Saturday, August 28, 2010

My (Somewhat) Walkable, (Somewhat) Russian Neighborhood

I'd like to begin this post with a greeting: “Привет!” Or, for those who want something more formal, “Здравствуйте.” (I think I said that right...)

In the waning months of 2007, I relocated to Portland from Southern California. Guided by information I had gleaned from Jules Dervaes and the Path to Freedom Urban Homestead project,I looked for smaller, cheaper houses with large yards. I found such a house, a Korean War-era home in what seemed to be a very ordinary neighborhood, with a big back yard and a price low enough that I could easily and quickly pay it off.

During that winter, I also bought a copy of Reinventing Collapse, a book by Dmitry Orlov. For those who are not familiar with the book, Orlov was something of an eyewitness to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he postulated that similarities between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. meant that the U.S. is likely to experience its own collapse in the near future. However, key differences between the former Soviet Union and the United States meant that a collapse which was difficult but survivable for the Soviets would prove to be much harder on Americans. I found myself agreeing with most of what Mr. Orlov wrote, yet I found some of his suggestions for adaptation a bit hard to swallow. I resolved that if I ever met any Russians who had experienced the collapse, I would check their version of the story against Orlov's.

A few months later, I started noticing that when I was out doing yardwork at certain times on Saturdays, I could see large groups of well-dressed people walking down the streets near my home. Some of these groups were families, led by men wearing leather jackets if they were young, or suits if they were older, with wives wearing what I would call “Sunday” dresses and occasional scarves on their heads, and leading quiet, serious-faced children behind them. I guessed that they were foreigners, and occasionally I waved at them. I was pretty sure they were Slavic, and one day on a hunch, I said “Добрый день” to an older man as he was walking by. He burst into a broad grin and returned the greeting, then started talking excitedly to me. I very quickly ran out of words, and he saw that he had over-taxed me.

From that time I became intrigued by these people. Who exactly were they, I wondered, and where did they all walk to on Saturdays? Several Saturdays later, I was going somewhere on my bike and I ran across a young group of these walkers. I greeted them in Russian, and they returned the greeting, and then I asked them in English where they were all going. “To church,” an eleven or twelve-year-old boy said. “Do you want to come?” “Well,” I replied, “I've got an errand to run...” “You should come some time,” he said. “You're welcome to visit.” And with that he and his friends kept walking.

Eventually I did visit a few of their Saturday services, which were all conducted in Russian, and consisted of three or four Russian men from the congregation delivering sermons of short to medium length, interspersed with Psalm-singing, and ending with a time of prayer. I had to rely entirely on an interpreter in order to understand anything, and at first I wound up with a different interpreter every time I went. But eventually I befriended one of the volunteer translators, a young married man with a dry sense of humor.

I loaned him a copy of Reinventing Collapse, and as he slowly made his way through it, I asked him from time to time what he thought. He confessed that he probably wouldn't be much help in confirming any of the statements about the Soviet Union in the book, as he was very young when he came to the United States, and didn't remember much of Russia. But he had some very interesting observations about how his community fit into our local area, and the ways in which Russian young men and women come to terms with American culture. Through him I have made the acquaintance, and in some cases, the friendship, of a few Russian families and their children.

In talking to them all, certain things became evident. First, as to their church, they all believe in keeping a literal Sabbath once a week. For them, this Sabbath is Saturday. The devoted members among them believe that Sabbath-keeping means giving a rest not only to oneself but also to the gadgets one normally uses, including automobiles. Thus they don't drive on Saturdays, and they walk to church. Now I am not a member of their church, nor do I subscribe to everything they believe, but I do see that this view of theirs has led to the formation of geographically tight, closely connected sub-communities of people – communities such as the people I see walking to church every Saturday. Maintaining physical connectedness in a neighborhood of such people is not difficult.

Secondly, the culture of their church combines with the culture of their native lands to produce a definite separation from mainstream Americanism. There are at least some of their number who do not own a television set, and among the rest, there is a strong tendency to create opportunities for face-to-face, participatory activities like weeknight volleyball and soccer leagues that leave no time for passively sitting in front of a TV. A big contributor to the separation from Americanism is the fact that Russian is the primary language spoken in many of their households, and those who can afford it often send their children to a special Russian school after regular public school in order to learn to read and write in Russian.

Thirdly, there are those Russian customs which they maintain apart from religion, customs which are characteristic of a people who have had to make do for themselves to a much greater extent than most Americans have experienced. I remember talking to two Russian boys about summer vacation, and what they were doing with themselves while school was out. They began describing to me their adventures in building a chicken coop and getting baby chicks; then they told me about the cat, the dog and the pigeons they also have, as well as their very large food garden and the two dozen or so fruit trees in their yard. (It was enough to make any would-be urban homesteader drool...) A few days later, I questioned their mom about these things, and told her how her family's lifestyle wasn't quite the typical “American” experience, and she said, “I don't understand Americans. In my country, we don't throw anything away, and we don't buy special food for the dog. The dog eats the scraps that the people don't eat.”

Speaking of chickens, my neighborhood is not near the trendy downtown of Portland, with its base of yuppies who are “discovering” the joys of sustainable living, including chicken-keeping. In my neighborhood, most native-born Americans still think that chicken-keeping is something of an oddity. But they do know of certain families who keep chickens, and these families just happen to be...Russian! Within the church community I have been describing, there is also at least one very competent bee-keeper. And within that church community, the Russian heritage of self-sufficiency is somewhat amplified by a religiously motivated distrust of certain aspects of Americanism.

Now note this: most of these people have never heard of Peak Oil or the Transition Towns movement, nor are they familiar with the writings of some of the deep thinkers and heavyweights who write about our present economic collapse. Yet many of them have a common-sense awareness that these times will require us to live differently, and their common culture has led them quite independently to adopt a resilient living arrangement. Thus they have:

  • a close-knit, walkable community

  • a heritage of practices of self-sufficiency

  • and a cultural identity which is their own, and which can't be commercially redefined away from them.

They already know things that so many in the English-speaking world are “discovering” (or more accurately, “re-discovering”). This is true also of other Slavic and Eastern European sub-communities in the United States. I think especially of the aspect of maintaining one's culture in the midst of a larger culture that seeks to dissolve everything else in order to extract maximal wealth from all that it dissolves, and I think of a Romanian man I know who has a large family, and who will not allow a television in his house. Instead, he has paid for instruments and music lessons for all his children, and they regularly get together on weekends for jam sessions. I have never visited his church, but I'd like to go some day and see how well it has resisted “Americanization.”

I also think of how, when gas prices were first starting to spike from 2005 to 2007, there were yuppie writers on “sustainability” fretting over whether mainstream America would “discover” alternatives to driving, like bicycle commuting. It seemed like they were waiting for the day when the streets would be full of pale-skinned Anglo people in lycra riding pannier-laden recumbents to work. But in 2007, it began to dawn on me that a large number of people had already discovered bicycle commuting (or more accurately, had never forgotten it). They were the Mexican laborers whom I saw at 5:30 in the morning riding the streets with me on their older Magna bicycles, yet they never made it onto the radar of the “sustainability” writers. (The Mexicans also knew about buses long before the mainstream began to "rediscover" mass transit in 2008.)

I don't wish to disparage the efforts of mainstream Americans to “discover” sustainable living and to create resilient communities. But I think as time passes, many of these people will find that they are “discovering” things that immigrant communities already knew long ago.

In my next post on this subject, I will discuss a particular group of people who are trying to break out from the American mainstream. There is no shortage of people who are trying to do this, but there are elements of the stories of the people I will write about that I think you all will find to be quite relevant. (And if you read the Energy Bulletin website this next week, you might find writers trying to second-guess what I will say... ;) Stay tuned, or to put it another way, Watch This Space.


Jerry said...

I love this post. Most noticeable to me was the openness of their community. They sound very willing to share knowledge and culture to interested "outsiders".

Thanks, again, for your work.

vanja said...

Ох как интересно читать про русских в Америке!
Хорошо написано.

TH in SoC said...

@ vanja,

To all, here is a translation of Vanja's comment:

"Oh how interesting to read about Russians in America! Good writing. Thanks." To which I say, "You're welcome!"