Russia is a country where even a struggling middle-class lifestyle, let alone the luxury so many of us have grown accustomed to in America, is simply not possible. Here you see mostly degrees of poverty.
I am writing from an Internet cafe that is open 24 hours and that is located in a beautiful, modern mall. It's the Tyson's Corner of Nizhny, except the building is miniscule in size and few people can afford to shop here. Accessing the Internet is expensive by American standards, where we pay a flat rate for as much time as we want every month, but at 30 rubles an hour (a little more than $1), you just don't see many people here. Honestly, I am surprised to see anyone here at all based on what I have seen of the living conditions in Russia.
Most people live in two- or three-room apartments, or flats, and when I say rooms, I mean just that. The kitchen and bathroom areas (toilets and bathtubs/sinks are usually in neighboring rooms separated by walls and doors) are not counted in that total, but living and bedroom areas are. That means a two-room flat, like the one where we're staying with Tom and Masha, has a living room and a bedroom.
The living room is usually Tom and Masha's bedroom, which they have generously vacated for Jeff and me. They are sleeping on the floor of the bedroom, which is usually Tom's office. Tom and Masha do not own a bed, nor, according to Masha, do they have plans to buy one anytime soon. When they don't have company (and they play host to Americans somewhat regularly), they sleep on the pullout sofa that I'm using during the trip.
Most of the apartment buildings resemble public housing in America. We would probably consider them slums and refuse to live in them because we've become too comfortable -- nay, spoiled. I couldn't tell you when any of the buildings was last painted. The bricks in the walls and concrete on the stoops, stairs and interior walls have big chunks missing from them, and I don't expect they'll ever be repaired.
Some apartment buildings, including Tom and Masha's, lack elevators. I'm getting quite a workout just trekking up five floors every time I return to the building. And those that have elevators have tiny, tiny elevators -- and some have absolutely no lighting. We crammed four people, plus luggage, into one dark elevator in Moscow. When they move, the creak and make all kinds of noises that leave you expecting to plunge downward any minute.
Russians still wash their own dishes by hand; they dry their clothes on lines that hang on their balconies or above their bathtubs; they eat at tables that seat four people uncomfortably and leave little room in the kitchen for movement; furniture other than a couch can really leave the living area crammed; and sister Nadia in Pavlovo just got a telephone for the first time a few weeks ago (and it wasn't working when we were there Sunday).
And if that's not enough to make you realize how bad life can be here, take a look at the post below this one.
Some people, including Christians, have more than others. We've been in two homes with pianos, and five of the Christians here have computer access at home. Some Christians have really nice china for tea (it's apparently cheaper in Russia than other places), and they may have full bookshelves (often stocked with religious commentaries, Bibles or magazines). Cell phones also appear to becoming popular quickly. But my observation is that the people I've met here tend to pick one or two items they really want and splurge on those -- and others go without anything. We Americans have everything they could want and more.
My heart ached in Pavlovo on Sunday when one of the sisters there asked me about the homes in America. I told her about the home in Paden City, W.Va., where I was raised -- three bedrooms, two living areas and then some (and my parents have added on since we left home). The spirits of those women visibly sank. "Don't tell us such things," Ghalina said. "It only makes us sad and discourages us."
What they don't realize, and what I hope I can convey to them Sunday if I have the chance, is that they are just as rich as we are. All of us who are faithful have the "unfathomable riches of Christ" (Eph. 3:8), and all of us, Russian and American, would do well to remember the words of Agur, the son of Jakeh, in Prov. 30:8-9. "Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, lest I be full and deny Thee and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or lest I be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God."