September 14, 2021
I chatted with an 86-year-old woman while I was changing the power outlet on her kitchen stove. She was from a village near Vologda and still pronounced her unstressed o’s as full o’s. She worked for 58 years on construction sites. She started working in ’54 or ’55. She worked for three years as an unskilled laborer, then for eight years as a painter before making the switch to plastering.
“I really liked this work. But then everything fell apart, and anyone could get the job. If you could hold a brush, you could go to work as a painter.”
If I understood her correctly, she said that, in the fifties, sixties and seventies, without a specialized education, it was impossible to get a job anywhere except as a helper.
She said that they had lived quite poorly, that the foreman earned 15 rubles a month. I didn’t understand how this could be and so I expressly asked her again, and she confirmed what she’d said.
In the seventies, the planning got better, and life became easier. But she had still spent her entire life “in poverty.”
“My legs began to give out, and I was forbidden to work. Otherwise I would have kept working. I was already used to this being how things were, that we were working stiffs and this was how we lived.”
Her husband also worked on construction sites, as a finisher. She has a daughter. She lives in her son-in-law’s two-room apartment, renting out one of the rooms. Despite her obvious and visible poverty, the apartment was very clean. She tried to pay me generously, but I didn’t take any money.
We started talking about migrants. She said they were good, hard-working, polite people. They always helped her, carried her groceries. Migrants had saved her life after she had her first or second stroke, which had happened outside. Russians had walked on by, but “Georgians or migrants, basically two non-Russians” had come to her aid, telephoning an ambulance and waiting with her.
“I don’t want to badmouth migrants. I just wonder where our people are, Russians? Have they really all retired? Or don’t they want to work?”
George Losev is a housing authority electrician, veteran grassroots activist and DIY football enthusiast in Petersburg. Thanks to Jeremy Morris for helpful comments on the translation. Photo and translation by the Russian Reader
2 thoughts on “From the Lives of the People”
Just a translation question – how do you understand the word подсобник? You translate it as helper, but would an alternative be unskilled labourer?
I think you’re right, Jeremy. I’ll probably take your suggestion and change that. But on its own (rather than contextually) подсобник does connote “assistance” more than “lack of skill,” hence its definition in the Academic.ru dictionary – “подсобный рабочий, вспомогатель, помощник, подручный, подручник, пособник.” Not all unskilled labourers assist skilled labourers or master craftsmen, after all. Hence the other words for unskilled labourer in Russian, разнорабочий and чернорабочий, which don’t have the connotation of assistance. Thanks for your comment!