The Old Man From Sverdlovsk is not from Sverdlovsk at all. He is from a city on the other side of the Ural Mountains. (He told me Sverdlovsk because it was the city whose geographical location I was familiar with.) And he is not delusional, as I first assumed. It’s not that he believes the Soviet Union still exists. It’s that he doesn’t see the modern Russian government as legitimate at all, so he refuses to speak of it as if it is. But he knows what happened to the USSR. He knows who Yelstin was. He knows who Putin is. He just despises the materialism and inequality that entered his homeland under their leadership. He often tells me, with a sad look in his eyes, “There were no homeless people under socialism.” He is not the only Russian immigrant who has told me this.
I talk to him every week now. I write him short letters in barely-coherent Russian, and if I don’t see him for a while, I call and check in on him. He saves his newspapers for me and gives them to me once per week, reminding me each time how important it is for me to keep up with current events. The more I talk to him, the more I realize he is brilliant. Eccentric, yes, but brilliant. I’ve learned so much just by taking the time to talk to him for an hour or two every week. He knows so much about geography, philology, history, and literature. He has great insight on human behavior as well. He cuts right through the shallow surface answers people give to questions like “How is your family?” or “How are you feeling today?” and unearths the sometimes painful but much more meaningful truths beneath. When he asked about my parents, and I told him about how they divorced eighteen years ago, I tried to put it in generic, oversimplified terms. He responded by looking me straight in the eye and saying, “Your mother…was she happy? Many women are not happy in marriage.” I haven’t given him a shallow answer to any of his questions since.
I don’t believe in any particular religion, so I look for angels among humans. I don’t find many. But he is definitely one.