by Rocky Macy
Russia in the late 1990's was going through a complexity of social changes. As a socialist state for most of the century, it had marginal health care, but that marginal health care was available to everyone. Russia was establishing itself as a decidedly non-socialist democracy by the time of our visit in May of 1999. The people were experiencing more freedoms, but they also were acquiring some of the worst features of the purely capitalist world. One of those features was pay-as-you-go health care. Many times during our brief stay I saw people lying on the sidewalks writhing in pain and moaning in despair. A person who had no money or a family capable of assisting, would find himself living on the streets - much as the legions of homeless who live in America. The collapse of socialism also brought down the social safety nets.
The streets were full of people making a living the best they could. Young people would approach tourists selling everything from hats, to Russian nesting dolls, to religious icons, to coins and stamps. They worked in cash and were eager to negotiate. Some of these vendors sold water. We quickly learned that unless you specified "no gas", you were given carbonated water - and it was awful!
There were street musicians and entertainers, especially in the subway stations. One day as I was walking several blocks from downtown to our hotel in St. Petersburg, I remember stopping and watching a woman standing under a bridge who was covered with live snakes. Passersby would drop money into her tip jar.
One evening a few friends and I decided to go on a nocturnal adventure in Moscow without our tourguides. We got directions for how to get to an area on the other side of the city where there were street musicians and a lot of music. We boarded the Moscow subway and somehow managed to get to the area that we sought. The bands were just shutting down, but we walked around and visited with the young Russian night people. Later we made it safely back to our hotel.
(The Moscow subways are located several stories below ground - even deeper than the Metro in Washington, DC. We were told that they were designed that way to serve as a shelter in case of nuclear war.)
Another time my friend Andy and I were trying to ride the subway back to our hotel from downtown St. Petersburg. We asked several people at the subway station, but weren't having any luck communicating where we wanted to go. Finally a lady took pity on us and directed us to follow her. She led us throught the station, up a back set of stairs, and to a taxi!
God doesn't have time to solve all of the world ills because she is too busy watching after tourists!