Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Space Enough and Time

An Expat's Siberian Experience

by Sandy Krolick

Club Orlov (December 07 2010)

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" [Too Long; Didn't Read] 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 your 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 (2009), is available from Amazon.

Sandy Krolick graduated Magna cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in the History of Culture from Hobart College in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, a Master's degree from the University of Chicago's Committee on General Studies in Humanities, and a Doctorate in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. After a ten-year career in academia, including appointments at the University of Virginia, the University of Denver Daniels College of Business, and the Colorado School of Mines, he spent the next twenty years in the partnership and executive ranks of several of America's largest domestic and international firms, including Ernst & Young LLP, General Electric, and Computer Sciences Corporation. Sandy has spent many years traveling around the world, including parts of Asia, Africa, Europe, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, and of course North America. Retiring from business at the age of fifty, he recently returned to the USA with his wife Anna, after living and teaching for several years in the central Siberian Steppe, at the foot of the Altai mountains in Barnaul, Russia. His other published works include Recollective Resolve: A Phenomenological Understanding of Time and Myth (Mercer University Press, 1987), Ethical Decisionmaking Styles (Addison Wesley, 1986), Gandhi in the Postmodern Age: Issues in War and Peace (CSM Press, 1984), "The Transformation of Siberian Values" Экономика.Сервис.Туризм .Культура, Международная научно-практическая конференция, (volume 10, 2008).

Bill Totten


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