The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.
Author: Paul E. Richardson
Page 64 ( 1 pages)
There are few achievements that can compare with making a 100-year-old Russian babushka laugh.
When you stop to think of all the things this person has seen and lived through in her ten decades of life... When you try to imagine how it must feel to outlive all your friends and acquaintances, to bury your adult children... It is astounding to think that one could still retain a sense of humor, a feeling of charity and hope toward the world.
And yet the babushka laughs, and her face lights up with a smile that could melt Siberian permafrost.
This has been one of the deepest joys we have felt while traveling across Russia, gathering the stories of Russian centenarians for our Children of 1917 project (which will create a book and movie by year’s end: childrenof1917.org).
Combine this with the amazing hospitality that has been shown us – how the centenarians, their children and grandchildren, have invited us into their homes, stuffing us on cakes and tea – and it adds up to a truly profound experience.
In this time of heightened tensions between the US and Russia, there could be no starker proof that there are two alternate realities out there: the double-mirror, self-important, brutish world that exists in the world of politics and diplomacy, and the real, earth-grounded world that exists when people meet with each other and share their stories.
Give me that second world any day. Every day.
Of course, our project has experienced its share of challenges. From visa tangles to baggage snafus, from traveler sickness to partner disagreements (put two control-freak journalists together into an overheated train cabin, stir vigorously, wait 30 minutes, and watch the tensions rise), there have been trials to be sure. But such is to be expected on any trip of this magnitude, and these things pale in comparison to the power of the interviews, photos, and film we have been able to gather.
There have also been surprises:
Few interviewees have an inclination to talk about broader historical events (other than World War II) or politics. The stories that are important when one looks back on a life that spans a century are about family, loss, achievement, endurance, and joy.
Most all of the centenarians have light-colored eyes (blue or grey). In fact, to the point of this writing, 11 of the 12 interviewees fall into this category, when only about half of all Russians share this trait.
The babushkas we have met (yes, the centenarians have almost all been women) exude tenderness, humility and wisdom. You might think that someone who had lived a century would be rather self-righteous, as if the fact of their long life was proof they had lived life as it was meant to be lived. But there is not the tiniest measure of that. In fact, their most commonly expressed “secret” to long life is that one should do good, as it is sure to be returned in manifold ways.
To sit alongside these women, to hold their warm, soft hands and stare into their eyes as they recount a funny story or weep at the pain of losing a child half a century before, is what I expect it feels like to sit and talk with the Dalai Lama or the Pope. There is a warmth of human feeling and gratitude that is hard to express.
These centenarians are so grateful that someone has stopped by to hear their stories, and to share those stories with the world.
We could not feel more privileged to be their messengers.
And to occasionally make them smile.
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