“How could someone steal a coat from a church? And, in this weather? Isn’t a church considered holy space?” Slava asks.
The recently emigrated, Jewish couple I have been tutoring in English, along with my husband, sit across from us as we drink tea together. Teatime is our post-lesson ritual, where the greatest amount of cultural information is passed among us—in Russian and without the impediment of faulty or halting English.
As the cold, dry snow of a bitter, early February falls outside of the window, I consider how best to respond.
“Well,” I begin, “First of all, the church is a large, wealthy urban church in the heart of a metropolitan downtown. The neighborhood around the church is economically depressed. Thus, it is possible that the coat was stolen by a stranger merely walking through the building that day and not a member of the church itself.”
“Yes,” Slava counters, “but it was a very expensive coat, a very good coat.”
“The fact that it was an expensive coat would make it all the more desirable to a stranger passing through the church,” I explain.
Slava shakes his head in disbelief. Having come from Moscow, the idea of stealing another person’s winter coat is akin to the concept of stealing a person’s only means of transportation, or horse (a crime punishable by death) in the old American West. No coat in northern Russia, no horse in the American West–either way you are stranded. Still, Slava is having a hard time wrapping his head around what has happened.
Truth is that winters here are almost as brutal as they are in parts of Russia, with temperatures reaching -20, -30 or, more rarely, -40 degrees Fahrenheit. In Soviet Russia, a good winter coat is absolutely necessary for survival, highly personal, expensive and a carefully maintained investment, which lasts many years. A good, Russian winter coat is often handed down through one’s family.
I continue explaining, “Things are not equal here—economically. Sometimes people who face moderate to severe economic disadvantage ‘help themselves’ to other people’s belongings. People who engage in such acts of theft might reason that a wealthier person can afford another coat, after they take a short drive in their comfortably heated car, whereas they themselves have to take public transportation and actually need such a coat to function. But, I am only guessing. I do not know the exact circumstances surrounding the theft of the coat.”
“But, it was a church,” Slava intones.
“Yes. It was a church. Ideally, this would be considered sacred space. But, not everyone is spiritually respectful or even ‘religious;’ thus, sometimes pain, greed, anger or desparation override a person’s sense of what is sacred.
“What makes a space sacred?” I continue. “It is how we behave as a community, in a specific location, that renders a space sacred—not the physical structure.”