Elena T. greeted the new year as she usually does, with her parents. Early Friday evening, she and her 13-year-old daughter walked 10 minutes from their apartment to Elena's parents' flat and rang the bell.
She knew just how they would react. "They are always look surprised," she said not long ago. "They always ask, 'Why do you ring the bell? You have a key. Why don't you open the door yourself?' "
Elena does not try to explain to them anymore that she uses the doorbell out of respect for their privacy. She just mentions how nice it is when they open the door for her. She would like them to take the hint and use her doorbell, too. But she considers it a victory that now they at least call before they let themselves in with her extra set of keys.
Her struggle at the age of 35 to separate herself from her parents is quite common here. Americans, with their cult of individualism and atomized families, complain of loneliness and isolation. But in Russia, family psychologists say the problem more often is too much closeness.
There is no Russian word that corresponds to the English word "privacy," and the notion of it as a desirable ingredient of life is only slowly developing in a country where not long ago large families were allotted single rooms in communal apartments and shared the bath and kitchen with half a dozen other families.
Elena is unusual because she sought a therapist's advice about her parents' penchant for intruding. Psychological counseling here is like ibuprofen, a palliative ubiquitous in the West, but still untried and all but unknown in Russia. Less than 3 percent of Russians sought psychological counseling last year, according to an analyst with a state research institute, compared with 15 percent of Americans.
It's not that Russians are not interested. Self-help books, increasingly available, are hot sellers. But the clinical practice of psychology is stunted after decades of Communist suppression. Freud's works were banned, and people were told to discuss their marital or child-rearing problems with the local Communist Party leader. The memory is still fresh of misfortunes that befell those who revealed the wrong secrets.
Not until the mid-1980s was the first family therapy center established in Russia--three decades after this type of counseling took hold in the United States. Anya Varga, who heads a society of family therapists, said there are about 70 family therapists in Moscow, a city of more than 8.5 million. There may be fewer than 300 in all of Russia, she and others estimated. In the United States, there are 50,000.
Russian family therapists borrowed their techniques and theories largely from the United States. But those who have worked in both countries noticed a contrast in clients.
"In the U.S., you might see the extremes of individuality. You see people who are very disconnected, the kind of pioneer spirit gone awry, where people are kind of running away from each other," said Katharine Baker, a family therapist in Massachusetts who has written about cultural differences in therapy. "But you can also have too much togetherness, and that's what you might see in Russia, where it is much harder to be a separate, autonomous person."
"We have a special task," said Varga. "We deal with it in almost every case, and that is how to separate the generations from each other."
Part of the reason is economic. Russians have rapidly transformed communal apartments into single-family units. But it's common for three generations to share a tiny urban apartment, and psychologists say a sense of individualism often gets lost.
The Rodin family is typically crowded. Oleg, 31, his wife Julie, their two small children and Oleg's parents share two rooms that average 13 by 13 feet. A tiny corridor links them to a postage-stamp-size kitchen. One recent afternoon, they sat around debating whether they would have more or less space per person in the cemetery. There is no hope of a bigger apartment. The family survives on less than $5,000 a year.
Oleg said they get along because they respect each other and are tolerant of each other's needs. Still, said Julie, "we all get tired of each other." Oleg's parents, in particular, are forced into an uncomfortable accommodation. They sleep on fold-out couches a few feet apart, 19 years after they got divorced. Therapists see this arrangement fairly often in big cities, where getting a new apartment can be a 30-year endeavor. It's not ideal, admitted Oleg, but "a person can get used to anything."
It's not just economic necessity that knits Russians so tightly. The whole notion of the collective is deeply embedded in the Russian psyche. Varga, the family therapist, points to Leo Tolstoy's novel "War and Peace," and peasant character Platon Karatayev, who is portrayed as the embodiment of the Russian popular soul. He is extolled because he sees no value in his life as an individual, only as a part of the greater whole. A favorite Russian proverb makes the same point: "One man cannot be a warrior on a battlefield."
Natasha Toumashkova, a Russian therapist who studied and worked in the United States for two years, said she came home with a much greater appreciation for privacy. Her first move was to take over the spare bedroom that she had previously saved for guests. Her old bedroom lay between her two daughters' room and the rest of the apartment, and her space was little but a thoroughfare, she said.
"I came back and said, 'This is it. I know my boundaries now,' " Toumashkova said. "But I was 38."
Russian therapists say helping families create such boundaries is their biggest challenge. One recent case of Varga's fit a familiar pattern. The family was at odds because the mother of a newly married son objected when he and his wife shut their bedroom door in the daytime. She said, "I don't like it when doors are closed in my home!" Varga urged the mother to develop her own friends. She did not try to tell her the couple had a right to privacy. "You can't work against the culture," she said.
Another mother could not accept her daughter's desire to marry. At Varga's suggestion, the mother and daughter wore each other's clothes for a week. "They were like one body. There were not two of them, there was one person pretending to be two. They came to see after all that they were two separate people."
Elena, an articulate, brown-haired divorcee, started therapy sessions with Varga a year ago because she felt her parents failed to see her as an independent person. She has her own apartment, and earns enough managing a technical assistance program for a foreign embassy to cover all her needs and her daughter's. But she said her parents still try to control what she does in her free time, how she raises her daughter and how she spends her money. She asked that her last name not be used to protect her family's identity.
She maintains very close contact with them, as Russians expect. She calls her mother when she gets to work and as soon as she gets home. Often she has no sooner hung up the phone at night than her father will call. "You are already home," he will ask. "Why didn't you call us?"
She and her daughter visit her parents every weekend. But in the past year, she has set some limits: She will not sleep at their apartment, although her father always asks her to; she and her daughter take vacations outside Moscow, although her father always objects; and she doesn't answer questions she deems too prying. "If I don't want to tell them some of my personal, inner experiences, I don't tell," she said. "That, for me, was the most difficult thing to learn. How not to answer questions."
She said therapy has helped because she feels more pity for her parents now than anger. "I know that they can't find another way of behavior. I still love them, even though sometimes it is not easy, and I know they love me."
Her mother does not like the idea of counseling, and as usual, she let her know. "She said, 'That's very stupid. A psychologist is not likely to help you. All your problems, you can just discuss them with me.' "
CAPTION: Oleg Rodin, his wife Julie, their daughter and Oleg's mother share space in a small kitchen. "We all get tired of each other," Julie says.