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Aging and Russian Culture
In order to understand and relate to an older Russian in the context of providing psychological care, it is first important to understand the context of Russian society. Russian society has been marked by a transition in recent years that has reflected the rejection of communist ideology and all accompanying notions of collectivism. In many respects, this reactionary mentality has resulted in a breakdown in traditional values. In other respects, older values have resurfaced, including but not limited to the re-emergence of Christianity under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russians harbor a deep mistrust of authority, are extremely warm and open when among friends (in many respects more so than their western counterparts) and share a fascination for the effects of western society that stretches back several hundred years. Russian culture relies heavily on allegory and superstition, which reflects an ancient culture steeped in mythology that is especially predominant among rural residents. Older Russians have experienced some of the most traumatic events in the history of mankind, including wars and famines that claimed the lives of tens of millions, and state terror unheard of throughout most of history. This group of people ranges from those victimized under the Soviet system to those that were left helpless when it passed into history. In this report I will provide a summary of the characteristics often ascribed to older Russians so that approaching them for the purpose of care giving can be most successfully accomplished.
The Role of Pensioners in Post-Soviet Russia
Pensioners, as a demographic, experience among the lowest standards of living in post-Soviet Russia. In the 1990's, the savings of pensioners and their monthly payments were almost atomized due to hyperinflation. Younger Russians blame the older generation for communism, and so the needs of elderly people are often ignored except within families. Geriatric care does not exist in Russia to the extent that it does in western countries. There is a large disparity between men and women in lifespan: the average Russian male dies in his late 50's, the average Russian woman dies in her early 70's. This disparity, which averages 14 years, can be attributed to pandemic alcoholism within the Russian population.
Fertility rates in Russia have dropped since the early 1960's, and plummeted since the fall of communism. In older age groups that survived World War II as adults, women vastly predominate over men as over 20 million men lost their lives in that war. What has resulted is a vast predominance of female pensioners. The average lifespan of Russian women reached a peak of 74.5 in 1989 but by 1995 had declined to 71.70. However, this was an improvement over the most recent low-point in female lifespan; 71.18 in 1994. By contrast, female fertility rates have fallen by nearly a third, from 2.219 in 1987 to 1.344 in 1995. "World War II casualties account for the death of elderly men in many of the former republics. The sex ratio at age 65 in 1994 in Russia was an extremely low 42 men per 100 women.
Russian culture since the early 1950's has been marked largely by disillusion with communism. In the first years of this disillusionment, Russians were largely afraid to make mention of the failures of the system that their parents generation had conscribed them to. This is often evidenced in the very manner in which older Russians speak: they will tend to get very close to one another and speak in hushed tones. When addressing each other over the phone, Russians are hesitant to immediately reveal their identity. Russian businesses are characterized by close personal relationships, and Russians are seldom willing to place trust in someone immediately. When Russians do become friends, the friendship is often much deeper and more meaningful than the cursory friendships that characterize American society.
The need for obfuscation of thoughts and opinions was endemic to Soviet Russia. Many Russians were compelled to live in communal settings with other families with whom they did not get along; these 'komulnalki' apartments lead to a great degree of enmity. Similarly, rural communities were characteristically divided into 'kolkospi' - collective farms that were run jointly. These communities suffered from what economists know as the "tragedy of the commons;" members would feel compelled to do as little as possible for the sake of the community and instead concentrate most of their time on the small plots adjacent to their cottages. Compulsion drove most Russians to adopt a mentality, which can be described as anti-communal. This is apparent when walking into a Russian apartment building; the lobby of the building is usually very poorly kept. In Soviet times, an older woman would be assigned to watch over the lobby to make sure that residents were mindful of its appearance. Since the advent of democracy, these women have disappeared and apartment lobbies (podezdi) are usually in disorder.
Older people are the most likely in Russian society to be members of the KPRF, or Communist Party of the Russian Federation. The average age of a communist party voter is 58; old people who have grown used to a system characterized by measured, gradual change are usually those that find it hardest to cope with a dynamic market economy that favors entrepreneurship over Soviet mainstays such as tenure and loyalty to party ideals. In many ways, this group of people is not dissimilar from the retired Americans who are given to complaining if their Social Security or pension benefits are reduced: they are quick to equate longstanding loyalties with the sense that they are owed a certain standard of living by the government or by a long-term employer in the case of the Americans. The practice of giving exemplary employees soviet medals similar to medals given in wartime sees its American parallel in the presentation of watches to company employees who have worked for twenty or thirty years. A parallel can be seen in that such employees were abandoned in both countries without reservation as perceived obligations were not contractually binding, although the Russian example of employee pensions is much more extreme than the equivalent 'downsizing' in the United States, and should only serve the purpose of illustration.
Lifetime employment was a reality in the Soviet Union, as it still exists to some extent in Japan. However, this employment methodology was far from profitable, as it was characterized by systematic shortages under the Soviet System and is now reflected in the meager salaries afforded traditional workers. Teachers in the Moscow region, the wealthiest area of the country, average 150 dollars a month. Many Russians maintain a poor-paying 'official' employment and will do something else for the predominant part of their income, such as driving a taxi or selling things. Bribery is not uncommon. "May you live on your salary" was a common epithet in Soviet Russia, as one's salary was usually considered insufficient to support a comfortable lifestyle.
What Americans or Europeans would refer to as sexism is pandemic in Russia, and resonates with the elderly population in terms of neglect. The average age at which a Russian woman gets married in Russia is much younger than her American or European equivalent: Russian brides are usually about 22 in age. Marriages between young women and older men are much more common in Russia than in other countries, especially when the husband is a foreigner or financially more stable. Young women in their 20's can often be seen married to men who are 40 or 50. Russian mothers are known for telling their teenage daughters to marry men in their thirties because it is thought that such men are more reliable. As a result, older women often lead very solitary lives and are usually only afforded the company of fellow older women. The exception is when an old woman has children that provide her with emotional support. It is more common in Russia for older women to live with their children and grandchildren, as it is almost always the case that children live with their parents until their 20's.
The Russian diaspora community in the United States is trifold. The first Russian communities were established in the earlier part of the 20th century as Eastern European immigrants came to the United States. These migrants settled in areas such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Cleveland, Ohio, with Jewish Russian immigrants preferring the Lower East Side neighborhood of New York City. Large Jewish Russian populations can also be found in upstate New York. However, most of the people from these communities have merged into the American mainstream over the past 50 years, as is characterized by the predominance of English-speaking services in Russian Orthodox churches. The second large-scale migration from Russia took place in the late 70's and early 80's, when Jewish people were allowed to leave the Soviet Union. This resulted in the establishment of large Russian Jewish communities, the largest of which is in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City. The total…[continue]
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