Wise woman survives in the land of fools

Street Life SAMOTECHNY LANE, MOSCOW

"STRANA DURAKOV" - the Land of Fools. Partly from affection but more from despair, this is how Russians themselves often describe their illogical, suffering country. If it is true that so many of Russia's problems have been caused less by evil than by stupid people, then it is a joy to meet a freethinker such as Natalya Sokolova.

In the Soviet period, she was a minor dissident whom I would have met on the street, all the time looking over my shoulder for the KGB. However hard life is in Russia now, at least that fear has gone and I can drop in to her flat for tea and a chat.

Natalya lives in very poor circumstances. To feed her five children, she sells books on the street, in 30 degrees of heat or 30 degrees of frost, regardless. The walls of her flat are decorated with newspaper because she cannot afford wallpaper.

On my last visit, the only food visible in the kitchen was a white loaf on the table and a pan of beans on the hob.

But the children are creatively occupied, drawing or listening to music. A gorgeous black cat, rescued from superstitious neighbours who kicked it out because they thought it was unlucky, sleeps in a corner. There is a sense of purpose here and I never feel pity in this home, only respect.

A biologist by training, Natalya used to perform experiments on the brains of dogs in the same institute that preserved the brain of Lenin. That was her day job. By night, she typed out carbon copies of banned books by authors from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to George Orwell. She worked for the better-known dissidents Larissa Bogoraz and Father Dmitry Dudko, who were active in the Brezhnev era.

"My apartment was an underground publishing house," she said. "My own mother, who was a strict Communist, reported me to the authorities. Strana durakov!

"The KGB came for me at five o'clock on a frosty January morning but I wasn't in. I was talking to a friend on the street below. I saw the agents up in my window. Then they left.

"They arrested someone else and didn't bother coming back for me. You see, like factories, the KGB also had their plans to fulfil and they had got their quota for January."

For thinking people in Russia today, the issues are no longer as black and white as they were in Soviet times, when it was a simple matter of conforming or daring to fight for freedom.

Natalya navigates better than most in moral waters that are confusingly murky. "With our corrupt politicians, you cannot really say we have democracy now," she said. "But the people have the leaders they deserve. You cannot achieve democracy by presidential decree. Citizens must learn to take personal responsibility.

"The authorities don't need labour camps anymore. They control us by keeping us in perpetual uncertainty, by not paying our wages. They do not quite let us die but neither do they let us live. And so people are obsessed with nothing higher than material problems, where the next meal is coming from."

Natalya refuses to worry about that, trusting that God will provide. She has become an Orthodox Christian, but not of the fanatical, Russian nationalist kind. "I tell all the anti-Semites at church that the Virgin Mary was Jewish too," she joked.

Compared with other Russians, who will not or cannot confront the mistakes of the past squarely, she takes the concept of personal responsibility to an extreme degree. Not only does she pray for forgiveness of her own sins but she also believes she must answer for the crimes and stupidities of past generations, including her mother who betrayed her to the secret police.

As for her children, Natalya tries to teach them that man does not live by bread alone.

"It is not easy when they see wealth around them. They want things too," she said. "But most gains in Russia these days are ill gotten. It is almost impossible to make big money by honest means. When they see shiny black Jeeps, I tell them to look not at the cars but at the thugs driving them. I say, `Those people are poorer than we are'."

Instead of letting them watch television, with tantalising advertisements for consumer goods they cannot possibly afford, Natalya takes her artistically inclined children out into the woods to paint watercolours.

Her eldest son, Alexei, 16, is doing particularly well at a special school where general education is bolstered with additional art training, and he is hoping to carry on to Moscow's prestigious Ilya Repin Art Institute.

Shyly he showed some of the sketches he has been doing, including one of a Moscow back yard with trees and dustbins and grandmothers nattering on a bench.

It looked a little like Samotechny Lane and I thought that, better than a photograph, it would convey the spirit of the Sokolov family.

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