Magazine article New Internationalist


Magazine article New Internationalist


Article excerpt

Stale - mate

Olivia Ward finds a gulf growing between her and her friend Galina. And there is nothing either of them can do about it.

I SHOULD be looking forward to Saturday, the day when I'll get together with my closest Moscow friend, Galina.

But as the day approaches, I am frozen with embarrassment. Galina and I haven't seen each other for a month, but not because of any bad feeling. We've shared each other's jokes and misadventures since I came to Russia three years ago. There is no - one more warm, perceptive or understanding.

But the thing that upsets me is money. Something that is throwing up bigger and bigger barriers between people in this society, as effective as the walls surrounding the monster homes of the newly - rich.

In a Western country we would be on an equal footing. In this topsyturvy place, a simple friendship is an emotional tightrope.

We live forty - five minutes away from each other, a wearing trip by cab or bus or metro. And, especially to a Russian, unthinkable without a meal at the end of it.

At first things seemed easy. I was new in the country, Galina pointed out. A visitor. That called for a trip to a concert, and eventually to her small neat apartment where a chicken would be roasting in a sputtering oven. In those days admission prices were cheap, transit costs negligible and food prices affordable though climbing. But over the months inflation exploded, while Galina's salary stayed flat. Even a university department head could not make ends meet without moonlighting at other jobs.

As the months passed, the circles under Galina's eyes grew darker. With a gravely ill mother, an ailing student son and an apartment that was crumbling by the month, she was like a woman walking through financial quicksand.

I persuaded her to come to my flat for meals, uneasily watching her stare at the pricey ingredients she could no longer afford. Sometimes she would join me for a cafe dinner or a pastry - saturated afternoon at a glossy hotel coffee shop.

But sooner or later the bill would arrive. When I paid it, as discreetly as possible, there was no point in pretending that the tab was 'absolutely nothing.' Galina knew it was the equivalent of her family's grocery bill for a week. …

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