Friday, January 3, 2014

Tracting Down Memory Lane: A Tale of Russian Surprises

Typical Russian Nine-Story Apartment

Soviet era apartment buildings play a significant role in Russian life and culture.  One of my favorite Russian movies is The Irony of Fate: Or, Enjoy Your Bath.  The beginning credits of the movie show the unstoppable progress of Soviet glory through a humorous cartoon as the same types of apartment buildings are massed produced and spread across the world.  The narrator then explains how big and large cities became the same by adopting not just the same buildings but the same street names.   From there we begin to watch the story of a man who gets drunk with his friends in the banya early in the day on New Year's Eve.  The group rushes from the banya to the airport so one of their friends can catch a flight from Moscow to Leningrad (St. Petersburg).  Upon arrival at the airport they continue to drink until it is time to board the plane.  Unfortunately, they forget who is supposed to fly to Leningrad.  A drunken debate ensues and the wrong man, our hero, is put on the plane by his friends.  He arrives in Leningrad and stumbles into a cab.  He gives his apartment address to his driver who takes him to the same street and apartment number in Leningrad.  The man makes his way up the elevator to the apartment door that matches his in Moscow.  He enters his key into the door and the door opens.  He enters the apartment, falls asleep and when the beautiful, female tenant of the Leningrad apartment arrives home a series of romantic adventures begin.  

As a missionary in Russia, tracting through these apartments, going from door to door, was often an adventure.  Sometimes it was funny, sometimes it was scary, and sometimes it was just strange.  Here are a few of my experiences for your enjoyment.

Ding Dong, Is the Elder Dead?
Russia in the mid-90s was an exciting place.  It was in the middle of an unexpected and, for many, unfathomable transition away from the Soviet state to...well, something else.  The uncertainty of the times, along with the general methods of construction, resulted in many apartment buildings that were poor quality or unfinished in some small, but annoying ways.  A common problem we encountered in the newer neighborhoods were electrical wiring that was never completed, particularly doorbells.  Often all we would find for the doorbell were two live wires sticking out. 

Now, without a doorbell you would think that the next best option would be to knock on the door.  While a seemingly simple solution, knocking proved to be ineffective in most cases.  The reason being that Russians, for security purposes, usually had two doors to their apartments and the outer door was invariably made of metal with anywhere from two to four deadbolts.  Knocking on those metal doors only created a loud noise in the hallway that didn't always penetrate through the inner door into the apartment.

So, one day, rather than be discouraged by the lack of a doorbell, I touched the two wires by the casings and pushed them together, producing a nice buzzing sound in the apartment.  I continued to use this method when necessary throughout my mission without incident.  Sometimes the tenants were surprised to find that their doorbell worked.  Others obviously had friends who used the same method. 

My second to last companion, however, was a Russian from St. Petersburg.  We came across an apartment with several missing doorbells.  I proceeded to use my tried and true method.  After watching me for awhile he finally said, "I wouldn't do that.  I doubt it's safe."  I of course discounted his counsel and informed him that I had been using the method for over a year and a half without incident.  

Shortly after that conversation I was assigned to train a brand new missionary from Idaho, my last companion before I returned home.  As a trainer I made it a point to teach him everything I knew, including the doorbell trick.  At one point he asked if it was safe.  I told him about the unnecessary warning from my Russian companion but that I had never had an incident.  I encouraged him to do what it took to contact those dwelling in the apartment.  

It happened that very day.  This trusting, brand new missionary, reached up and pushed two wires together.  There was a bright, blinding light and a loud noise.  I blinked my eyes several times trying to regain my vision.  Slowly things came back into focus.  I looked for my companion but he wasn't where he had been standing.  With my ears ringing I heard some moaning from the floor and looked down to where he lay. 

He looked up at me, and with an accusatory tone in his voice he said, "I don't think that's safe."  

A Bonus Door-Bell Story
One day we were tracting and I came across a door-bell that wouldn't go in.  It had been painted over and was stuck.  I gave it one more good push and in it went.  Unfortunately, it didn't come out again resulting in a continuous loud shrieking ring.  Our initial instinct was to flee but we were frozen in place.  Before we could make a break for it an old lady opened the door.  I expected her to yell at us for being idiots.  Instead she looked pleasantly surprised and said, "That doorbell hasn't worked in years!"  

Then she asked, "Can you make it stop?"

We did everything we could think of with our resources at hand.  I tried to pry it back out with my key but it wouldn't budge.  As we were trying to fix it the neighbors on her floor heard the incessant ringing and came out to see what was happening.  I could hear their conversations as they watched.

"The idiot Americans pushed the button and got it stuck."

"What did they expect would happen?"

Finally, I got enough nerve to ask for a screwdriver from the neighbors.  One of them, mumbling his opinion of us under his breath, retreated into his apartment and brought us a couple of screwdrivers.  In order to fix it we had to remove the doorbell completely, which was dangerous because there was no way to turn off the electricity.  We managed to take the doorbell part, stop the ringing, clean the old paint off of the button, and put it all back together again in working order.  The lady was extremely happy that we had pushed her doorbell in and been forced to fix it.  Now her friends could ring the doorbell when the came for a visit instead of pounding, hoping she would hear them.  

We're the Police!
In Russia, people don't like to open their doors to strangers.  Instead, when you ring the doorbell, they'll open the inner door and yell at you through the door to find out who you are and what you want.  We would yell back our replies to try to get them to open the doors.  If you didn't succeed, you would step to the next door on that floor or go down to the next floor.

As a brand new missionary with less than a month in the country, my trainer had me doing the speaking at the door.  I rang the door bell and a lady yelled, "Who are you?"

In my best accent, I yelled back, "We are the missionaries."

"What?  Who are you?"

"The missionaries!  May we speak with you?"

It was an unfortunate combination of factors.  I wasn't confident enough yet to elaborate regarding our identity.  She was hard of hearing, especially through a metal door.  And, I had a poor accent and couldn't speak clearly.  The word for missionary and police in Russian are very similar.  This is what she heard:

"We are the police."

"The police.  May we speak with you?"

The door flew open and she started to cry.  She yelled at her son, who came to the door.  It probably didn't help that we were in suits and ties which likely seemed even more ominous than the normal uniformed police.  She grabbed her son by the ear and twisted.

She screamed at him, "What did you do this time you idiot?  They're going to take you away again!  They won't let you out this time."

The son, who was mid to late twenties, protested his innocence to both her and us.  He was getting close to tears.  

My trainer was doing his best to interrupt this sad scene to set them straight.  Finally he reached through the door and grabbed the lady gently by the arm and said, "We are missionaries, not the police."

Both of them immediately went silent and stared at us.  

"Missionaries?  Not police?"

"Correct!"

She grabbed her son and hugged him closely, then turned to us with a high degree of anger visible in her eyes.

"You two are idiots!  Leave now!"

The Delayed Answer
The configuration of standard Russian apartments is difficult to describe, but I'll give it a shot.  Each apartment building will have multiple entries with each entry exclusive to that part of the building.  As you go in each entry, or podyezd, you have access to the stairs and the elevator (which may or may not work).  On each floor you will usually have access to four apartments with two apartment doors facing the stairs and the other two perpendicular at each side.  As a result the doors on each floor are close, particularly the sets that are perpendicular to one another.  A column of apartments, with four on each floor, is only accessible from the one podyezd.  So, when you tract you must go in and up one podyezd, ring doorbells as you descend, and then go the next podyezd and start over again.  

A Russian Podyezd (Entrance)
With the doors so close to one another we would often run into the problem of the delayed answer.  This would occur when you ring one doorbell, don't get an answer and move onto the next door only to have the tenant at the previous door come to the door once you're already engaged in a conversation.

Here is my all-time favorite delayed answer story (although I do have one that is scarier).  It was sometime in the spring and the sun was just starting to go down.  The floor we were on wasn't too well lit and only a little sunlight was coming in through the small window by the doors.  We rang the doorbell on one of the doors and waited a few minutes with no response.  The next door was within arms reach from the first.  An older lady with an apron and a kitchen spoon opened the door.  Delicious smells drifted from her apartment.  

We began a very nice conversation when suddenly the previous door opened.  Turning I saw something I funny and disturbing.  A rather old man was standing there completely nude and wet with soap suds covering his body and most of his face.

He yelled, "What do you want?  Can't you see I'm in the middle of my bath?"

As I struggled with what to say, the neighbor lady suddenly came to life.

"Ivan Nicholaievich, what are you doing?  Have you gone crazy answering your door naked?  Get back in your room now!  Get back now!  Do you hear me?"

With that she went after him with the spoon, swinging it up and down and hitting him repeatedly on the head.  Stepping back a safe distance all we could do was watch.  Ivan Nicholaievich made it back into his apartment and his neighbor slammed his door shut.  Talking aloud about crazy people she walked back into her apartment without looking at us and shut the door.

I have always hoped she washed the spoon before finishing up dinner.

7 comments:

DTCguy said...

We are living that life right now! Good stories and we totally relate on pushkinskaya st.

DTCguy said...

18 months of Eastern Europe bliss for the Jenkins

Jarad said...

Brother and Sister Jenkins, in which city are you?

DTCguy said...

Минск Беларусь
Different kind of service (humanitarian) but the apartments are the same. 4 of 18 done.

Jarad said...

I would love to make it over to Belarus some day. I've been to Russia and Ukraine several times as well as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but not Belarus yet.

Michelle Cutler said...

Loved it! Thanks for sharing!!

Shireen said...

I love good mission tracting stories! Thanks for sharing them, Jarad!