A Letter From Patrick Perner
- Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Russia
Dear Krista and Students,
I was very pleased to receive your letter yesterday with all those questions, so let me answer each one:
How is life in Russia?
For me, it is OK, but I don't think you can say it is the same for an ordinary Russian. The average Russian family has one or two children and they live in a two-room apartment. Frequently the living room is also a children's room for sleeping at night. Women generally have the toughest life here because they are expected not only to work but also to take care of the family.
Unemployment is growing fiercely. Inflation is very high and prices of goods are soaring. There are a lot of foreign goods available now, which is nice, however, most are priced so that few normal Russians can afford them.
On a more positive side, there are new entrepreneurs in Russia, creating all types of new businesses. A market economy is forming. Still, people are suffering and some feel betrayed by the government because they were told communism would always be in Russia. Some people are too old to begin to change. Others are taking advantage of perestroika and dream of becoming rich. Still, in the new Russia life is difficult for everyone to one extent or another—even though more of everything is available, from VCRs to American candy bars.
Is it cold enough for me?
I don't mind the cold so much—being from Chicago. For the most part, I'm inside conducting business or resting. A couple times I had to wait outside for a bus and it was about 50° below 0. All winter is like this and you get used to it. For example, I went back home for Christmas and thought it was extremely warm in Chicago. I wore light jackets and such when in fact it was very cold. I'm just getting used to much colder environments. Probably, if you lived here it would be the same. However, I can tell you that one Peace Corps Volunteer from Alabama, who had never experienced real cold weather in his life, hated the cold.
What kind of food do Russians eat?
They mainly eat fish, potatoes, meat, cabbage, bread, and meat dumplings. They love sweets and generally their teeth show this, as probably 95 percent of the population have some false teeth. Even high school kids have golden caps from all the sugars they put in their bodies. Russians love to go out to the forest and have picnics on the weekends. There they cook shaschlick (shishkebab) over an open fire. From their little dachas, or garden homes, they cultivate all types of edible berries and fruits, which they then use to make jams and preservatives. Russians are fascinated with bananas, but those fruits are such expensive imports that they are rarely eaten. Of course I'm sure you are aware that Russians primarily drink tea, vodka, and champagne.
Do Russians celebrate the same holidays [as we do in the U.S.]?
In some ways "yes" and in some ways "no." The greatest holiday of the year is New Year's, which is celebrated literally all night. First you eat a big dinner before midnight, and then another after midnight. In this manner you eat "to the old year" and then "to the new year." New Year's is celebrated in family apartments but people also go out for walks late in the night. Christmas is also celebrated, but on January 7 rather than December 25, because the January date is the Orthodox Christmas. Some other holidays include International Women's Day—March 8—in which all women are given gifts and they do not have to work at all. For the most part, those three are the biggest holidays. Of course there are others—like Men's Day, Workers' Day, and Remembrance Day.
What is my favorite Russian food?
I like smoked salmon probably the best. I also love the various salads created with eggs, cabbage, mayonnaise, and beets. All kinds of salads here are nutritious and very tasty. I also like the Russian champagne during holiday celebrations.
What kind of music do Russians enjoy?
They absolutely, positively love the Beatles and especially the song "Yesterday." Even though a Russian may not know English, he or she still can recite all the words. In the mornings and evenings, MTV is on so they see all kinds of different groups. Actually, we pick up three different types of MTV, depending on the day of the week—MTV North America, MTV Asia, and MTV Europe. They are all different, but quite good. Of course this is all for the younger generation. Older Russians sing folk ballads of life and love that date way back in history. Many Russians are musically oriented and can play the guitar, piano, and balalaika, or Russian folk guitar. Russian rap music is popular here among the youth. Dance music is starting to really become popular as well.
What would be the punishment for someone robbing a bank?
Probably 15 years imprisonment working in a mine; however if someone is killed during the robbery, then the punishment is execution.
What do kids like to do here?
They play sports such as ball hockey, ice hockey, and soccer. They also adore going to the beach and swimming. The girls take great pride in helping their mothers and in dressing up. They are no different than you. They have similar dreams for the future and success. They are Russia's future, as you are America's future.
OK, guys, I hope I answered your questions up to par. Any questions you have I promise I will do my best to answer. Now, on to other matters.
So you are learning to cook! That's good, because if you ever get a chance to do something like serving in the Peace Corps, you will need to know how to cook. I had to learn out here, which was a major bummer. But now I'm not too bad. Still, I try to find things that come out of a can so I don't have to work too much. Anyway, I tend to work pretty long hours at the bank, which doesn't leave much time for other things. However, this week "Wayne's World" is on TV and I plan to watch it. Last weekend I went skiing, which was interesting. The mountain was steep and challenging, and the equipment was so old it scared me. Still, it wasn't so bad in the end, and I had a nice day.
Recently, President Clinton was here, however I didn't get a chance to meet him. This week Secretary of State Warren Christopher is in Vladivostok, which is a 14-hour train ride away from where I am in Khabarovsk. Khabarovsk is at the very southern part of Siberia. There are bears and tigers that walk the forest here. I haven't seen either yet, but I hope to before I leave. I have been here about one and a half years and I will stay until approximately December 1994.
Lately, I have been meeting a lot of Americans coming into this area to start up businesses or create regional offices for their companies. In fact, recently a chewing gum manufacturer opened an office out here. Word is that a soft drink company is thinking about doing the same. I will be happy when this happens, because I greatly miss having their sodas. I also miss fast food hamburger shops. Believe me, given a choice of $50 or a large pizza, I would take the pizza right now. Pretty strange, huh?
Altogether there are about 12 Peace Corps Volunteers here in Khabarovsk. Only two of us work in banks, though. Banking has been selected as the most important thing that Russians require right now. They need to develop a system to handle all the money that other countries will lend Russia for developing a market economy. Other Volunteers work with Russian companies, schools,, the government, and other sectors.
The city of Khabarovsk is pretty. The summers are very hot and mosquitoes can be unbearable at times. The Russian people are very special, very giving. They would give you the coat off their backs, however they will also cut in front of you in a line. In the city we have three restaurants and a large Intourist Hotel. Once in a while the Volunteers get together at one of these places to speak some English and catch up on news. Most of us are pursuing Russian through studying every day "hard core." The language is difficult, because it is based on a different alphabet, called Cyrillic. For example, our P is their R in sound. Our E is their backward N. But the difficulty with the language also makes it fun. I studied French for seven years but enjoy the Russian language more. Those of you who want to have an exciting life, I highly recommend to seriously study and seriously learn a second language. You will get better jobs paying greater salaries. It will definitely open up doors for you in the future.
OK. Now I will tell you a little about myself. I'm 30 years old and come from a family of seven kids from Chicago. My family's home is about 20 minutes by car from downtown Chicago. I am the oldest of 4 boys and 3 girls. My father is a retired banker and lawyer. My mother is a nurse who emigrated from Ireland. I love sports and I am a big Chicago Blackhawks fan. I also enjoy attending many other sporting events, including the Bulls, Sox, and Cubs.
I went to graduate school at Northwestern University and studied public relations. For undergraduate school, I received degrees from Elmhurst College and Loyola University. In Chicago I was a banker at Harris Trust and Savings Bank. I worked there in public relations before joining the Peace Corps one and a half years ago. I am one of the first Volunteers sent to Russia to provide technical business expertise. Naturally, my background was in banking, and as such, I am one of the two Americans working inside the Russian Banking System.