Smiles and Soviet Symbols

Hi C!

First of all, the coffee table looks good!! And I want one of those little pups. I can’t wait to one day have my own little dog to play with and take for walks. A boyfriend is good… but they have their own agendas and can’t snuggle allll the time.

People in Russia rarely interact with strangers in public transit. In all of my time living in Russia, the only times that people have spoken to me in transportation have been when they heard me speaking English, and once in Naberezhnye Chenly when a boy started talking to me on the street and then followed me onto a bus with hopes that I’d give him my number. (I didn’t. However I did humor him enough to have a conversation.) But other than that, people tend to mind their own business, even when the situation is such that you might expect people to share words.

However, recently on my ride home from work, I was sitting on a trolleybus (electrically powered bus) in a seating area where there are four seats: two facing two. I sat quietly, reading (in Russian!) Mashenka, by Nabokov, while two babushki, one next to me and the other kitty-corner, sat chatting.

“Oh! They’ve finally restored that building. Thank God!”

“Yes, it’s been out of scaffolding for quite some time now. It looks so beautiful!”

“Yes, the city is looking nice these days.”

Then they noticed a small red star I had pinned to my lapel. This isn’t just any star, but an ‘order of merit’ that was a symbol during the Soviet times. There were different variations of these pins over the years; mine is just a red star with the sickle and hammer symbol in gold in the center. One of the women asked the other if she had received an order and what it had looked like.

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I glanced up from my book, as it had become apparent to me that they were referencing my order, and I caught the eye of the woman kitty-corner from me. I smiled, which in Russia means either “I know you” or “I’m a fool” and the woman asked me where I had gotten the symbol. I told them that I had gotten it at the market simply because I had liked it, and they were happy to hear this. (I think they were quite surprised that I had an accent – they had probably assumed I was Russian). They then started to talk about how the youth these days don’t know about the Soviet history, and how they miss things from the Soviet times. The man sitting across from me joined in, talking about the orders, about this post-Soviet time and troubles, and about the good things that came from the Soviet Union.

It was such a special moment, to become welcomed into the world of these people. Shortly after all of us smiled and parted ways, a little more upbeat after having shared a positive experience with strangers. Even though the past decade has brought so much economic stability, the restoration of beautiful old buildings, and access to the world-at-large, there are still moments of nostalgia throughout Russia for the communist times, and the remnants of the Soviet period are still quite clear. Nothing is all bad or all good.

Speaking of smiles and in response to your thoughts on insincerity, I agree that Americans can be insincere – and that our currency of the smile is taken for granted. If someone isn’t smiling, this automatically sparks those around to believe that something is wrong, or that this is a troubled person. The expectation to be outwardly cheerful is sometimes a good thing, because it often allows people to connect on a personal level, smile to smile, but at the same time, it is exhausting. And are all these smiles really sincere? No, though we’d all like to believe they are. These smiles don’t mean Americans are genuinely happy all the time. Even though Americans (according to some statistics) tend to be happier than others, I don’t think that smiles exhibit true happiness, nor do they necessarily trigger others to be ‘happy.’ However, many of my Russian acquaintances here who have traveled abroad often lament the lack of smiling faces here. So maybe, as insincere as these smiles may be, it’s more pleasant to see a sea of smiling faces surrounding you as you move through life, then a sea of detached and neutral expressions.

I can say that from time to time I smile at strangers here, and they usually are either surprised, scared, or confused. But things daily make me chuckle to myself – whether it be a well-dressed businessman gleefully sliding across a patch of ice or small children singing on the metro – and I can’t help but catch another person’s eye and relish in the moment together, whether or not they are on the same page as I am.  All I know is that from time to time I find myself simply smiling, and whether or not it’s a reflection of my spirits, I can’t really say, but I’d like to think that it is.

Love you! Smiling to you now 🙂

See you soon,

B