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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect