Monday Night at the Movies had become a magnet for English speakers around the town and each week I’d get to meet visiting couples in the midst of the adoption process, or traveling vendors there to do business with the mines. Katia was an exception.
A Zhezkazgan-born Russian who now divided her life between London and Fiji, she was back in town for a short family visit. She may have sounded like a “jet setter,” but she didn’t look like one. Her dress was modest and her loose brown hair fell limply to her shoulders. But she’d proven to be articulate and outspoken when she spoke to my English 49 class and I was eager to get to know her better.
Specifically, I wanted to ask her about the omnipresent corruption. The Kazakhs I knew didn’t talk about corruption — too negative — and the few local Russians I’d asked left me more confused than ever. I chose Katia, someone who might have the advantage of distance. I was not disappointed.
We met for lunch at Renaissance, an easy environment for conversation. But Katia wouldn’t talk about her life while we ate. Only later, as we circled the reservoir, did she open up.
It was a hot day in late spring, with summer temperatures and, as I watched bodies cavort far below in the water’s shallow edges, I wished I’d brought my suit. Someone had advised me I could go in the water if I had “no open cuts. Just don’t go in for too long.” Katia had no interest in swimming, anyway. She’d grown up on this reservoir.
As we walked along the shoreline, she began to talk openly about her life both now and under the former Soviet system. It was clear she missed the Russian way of doing things.
“What is your take on corruption here?” I asked.
“Money corrupts everything.” She began. “Under communism, money wasn’t that important.”
“I heard people didn’t have to work hard under communism.” I thought of the old joke that under communism the people pretended to work while the state pretended to pay them, but added only, “Under communism, I was taught, workers had no incentive to work hard.”
“No. That’s not true. People worked very hard then. If you didn’t do your job, you were reported. You could go to jail for not doing your job.”
I wanted to know so much more. Where did quality enter in? Was it just a job or did people take pride in their work? I didn’t pursue it.
Katia had gone to England when she was twelve for a three-month program, part of the wave of glasnost (openness) then sweeping in under Mikhail Gorbachev. “England showed me a different world,” Katia told me. And, as soon as she finished school, she returned to England to live, married a local Londoner whose job in computers allowed them the flexibility to have their Fiji home where they spent half the year.
“I’ve never regretted it,” she told me, adding she didn’t miss anything about Zhezkazgan.
I couldn’t help but compare Katia to my colleague Assem, who had also gone to England at twelve, part of the same program. Assem was now firmly anchored to Kazakhstan. Married with two children, the norm for Kazakh women under twenty-five, she was set to do whatever task would be needed to rebuild her country. Assem was a true believer, as was Katia. They just had different true beliefs.
“Money means too much now,” Katia continued. “Under the Soviets everyone had the same amount of money. It was much better. You got your status from how much education you had, from what you did, not how much you made. Now,” she added, “money is the only way to get status.
Katia’s opinions were deeply rooted and the conversation soon devolved into more negativity than I was comfortable with. I found her exhausting. When we parted, I knew we’d never see each other again.
Still, hers was a point of view I was glad to have heard.
How about you? Are there personalities that exhaust you? Have you had a conversation with someone about something quite different from what you are used to? How did it go? I’d love to hear your thoughts.