While living in Russia, I fought innumerable culture wars, but there was always one that stuck out the most. One of the first “Dave vs. Russia” battles was my constant frustration with garbage. Coming from a pristine Portland and moving to Nizhny Novgorod was like the Prince of Bel Air moving in with Sanford and Son. I don’t think there was anything that incensed me more than the garbage in Russia. Ask any of my Russian friends. They’ll roll their eyes, breathe a deep sigh, and say, “yes, that was Dave’s greatest torment.”
My first visit to Nizhny Novgorod was in 2003. I stayed there for five days, having no idea at the time that I would end up living there for five years. If I only knew! After touring the city for those days, I built up a simple, succinct testimonial: “Nizhny Novgorod is a shithole.” Everywhere I went… garbage.
Besides a twenty-four hour stay in Far Eastern Vladivostok, this was my first true venture into provincial Russia. As a tourist visiting only Moscow and St. Petersburg, it is possible to miss the garbage phenomenon entirely. Moscow, despite its faults, picks up their garbage. St. Petersburg does it less, but usually keeps its tourist areas reasonably clean. Outside those boundaries, though, things get bad… fast. To see the real Russia, you must go to the regions.
Poor cities are dirty cities. You’ll rarely see a rich, dirty one. (well, Rome, but I digress) There are many contributors to a dirty city; dirt, mud, decay, pollution, but for now, I’ll stick with garbage. Nizhny is full of garbage.
As I walked, drove, or rode through Nizhny, my fixation on garbage became all-consuming. I fully admit that I became the typical “ugly American,” regrettably shouting my indignation at any Russian I knew about the disgrace of their city. It was too much for me to bear and I probably did not act honorably. In my defense, I think I cared, perhaps too much, about the wonderful potential the city had.
I find the garbage hard to describe. I can only say that every street, every sidewalk, every park, every yard, and every flower bed possessed some form of garbage. While going on walks, I would come across empty fields, creeks, trees and shrubs, yards and housing complexes that were coated in garbage. Piles of garbage would accumulate in any nook and cranny the wind could push it into. Going to the beach or a lake was shocking. People would roll out their blankets atop the garbage and eat their picnic lunch… while surrounded by garbage. If I took a walk in the woods, I’d find rogue garbage dumps throughout the landscape. People asked me back home, “Did you ever spend time in the outdoors?” For God’s sake, why?
Garbage pressed on my mood and my hope for Russia. How could this country ever develop if they live in a cesspool? Yes, this was my torment.
I’m a firm believer in the power of Capitalism. Those who want to please their customers will make great efforts to attract them, right? But every time I walked by a shop that had garbage strewn in front of it all the way to the front door, I hung my head low in disillusionment. Not yet, Russia, you’re just not ready yet.
The winter only made matters worse. At least in the summer, the garbage was accessible to clean up. In winter, all was impossible. Picture this: as the winter progresses, the Russian public tosses their garbage atop the first layer of snow. The next snowstorm comes and covers up the garbage. The public throws garbage on top of that, and the snow comes again and hides the city’s growing secret. This cycle continues for four to five months. Alas, the great Spring arrives, temperatures rise, and the snow melts. All the accumulated garbage is released from its hibernation in a very short period of time. The snow turns to water and oozes over every bit of surface area in the city, carrying pieces of garbage on its back. Suddenly, you have five months of garbage blanketing the entire city. It is an unbelievable sight!
So who’s responsible? This is a tricky question mired in economics, psychology, culture, and values and requires a long explanation. To keep it simple, there is not enough money in the city budget to clean the public spaces, the citizens are more busy surviving than creating a social paradise, and I think, many simply don’t care. Cross a border between China and Russia, or a Western country and Russia, and you’ll understand. Different cultures have different values about garbage. You have to start asking the average Russian about it. In my experience, most don’t even notice it.
To make matters more confusing, you can ask my colleagues at Intel. They are not “typical” Russians in most cases. One day, I spouted my indignation… again, to my employees. I said, “I don’t understand how anyone can walk on the street and just throw their garbage on the ground. How can they do that?” They replied, “Dave, we don’t understand it either. We’re just as indignant as you!” Humbled, I accepted their response, but, as is so common in Russia about so many things, I still had no answer.