By Rebecca Thorne
I was sitting at a long table in the basement of a church, an hour outside of Tomsk, where we had just had breakfast. It was two weeks into term and I wasn’t feeling very well. Across the table from me was a new acquaintance of mine, leaning forward, concern written across his face. ‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ he asked. ‘Anything at all?’
His concern was no polite formula: he wanted to help me. He wanted to do everything in his power to help me, to make me well again.
‘Do you have any oranges?’ I asked, wondering whether perhaps it was the whim of a spoilt English girl. The simple answer: no. Instead, he began talking rapidly over my head to his friend and I gathered he was arranging the immediate purchase of oranges and lemons, not questioning further, and ignoring my protestations when I realised the trouble he was going to.
Since coming to Tomsk, I have been struck again and again by people’s generosity, and I can’t help asking myself: what have I done to deserve this kindness? Many Russians here have little compared to what we have at our fingertips, and yet they don’t seem to resent us our privileges. On the contrary, they continue to give. If they think we are cold, they will clothe us: one lady knitted a pair of slippers for me; a girl at church gave me a coat. And if they think we are hungry, they will feed us, even if that means interrupting a lesson.
‘You haven’t had breakfast?’ the teacher exclaimed, shaking her head. ‘It’s not good, not good. Who else hasn’t had breakfast?’ She looked at each of us in turn, and we shrank back from her accusing stare. ‘Everyone else has had breakfast? Hm.’ She surveyed the room once more, not trusting us, before heading to the door and leaving us in surprised silence.
Five minutes later, the teacher returned with a plate of bread, ham and cheese and gave it to the offending student. ‘Eat it,’ she said, and the wrongdoer had no choice but to do as she was told.
Besides the material gifts, countless people here are generous with their time. They are patient; they are interested – and this is invaluable.
We are privileged to be here when many Russians have never left their home country; we are lucky that life here is cheap and we can live well. In spite of this, however, we are the vulnerable ones in an unfamiliar country and the locals have the advantage: an advantage that they use to help us. It would be all too easy to curse the stupid foreigners, to blame us for being unprepared; but instead, they feel sorry for us. We are the poor foreigners who don’t know what a Siberian winter is like, and they want to help us. Я буду рад помочь. Literally: I will be glad to help.
These are little things perhaps, but they feel like a lot. Especially because the truth is that I have done nothing to deserve the kindness I have been shown.
Images © Rebecca Thorne
Read more about my experiences in Tomsk here.