Worry about me, please do!

I have this blouse. It’s one of my favorites, but absolutely impossible to wear in public. No, it’s not see-through and not even form-fitting. But on the back, for decoration, it has a pair of laces that are forever coming undone. And if I wear this blouse with a short skirt, the ends of the laces hang down in a rather amusing way.

So what? But if I walk down the street like that I’ll be accosted by at least three or four people in succession who will say in their best stage whisper: “Young lady! Your laces are undone.” “What business is it of yours?” I think to myself. “It’s not as if they were bra straps — and even if they were.” But aloud, I feign horror, thank the person and for the umpteenth time tie those accursed laces — until the next gimlet-eyed stranger whispers in my ear.

In Russia one must always be prepared for the unsolicited (and often unneeded) attentions and advice of total strangers. These busybodies have only the best intentions. If I had an enormous rent in my blouse, I doubt anyone would say anything. They might just look at me with surprise, or even indifference, as though I were some strange creature who indulged in odd forms of self-expression. But the undone laces on my blouse evidently destroy the harmony of the image. And this provokes my fellow citizens to meddle.

An Englishman I know complains that if he takes his child out in inclement weather for a walk without her hat, he is immediately deluged with admonishments from passersby: the child will catch cold! “What business is it of theirs?” he fumes. “It’s my child, I’m responsible.” To him these casual remarks are so much impudence, an inexcusable invasion of his private space.

A Spanish journalist I know who came to Moscow to work this winter cannot leave his apartment building without some considerate neighbor warning him about the glare ice underfoot or the dagger-like icicles overhead. “Why are they so worried about me?” he wonders. “I’m not a child.” To answer this question, one must quickly review Russian history with its system of peasant communes where every person bore responsibility for the community as a whole and serious matters were decided all together. For a Russian it is always important to look well — in the sense of “right” — in the eyes of the outside world. Because the opinion of the majority plays such a decisive role, the boundaries of one’s personal space are often blurred.

Not so long ago it was impossible to imagine a Moscow courtyard without little old women sitting on the benches stationed outside every building entrance. Theirs was a control stricter than that of the Court of Arbitration at The Hague. Not one miniskirt, not one pair of skin-tight jeans went by uncensored. The decisions of these grannies were, of course, not legally binding, but only the most flamboyant individualists dared disregard them.

In Soviet times this sort of public control extended even to one’s personal life. For instance, the wife who learned that her husband was unfaithful might file a complaint against him with the social organization at his place of work. And it would be that organization’s duty to get to the bottom of the matter. What’s more, many people sincerely thought that this was the proper thing to do: a man had been tempted to abandon the straight and narrow, and needed help getting back on the right track. Who better to do this than his comrades? As a matter of fact, these Soviet-style interventions did often help to return a straying husband to his family.

Today, of course, these extreme cases are a thing of the past, though I suspect that many wives and even a few husbands wouldn’t be opposed to having that sort of control over their wandering spouses. The ubiquitous, all-seeing grannies have also disappeared from Moscow courtyards. And there aren’t any benches by the entrances to the newest apartment buildings, lest an old woman be tempted to sit there. To be honest, sometimes I miss those old women. For instance, late at night when I walk into my yard to find a noisy and not entirely sober group of boys whooping it up. Oh, the strict granny from my childhood would have known exactly what to say and she would have let them have it in short order. But I come meekly home and don’t say anything for fear of invading their personal space.

Is it always bad to invade someone’s personal space uninvited? I don’t know the answer to that question. Incidentally, that Spanish journalist, who did manage to avoid any unfortunate encounters with Moscow icicles, caught cold recently. His neighbors, concerned about his health, have supplied him with all sorts of folk remedies, including a jar of raspberry jam. That he liked very much.

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