunity to make contact with the person on the other side of the window before their turn. This seeming impatience, or perhaps a lack of concern for others, seemed at odds with the general disinterestedness in time’s passage that I witnessed daily, but it turns out to be another thing entirely: it's just that your time at the counter is not strictly delineated as yours exclusively but overlaps with that of others around you.

There was seldom any linearity to these queues, which look more like rugby scrums than actual lines. There was certainly no queuing theory informing waiting, as there is in America, no rope-barriers or other accoutrements of control. Something that looks like a queue often materializes spontaneously. As you approach a service window or enter a waiting area, you find that people are not necessarily standing in single file. Some of them might be sitting idly to the side, or outside having a smoke, or leaning against a wall, or haphazardly milling around. You have to inquire who is last in the queue, and often find out that nobody really knows or cares, or that the person or persons in question just stepped out but will come back later. The Russian queue is not so much a physical as a mental construct, its details scattered across many distracted minds. When the office closes for “dinner” for an hour or two in the middle of the workday, the queue dissolves, then spontaneously reconstitutes itself after the dinner break is over.

Back in the USA I always felt that a queue, like time itself, has to be well-structured, arranged, managed, and always moving forward productively. Space and time both have to be well organized for us, for we Americans, it seems, are incapable of enjoying so-called “free time.” For us, free, unscheduled time is wasted time—time not filled with meaningful content or purposeful activity. Even American vacations are routinely crammed full of productive activities, and good planning is seen as a crucial element in recreating with efficiency and purpose.

In America, time-consciousness is run strictly by the clock. Is Siberian time our clock-time, or is it informed by natural and circadian rhythms rather than by a strictly linear, mechanical progression? I surmised that there are no unambiguous expectations of strict linear continuity here. What at first appeared to me as interruptions in the queue, for example, or a general disregard for overall time management, might not have been construed in this way at all by the locals. This was further confirmed in other circumstances. For example, when speaking by phone with Russian colleagues or friends about arranging a meeting or rendezvous, they would invariably suggest getting together immediately rather than scheduling something for later. I found this to be true even of busy executives. Trains and government offices have schedules, and mostly run on schedule—except when they don't, but it doesn't occur to anyone that creating more schedules, and then running on them, is something that they should be wanting to do.

People kept telling me: “Sandy, this is Siberia; you can’t plan things here.” It was hard to absorb the message that the American control of time’s passage is illusory, that the flow of events from past to future can suddenly be interrupted, come to a halt, or change direction. After all, the flow of heat, electricity, and water certainly can, and often does. If Siberian experience of time is more naturally dynamic than our artificial clock-time, this might explain their seemingly paradoxical attitude toward time’s passage.

Siberians seem to have a split consciousness of time, as though there were two concurrent experiences of temporal movement. One is an archaic, pastoral sense of timelessness, associated with a more feral existence in the taiga and the steppe, lived in close proximity to nature and its cycles. The other is a nascent and constraining sense of clock time, with a focus on punctuality and productivity that is finding a tentative and clumsy foothold in the complex framework of urban bureaucracies here. Is it just the nature of life in the city that creates such temporal incongruities and juxtapositions?

I began to see real challenges to the deeper cultural transformation that Siberians have embarked upon. Or was this transformation being thrust upon them, making the incongruities even more severe? Could Russia, could Siberians, continue to survive in a world rife with such contradiction? Should we presumptuously drag them kicking and screaming into our long-gone twentieth century?

For me this was not simply a rhetorical question. The steady gallop of Western-inspired progress is quietly overtaking Siberia, more rapidly each day. “Business lunches” are now advertised by new American-owned cafes with the promise that they are “served in fifteen minutes.” Credit cards are being offered more liberally by lending institutions advertising “quick financing.” A pricey fitness club called Aurora is all the rage in Barnaul, claiming “fast results.” (Of course, my friend Keith and I—the only two Americans in town—are both members.)

I feel that things are fast reaching critical mass here, with what remained of long-standing traditions eroding while society moves chaotically into our Western historical present. What, if anything, could or should be done to change the course of these events, or to circumvent such a cultural transformation? I can hypothesize that the tensions created by life in the increasingly anonymous urban sprawl of Barnaul, which still seemed in some respects so foreign to these people, is beginning to create fissures between the generations and between newly emerging classes of citizens. But I can also imagine that this sense of "quickening" is just part of the ebb and flow—of Siberia living through its own version of the 1950s, made possible by Russia's sudden prosperity, but that it is just a moment, and that, once it passes, Siberia will once again relapse into its age-old timelessness.

[Sandy's book, The Recovery of Ecstasy: Notebooks from Siberia, is available from Amazon.]


xbornstubbornx said...

It's too cold in Barnaul. Too cold in Syberia, too cold in the whole country, except a tiny bit of South. It makes you numb and lazy. Also it makes you appreciate such a commodity as other people's body heat.
Good article. It covered the basics of the whole "russianship" and what is urban life about there. I say, old chap, it's quite a challenge for everybody. You got to be tough to handle transportation in such gazelle every day. It means that even if you are lucky to have a seat, someone's butt would be wiggling inches away from your face, because at the rush hours chauffers like to pack people in like sardines in the can, and no, there's not enough room to stand up at the full height. Staying in line is a bigger challenge, because if you relax for a minute your position in the line may be hijacked right away. If you're up to, say, passport exchange, and you are really having plans to get inside the bureaucrat's office before it's closed, you're ought to show up at least one hour before the office even starts operating. Even that early one would get discouraged by the size of the crowd already waiting at the doors. Surprisingly, all these crowds across the country immediately self-organize. There is always a handwritten list passed through the crowd to which every new arriving person adds his name and ordinal number. That makes the job of tracking your position in the seeming chaos a lot easier. This is in no way organized by any office, but people are so used to it, so when they arrive at the doors they already expect a list to be handed to them. Still, a lot of arguing will be breaking out on the subject of who was first to arrive, especially in front of the line right before the officer's door, the hottest spot. Some people would always try to sneak into the office under an excuse such as "I only need to ask one question", which would immediately provoke a burst of indignation in the crowd:"Everybody is here only to ask one question!" It takes a lot of guts, patience and experience in dealing with these things. Now I understand why elderly Russians are so grumpy, persistent and quarrelsome. It's not just their senility, it's their experience that tells them to be this way. There is simply no other way of getting anything from the government but fighting and being anal. At the top of any line list there will always be an elderly retiree. Oh yeah, almost forgot, if you are really up to making a passport, there's always a travel agency that happens to be located "by accident" right around the corner from the passport office. They offer you to handle the process much faster, so you can have your passport as soon as in a week. Otherwise, it might take you months. Of course, they share the profit with officials who issue passports, therefore, the latter are actually interested in making your time as miserable as possible while you're obtaining your passport for free. Why am I telling this, what does it even have to do with Orlov's blog and, say, Peak Oil? Well, that how things are handled in a dysfunctional state. Things are like that everywhere. All the nice and efficient services are gone for good, nobody wants to help you and have anything to do with you, as long as you don't pay under the table and don't have needed connections. And I can understand that, official's salaries are miserable, government's bottom feeders can't even make living off their wages. That includes police, paramedics, firefighters, school teachers, housing department people, public transport crews, basically, everybody whom your life really depends on.
If that American gentleman can really handle all that and still feel pretty happy in Barnaul, he's a part of some rare breed of Americans I haven't found yet.

Cynthia Q said...

Nice post and reminds me of observations made by Edward T. Hall in his books about the way time and space are perceived by various cultures (The Dance of Life, and The Hidden Dimension).

In Italy, queues are quite similar to the description here, as are the lunch breaks and so forth. There has been a major push to reduce the number of various forms, stamps, and things people "need" from public offices, which is a relief, and the Internet has made on-line bill-paying possible. But for many transactions, a personal presence remains necessary.

To register my car took seven (7) 3-hour round-trips to the provincial capital. No form could ever be sent by mail, fax, or email. The "engineer" who handed me the precious blank form in his office reacted in a stunned, almost angry, fashion when I suggested such a thing.

Better yet, no office where forms were obtainable was ever open on the same days as the days when the (entirely different) offices which accepted the completed forms were open. No office had a cashier to accept payment for the small sums required at each step. The post offices (where you could pay) are only open in the AM; the offices which accepted completed forms with the PO payment receipt were only open in the PM.

It wasn't possible to use one in our case, but for some DMV transactions, a whole sub-ecology of agencies has sprung up, who—for a fee—do the waiting in line for you. They are professional DMV line-waiters and physical form submitters.

In the US, I used to set out with 3-4 errands to do in the space of a couple of hours. In Italy I never plan for more than two errands to be completed in a single day: one in the morning and one in the afternoon, if lucky. Though the days are more "empty", there is a odd corresponding sense of their having been "filled" by the completion of a just a single errand!

Richard S said...

I semi-retired back in 2006 and recently relocated to Hawaii, but even before the move, there was a natural movement for me from the tick, tick, tick of days scheduled down to the minute to a more natural rhythm, and I can't say that I miss it one bit. I still of course have to dip into time since so much of the western world runs unnaturally by hours, minutes and seconds, but for the most part I just live life. If I have to go to the bank, I'll be there sometime between opening and closing, and if I don't get there today, there is always tomorrow. I might tend my garden in the morning, or the afternoon, or wait till tomorrow.

At some point, probably not too far in the future, we will all move back to a more natural life in tune with nature and her rhythms.

Cascadian Chronicler said...

Great article!

I have been conscious for a long time that we Americans overfill our schedules, which accomplishes nothing but making us feel harried, so I have taken to intentionally leaving large blocks of time completely unscheduled, as often as I can. Currently this is a decidedly countercultural phenomenon in the U.S., but hopefully that will change, and sooner rather than later.

Jb said...

This excellent article reminds me of my service as a VISTA volunteer on a Lakota Sioux reservation. I was an eager college grad looking to make a difference in a world that existed without a clock attached to it. It took me a long time to appreciate the vast expanse of featureless prairie and it's role in the culture.

I have no doubt that when Americans are forced to abandon their automobiles, they will be 'lost' at home.

Jeremy Stewart said...

I just wanted to note that Canada, another country with vast, endless spaces (especially the west), has almost the opposite attitude to Siberia. Everything is done by mail-in form or by internet, and the rare bureaucratic experience that takes place in person is hyper-regulated.

This is not to say that it is especially efficient. This is to say that if you jump a queue, prepare to meet your doom at the hands of the crowd, who will evil-eye you, loudly complain about you to the person standing next to them, and if it is an Albertan whose spot you have taken, actually confront you.

I believe that the time phenomenon we are discussing is not so much American as English. This is empire time.

Anonymous said...

Yeah that's better than his other book extract. We have a version of the timeless land of Siberia here called The Dole, a land whose rhythms are dominated by just one bi-weekly event called signing on, which is like a financial version of the Nile flooding. If you spend too long in The Dole, letting your life ebb and flow to the times of the opening hours of the public library and such, eventually the government tries to rehabilitate you to the same sort of manic time obsession that the useful people seem to like, which for me causes the same sort of stress experienced by native peoples confronted by Western civilization for the first time. I have every sympathy with the peoples of Siberia.

DeVaul said...

Now this is a great and fascinating article on another culture that is simple and easy to read. I love it. It brought back memories of East Berlin and some strange occurances there. It also explains my wife's puzzlement at all the paperwork I must do here in America. Tons of it.

In East Berlin, a friend and I were seated at another table because our group was too large for the main table. Problem was, they seated us right across from a German couple out for a candlelight dinner. And they had us facing each other directly!

I was shocked by this. I felt sorry for the German couple. I felt like we were ruining their night out, and I could not understand what the host was thinking by doing this, but the Germans pretended not to be outraged by this even though they could only speak to each other in whispers from the sides of their mouths. My friend and I pretended not to overhear them from two feet away. Bizarre!

As for my wife, she is from Thailand, and often asks me what I am doing when I write checks, stuff them in envelopes, and post them. I tell her I am paying our bills. I then asked her if they pay bills in Thailand. She said they must pay in person at the office of each company. They cannot mail in payments or use the internet.

What a complete waste of time!

It seems to me that Siberia would be a nice enough place, if not a severe one, as long as people were not subjected to mindless beauracracies which serve no other purpose than to create fake jobs and waste everyone else's time.

I bet the average Siberian would prefer to just sit in the snow rather than line up at an office window to pay a bill.

I know I would. I hope modern society fails in Siberia. I really do.

Unknown said...

Not too different from some of my experiences in China, either. The US Navy was my intro to standing in lines, being crowded, and the experience has stood me in good stead.

Take a book and read it while standing in line and you'll read a lot of interesting things.

Zhu Bajie

Ричард said...

Nice article covering some of the main features of life western expats experience in Russia. This is a great place to live if you have few or no dealings with government offices. Western freelancers can get away with this. I do so myself (U.S. expat with 10 years' life experience in Russia and Ukraine).

I don't think modern life as we have come to know it will ever really catch up to most of Russia. It's just too damn cold there; too much energy must be spent just on heating, whereas other countries get to use their energy on production (hence Russians' interest in global warming). So Russians get to play with a few basic toys of modernity like cell phones and Internet, but they still have to live in energy-efficient communal housing," ride "Gazelles," and depend on large-scale centralized infrastructure, crummy though much of it is.

Russia is a humbling school indeed for the inflated American ego. I like it. I remember hearing from a young American Russophile some years ago, "the only real friends I have are here in Russia."

Thardiust said...

Sandy's post reminds me of what this guy often blogs about.


Anonymous said...

Women from Siberia are really beautiful too. I mean, really.

Mr. Sunshine said...

My time spent between Magadan and Kubaka on the Kolyma River in 1995 is perhaps some of the most cherished hours of my life. An excellent piece which brought back many memories of the one place of 43 countries I'd like to see again, to see how the people I met then have done.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

Here in the mountains of South-eastern B.C. we call it "Kootenay Time". It takes people from more dynamic parts of the world about 3 days to adjust to the slower tempo. Then they heave a deep sigh and finally relax.