I’m in Russia. I haven’t been here since I was 16, 8 years ago.

My family wants to know what I’ve been up to. I explained Effective Altruism to my uncle. He nodded approvingly, then told me that in Russia, everyone’s too worried about making enough money for themselves to give it away. I think his sentiment gets at a sense of superiority in the community that I find distasteful– I am not a particularly enlightened moral being, I’m just privileged enough that I can give money away without threatening my lifestyle.

Whenever we come to Russia, we bring clothes and iPhones and other things that we’ve bought in the U.S. We bought these jeans for $37 on Amazon. My uncle says he could buy these same jeans in Russia for $120, or he could pay a special service $60 to buy them on U.S. Amazon and then ship them to him. My uncle told us about a now-unpopular Russian comedian who would make jokes about how stupid Americans were– how they couldn’t operate their own machines, or fix their own cars. The joke was really on the Russians, he said, because the Americans had real professionals that could do these things for them. If your kid gets sick in Russia, you’d better know how to help them, because there’s no way you can trust a doctor to do it. When people in our family in Russia get really sick, we fly them to the U.S. so they can get seen by an American doctor. My uncle wants to come see us in America, but right now it takes a very long time to get an American Visa, even just to visit. Being here makes me feel a little bit like I’m visiting someone in prison.

I feel like there’s a stereotype of Russia as sad and desolate. I want to say this isn’t the case, but honestly sometimes Russia feels like a caricature of itself. The buildings are concrete bricks and malfunctioning neon signs, the skies are gray, strangers walk by looking anxious and preoccupied. I wrote down a few vignettes from my first day here:

  • We’re waiting at a railway intersection. The train has long passed, but the gates still haven’t raised. A disgruntled looking man goes slowly back and forth from the railroad tracks, shoveling dirt into the gap between the tracks and the road.
  • At the cemetery, a woman sits in a room filled with garishly-colored flowers under harsh fluorescent lighting. She shuffles aggressively through a bundle of paperwork as a sad dog sits in the corner.
  • Dogs pace back and forth along the main road to the cemetery. One of them seems to have a broken leg and isn’t walking properly. My mom calls them ‘cemetery dogs’, and says there are some at every cemetery.
  • My mom goes to the bathroom in a small, very dark room with a large hole in the center. After closing the door, she waits for her eyes to adjust so she can find the walls without falling in.

It’s very cold outside. But it’s not so bad in my apartment, with its aggressively malfunctioning radiator. It smells of tea and whisky and old books. My niece smiles as she runs with my pill bottles, rattling them. My family laughs freely and keeps putting food on my plate.

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