Babushkas Rule!

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David Wansbrough

Some years ago I was invited to a meal as the guest of a grandmother. One of the other visitors had come with his chest covered with medals. He rose to make a toast to the good old days when the mayor used to give veterans quality suits in May after the parade. Not like the rubbish Yury Luzhkov handed out. A toast to the Good Old Days when vodka was stronger, water was wetter and bread was better! Fury, then grief passed over the face of the Grandmother. “Were they the good old days in the 1950s when we were contacted by Lubiyanka to collect the remains of my father? In TWO suit cases?” The room was hushed.

Babushkas are the real controllers and the moral conscience of Russia. I am prepared to bet 84 roubles against a dollar that Mr Medvedev has a granny who tweaks his ear when he has been on TV and his tie has a crease. Once, in the more recent Good Ol’ Days of President Yeltsin when Moscow street kiosks stretched as far as the eye could see selling nonstandard vodka for less than bottled water, a Chechen petty thug pointed a massive barrelled pistol at me and demanded dollars. As I stuttered that I was a writer and had no dollars a tiny grandma walloped him on the back with her zontik (umbrella). “Leave him alone. He is our poet. He is our idiot.” The gunman looked repentant and said, “Poet. Sorry. Here’s some dollars. Sorry, Grandmother.” She gave him another whack on the chest just to help him remember the lesson. A grandmother will tell you about Mendeleev’s real discovery. Not the Periodic Table of Elements, but Russian Standard Vodka. You will be informed that it is so pure that it is actually good for your liver.

Kids don’t listen to parents but a stern look from a grandmother has power. The psychological genius Vadim Petrovskiy visited Taronga Zoo. The chimps were seen through glass. Some naughty young males had a long pole. They were having a contest. One held the end of the pole horizontally and ran and stuck the other end in the ground. The impetus carried him high into the air as he tried to scramble to the top. Several made the attempt. Unsuccessfully. Then the naughty young chimps saw the venerable old bald muscular chimpanzee leader bend over.

There was a target worth aiming for! Who needs verbal communication? They all grabbed the pole and advanced. A big old granny ape just looked at them and raised her upper lip. It was enough. The little guys walked away like a lot of alcoholics pretending not to be drunk. Vadim said:” It is a pity we have to reach a certain age to get such authority.”

Thank goodness for Spartak and soccer. Anyone who has been to a Russian Orthodox Church and tried to buy candles only to be elbowed aside by grannies knows they would make powerful rugby front row forwards.

But when you haven’t been seen leaving your apartment for a week, who is it that picks your lock and brings badger fat to rub on your chest to help your pneumonia? And makes borsch and feeds you precious dacha honey? A neighbouring grandmother!

Who knows what they have seen and experienced to get such wisdom…?

Western grans don’t have the same authority. Back home on leave we don’t quite fit in and find our own cities perilous. Having moved into a house in an inner city area in Sydney we were asked to attend a Neighbourhood Watch meeting. A retired police sergeant spoke about waking and finding druggies stealing his TV. One had a knife so he hit him with a handy cricket bat (as one does). The retired policeman was charged and convicted for using more than adequate force. The lads were given parole and a non-custodial sentence. Then a university professor spoke. She had moved interstate using two large removal trucks. Her two storey Victorian terrace house was full of boxes when she went to give her first lecture. She returned that evening to a totally empty house. Everything had been robbed. “Ha! That’s nothing,” said an Australian old lady. “I went outside to question some Middle Eastern types who were carrying out my neighbour’s Persian carpets to a van. I challenged them. They were taking them away for expert cleaning. Did I have any? Yes I did. I showed them. They identified one from eighteenth century Khiva. They were spot on. They would clean it and two others for a $100 deposit and another hundred on delivery. They valued the carpet at about $20,000 so I agreed and paid, got a receipt and brewed them cups of coffee. And never saw them again.” Here in Russia the grannies would collectively interfere.

Do an experiment. Respectfully address a wise old woman as Babushka and observe the reaction. Although you may not be biologically related, you will begin to feel her mystical protective kinship. Without even having a common language you will sense that you are in someone’s prayers.

We may have new young fit multilingual Institute graduates as capable efficient polite police in Moscow, but they have only an official function. Anyone who lives near a metro and commutes knows that Russian social order is ultimately controlled by grandmothers.