A couple weeks ago I asked for people to send in their stories about immigrant household decor, an extension of my own musings on the question of whether what’s on your walls impacts your immigrant identity. I got some great responses, and I’m excited to be sharing them over the coming days!
Today’s contribution is from Jennifer, who blogs over at Dividing My Time, is a transplanted American who has been living in Russia for 18 years, so I wanted to hear what she’d say about the whole issue of immigrant décor (hint: it sounds like American won out over Russian in the end). She very generously responded with an entire post, which I’ve read several times and still makes me laugh. It’s a great introduction to the whole topic—an overview of Russian interior decorating at its finest from someone who made the trek in the other direction. Jennifer has an amazing ability to find humour in the many grievances of living abroad, particularly in a place like Russia, so make sure to set aside some time to peruse her blog. Her writing has also appeared on BBC Russia, Le Figaro, and the Washington Post.
I first set up housekeeping in Russia with HRH, (a.k.a. my “Horrible Russian Husband) in 1993. He had earlier moved his one suitcase from the military dormitory he never me allowed to visit to a one-room apartment he finagled in a sprawling urban jungle called Butova, or, to be more accurate, Northern Butova: Southern Butova being then only a vague sketch on a drawing board. Northern Butova was, and still is, a scale model of Hell: an inelegant, sloppily thrown together sprawl of pre-fabricated buildings, painted in the garishly optimistic shades of a Latin American maternity hospital: pinks, blues, yellows, and greens. These instantly faded in the toxic Moscow air to depressing shades of bilge. Butova and its ilk sprang up quickly to meet the incessant demand of the post-perestroika housing boom, and the public transportation system took a decade to catch up. In my day, to reach Butova, one took the distinctly proletarian orange line to its southernmost end, and then waited forty to sixty minutes for Bus #813 (a number engraved on my heart). When #813 finally arrived, decorum and politesse was thrown to the wind, as 300 disgruntled Butovites crammed themselves into the bus, which then rattled and bounced along the potholed highway until the end of its route, some 35 minutes later. It was a nightmare, this wild Soviet fantasy of HRH’s come true. He was in heaven—an apartment of his very own at 24 and in Moscow no less! Okay, the very messy periphery of Moscow, but Moscow nevertheless. And with the apartment came the all-important, highly sought-after Moscow certificate of residence, the propiska, which allowed a person to live, work, use public transportation, run a car, seek medical help, and generally exist as a human being in the capital, where such things were in relative abundance.
Housekeeping proved uphill work in Northern Butova. The apartment consisted of one long, narrow room, into which HRH had crammed a sten’ka the ubiquitous top-heavy wall unit, without which no Russian home is complete. The stenk’a featured a narrow closet in which you hung clothes one in front of the other for maximum inconvenience. Some of the shelves featured sliding glass panels, making easy access and cleaning impossible. I hated the style: ornate 17th Century baroque carving as interpreted by a Slovakian factory in the mid 1980s, but I kept my options to myself since, at that time, it was the dernier cri in home furnishings for the period. HRH told anyone who admired it about the six-month waiting list he’d jumped to get it installed before he moved in. He insisted on displaying empty Beefeater bottles in pride of place. Crammed up against the sten’ka was a divan or folding couch. Hard as rock, upholstered in faux brocade in shades of pink and beige baby vomit, it was five feet wide and, miraculously, that’s where we slept. But this too, seemed outrageous luxury after the narrow, lonely bunks of ships, or lumpy Central Asian mattresses.
The kitchen in Butova had a sink along one wall, a stove suspended on the other, and a fridge sticking out impeding entry to and from the kitchen, and absolutely no counter space between them. We had three enameled metal cooking pots and some mismatched Czechoslovakian plates with way too much gold leaf.
In the space designated as the living room, HRH wedged two clunky, faux-leather Turkish armchairs, which looked like alien space craft, but were surprisingly comfortable for something so hideous. We pulled them up to the TV, which didn’t get great reception since the signal wasn’t strong enough to reach Butova, but on a good night, we could tune in to whatever was latest introduction to the newly commercial Russian airwaves.
Later, without asking me, HRH paid a small-sized fortune for the last essential piece of décor, without which any Russian home is incomplete: a large, very poor quality faux Persian rug manufactured on the wrong side of the tracks in Bukhara. He hung it on the wall for reasons that still allude me. It was the last décor decision he was ever allowed to make.