Few people can sum up the Russian character – it seems to be a mass of contradictions. A Russian can at the same time be servile and haughty, warm-hearted and cruel, hospitable and xenophobic, emotional and inhibited, suspicious and fatalistic, fearful yet also reckless.
(Binyon, p.136; 1983)
How can one convey a nation’s “national character” without merely falling back on clichés? Perhaps gathering together comments made by numerous observers over the past 100 years is one way. Even given the subjectivity of the choice, there are certain themes which recur which suggest that Russians, as much as any of us, are products of their environment. And some of the more constant features of Russian life over this period and before – such as the often extreme climate and frequently repressive political system – have helped to shape many of the country’s citizens.
I do believe strongly that there are certain characteristics which have helped to define each nation. These are not true for every individual, but factors such as history, tradition, geography and climate do have an effect on the way people behave and the way they are seen both by others and themselves. Over time, as society develops, these characteristics can change; but any change takes time. Britons, for example, long had the reputation of being cold and reserved, especially British men. I recall my father coming home after a long spell away when I was eight years old, and holding out his hand for me to shake. Fifty years on, I cannot imagine that in a similar situation I would not hug and kiss my children. And I know instinctively that among my male friends there are those I greet with a hug, and those with whom a handshake is appropriate.
Hugs, and indeed, kisses, are far more normal for Russians. On the whole, they are an emotional people. Hedrick Smith arranged to show Boris Pasternak’s son, Zhenya, and his wife and children, the 1960’s Western film of his father’s classic novel, Dr Zhivago. There were disagreements over certain aspects of the film, but
…everyone, foreigners and Russians alike, broke out laughing at the movie’s portrayal of the meek, milquetoast welcome given by young Zhivago and his step-parents to his step-sister returning to Moscow by train from Paris. It was abrupt and cool, a quick, flat, unemotional Western peck on the cheek and a handshake, obviously directed and acted by people unaware of the effusive, emotional outpouring that occurs when Russians greet or part at a railway station. They immerse each other in endless hugs, embraces, warm kisses on both cheeks, three times, not just kissing in the air for show, but strong, firm kisses, often on the lips, and not only between men and women, or between women, but man-to-man as well…it is the Russian way.
(Smith, The Russians, p.134; 1977)
Russians can also be indecisive – and then want everything now! I have experienced plenty of examples where Russians have prevaricated for a long time before taking a decision, and then expect everything to be done immediately. No thought is given as to whether this suits the other party or whether it is practical. And, as mentioned in the Introduction to Chapter 2, Geography, I am totally convinced that the Russian climate has had a huge effect on people’s behaviour. Having intense hot summers and long cold winters has inevitably meant for a country which remained a largely peasant country for centuries that spring – the sowing season – and autumn, the harvesting season, were short and therefore you had to work all hours possible in those seasons to ensure that your family didn’t starve come the winter. But in summer and winter you could afford to be more relaxed.
Political changes have had influence, too; but perhaps what is most interesting is that changes in recent years have not been sufficient to overturn habits which became ingrained in the Russian psyche over the years of Tsarism and Communism. Censorship was an essential tool of the authorities in both systems. But as Mikhail Gorbachev encouraged openness in the late nineteen eighties, the bolder Russian journalists started to use this new-found freedom. After the collapse of the USSR, the floodgates opened. There was some brilliant investigative journalism (amidst, it must be said, an awful lot of rubbish, lies and irresponsible writing and broadcasting). But the decade of free speech was not sufficient to overturn the repression of centuries. No sooner had Vladimir Putin started to turn the screw on the media, than the majority of those journalists who felt that they had thrown off the old ways found that their inbuilt Russian/Soviet censor kicked in. By closing down a few TV channels and silencing some vociferous critics, Mr Putin saw that the vast majority of “new” journalists very quickly fell into the old ways.
The thinking behind this was neatly summed up in 1984 by Ivan T, in conversation with the then Moscow Correspondent of The Washington Post, Kevin Klose. It chillingly predicts what was to come under Putin:
“If there is a stereotype, it is that the Germans are obedient and Russians chaotic. Partly, this is true, as I saw for myself during the war. But it is partly untrue as well. It is we, the Soviets, the Russians, who are obedient. We are obedient to the lessons of Stalin, which outlawed revolution, and obedience is easier to maintain now than before Stalin. Because so many were killed under Stalin, there won’t be the same need to kill so many next time to achieve complete obedience. Like an alcoholic who only needs one drink to get drunk. So the next time there is need to impose fear, it probably could take just ten thousand deaths to achieve the same effect as it took Stalin to achieve only by killing millions. Obedience is now a genetic factor in us.” [Ivan T.]
(Klose, p.118; 1984)
Part 1: National Character
The Russian character fascinates and frustrates all at once. Welcome to Russia. As Michael Binyon noted (above) the Russian character seems to be “a mass of contradictions”. Robert Kaiser acknowledges the climate factor in the Russian character –
|Awaiting the postman|
(From Dobson, Grove, Stewart)
(Kaiser, p.256; 1976)
– and Theodore Dreiser and Kaiser again speak of some of those aspects which have Westerners tearing their hair out:
The Russians are surely an easy going people – practical in some things, indifferent or impractical in others.
(Dreiser, p.66, 6 Nov 1927)
Foreign travellers have remarked on the lackadaisical Russian approach to work for hundreds of years; it is another of the facts of Soviet life with ancient Russian antecedents. There are good sociological and historical reasons why Russian workers don’t strain themselves. Russian society has never been infected by a puritan work ethic. Russia is a peasant country, a nation of slaves until a century ago. Russians never saw the point in breaking their backs. Except perhaps during the twenty years before the First World War, great diligence has never earned great rewards; Russians have always got by.
(Kaiser, p.316; 1976)
As usual we were late getting started in the morning. Our guides always so blithely agree to come at nine o’clock and then show up about ten thirty.
(Dreiser, p.211, 14 Dec 1927)
If asked to list typical characteristics of Russians, it is unlikely that Westerners would put “punctuality” high on the list.
Something which would feature, however, would be the Russians’ desire to enjoy themselves, and this has long been regarded as typical. More than 60 years passed between G Dobson’s comment and those of Ronald Hingley and Hedrick Smith, but the sentiment is the same. Clearly this was something not dependent on politics.
Self-dramatisation often seems present when Russians undertake, as they often do, the consumption of food and drink on a scale beyond their means. A lower-paid worker will go to a restaurant at the weekend and order black caviar with his vodka – not, according to Harvey Pitcher, because he can afford it, or even because he likes caviar, but ‘to show that he is as capable of doing this as the next man, and as an example of the broad, expansive nature on which Russians have always prided themselves.’
(Hingley, pp.71-72; 1978)
…the Russian will have his pleasures at any cost, and he strongly objects to economy and thrift.
(Dobson in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.99; 1913)
Moderation and frugality do not come naturally to Russians; they live for the moment.
(Smith, The Russians, p.153; 1977)
Not only are Russians easy-going, indolent, and disorganized rather than scientific, rational and efficient, but they are as simple and homespun in their leisure as their friendship. Martyrs of self-denial they may be in time of crisis, but otherwise they are lusty hedonists, devoted to such sensual pleasures as feasting, drinking and bathing. And in open contradiction to the strictures of scientific socialism, they are a mystical, religious, superstitious people at heart.
(Smith, The Russians, p.143; 1977)
But whilst Russians can be expansive and fun-loving, they ration their smiles. Lauren van der Post’s comment from 50 years ago,
They [the Russians] are not a smiling people. With them the smile is generally only a preliminary to laughter and this perhaps more than anything else gives them their reputation for melancholy… Later I gathered from my Russian friends that they find our frequent use of the smile rather tiresome and meaningless and tending to bring laughter into disrepute…
(van der Post, p.11; 1965)
and Francis Spufford’s identifying American girls at a trade fair by their smiles,
The American girls…spoke good Russian, but you would have been able to tell they weren’t Russian girls even without the clothes or the narrow waists, because they smiled all the time, so much it must make their faces ache…
(Spufford, p.43; 2010)
is something which just about every visitor to Russia recognises. I have been told off by friends for smiling too much (‘Stephen, people will think you’re simple’). Photographs of Russians on holiday can look absurd to the Westerner who has been brought up to say ‘cheese’ as you look at the camera to force a smile. They often have long, serious faces which suggest to us that this is a painful experience, or something merely to be tolerated, rather than enjoyed.
Vasily Grossman and the unnamed Russian writer talking to Kaiser comment on the cruel streak which many say runs through the Russian character (Chapter 48 War or Peace? Will discuss attitudes in the armed forces over the century).
Our Russian humanism has always been cruel, intolerant, sectarian. From Avvakum to Lenin our conception of humanity and freedom has always been partisan and fanatical. It has always mercilessly sacrificed the individual to some abstract idea of humanity. Even Tolstoy, with his doctrine of non-resistance to evil, is intolerant – and his point of departure is not man but God. He wants the idea of goodness to triumph. True believers always want to bring God to man by force; and in Russia they stop at nothing – even murder – to achieve this.
(Grossman, Life and Fate, p.267; 1960)
‘The first thing is that we have no history of respecting the individual person as the supreme value of society, we have simply never accepted that idea. Look at the war [the Second World War] – we wasted men, they didn’t matter. The second thing is, we have no history of individual mobility in this country. People live the lives they were born to, in the places where they were born. This has started to change a little, but not very much. The third thing is the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian Christians have always been taught not to expect too much on this earth – the greatest rewards are meant to come in the next life. Religion isn’t as strong as it was, but this idea is deeply embedded. A Russian tends to measure his achievements not by material, earthly standards, but by what’s in here. [He thumped his chest above the heart.] By your standards, his sense of possibilities is limited.’ [A young Russian writer]
(Kaiser, p.39; 1976)
Yet a hundred years ago H M Grove did not see this supposed cruel streak manifested in aggression.
The Russians, as a race, are most peaceable people, and the fighting instinct – the love of fighting – is not a leading feature in their character.
(Grove in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.260; 1913)
This is something which Justin Lifflander feels, is perhaps as a result of being constantly put upon.
The Russian sense of compassion was almost never out of reach. Scratch the surface and it came right out. Seventy years of being dumped on from above had left them with too much tolerance and too little patience.
(Lifflander, p.xiv; 2015)
As an American Communist, Dreiser was in a unique position to analyse Russia ten years after the Bolshevik Revolution, and 90 years later the diary of his travels in the country still makes fascinating reading. Many of his observations are pithy and can still be identified by the foreigner in Russia today.
I sometimes think that Russians…are in that less developed state…since instead of having to accumulate & organize and execute in a constructive way they prefer to dream & play & talk like children.
(Dreiser, p.182, 3 Dec 1927)
Kaiser was writing 50 years later, but makes some brilliant observations such as this one:
Rather than dream of how much better could life could be, they [Russians] worry about how it might suddenly get worse. This is the heart of Russian insecurity. Russians are not reaching for the stars; they are looking over their shoulders.
(Kaiser, p.259; 1976)
In Putin’s Russia many of his countrymen are once again looking over their shoulders rather than reaching for the stars. And, as Bill Browder notes, a pessimistic fatalism determines many Russians’ outlook on life.
Russians are familiar with hardship, suffering and despair – not with success and certainly not with justice. Not surprisingly, this has engendered in many Russians a deep-seated fatalism that stipulates that the world is bad, it will always be bad and any attempt to change things is doomed.
(Browder, pp.369-370; 2015)
Other writers over the years have seen many of the peculiarities of Russians as being brought about by more down-to-earth factors, such as the system of government; nepotism; and a desire to conform.
…the failings in the national character are due entirely to the system of government under which Russia labours.
(Joubert, p.72; 1904)
…the tradition of nepotism was a strong and respected one in Russia.
(Claridge, p.52; 2010)
[The Russian people] have an overwhelming instinct to conform, a tendency to be incapable of doing openly what others are not doing and of challenging authority or the general decree on a specific issue.
(van der Post, p.39; 1965)
But perhaps ‘conditioning’ or ‘swaddling’ are to blame?
Human history has given few examples of a people who can be so thoroughly conditioned as the Russians. When the pressures reach a critical stage, another bone is thrown to them and they will remain quiet. Indeed, with pitifully few exceptions the Russians are magnificently trained animals who will not permit an alien, creative, free, or contradictory idea to function within their minds. They adjust within that framework of what they are allowed to think by their peers.
(Uris, p.158; 1971)
‘I honestly don’t understand why people here put up with so much,’ I said. ‘You put the first man in space, but the cars are crap, you stand in long lines just to get across a river, there are pointless traffic police on every corner; shortages; sadistic bureaucrats – I mean, people complain, agree on the absurdity, but they do nothing…why?’
Zhenya thought for a moment, and then said, ‘It’s because of the swaddling.’
‘Yes. We are wrapped tight in linen cocoons, like mummies, or bugs, from the moment we are born for the first several months of our lives. Every one of us. We can’t move our hands or our legs. Completely helpless. And that feeling becomes ingrained and stays with us until we die. On the other hand, the swaddling does have one nice side effect: it gives us very expressive eyes. How else can we let mama know we are hungry or need to be changed?’
(Lifflander, p.251; 2015)
Certainly, most writers, be they foreign or Russians themselves, agree that the Russian people have been subjected to a large degree of discipline from above.
Russians have a reputation for discipline because of their seemingly docile obedience to authority. But this is a discipline imposed from outside. Left to their own devices, Russians are generally an easy-going, disorderly, pleasantly disorganized, and not very efficient people.
(Smith, The Russians, p.273; 1977)
Strange women have come up and advised us on numerous occasions to bundle up our children better against the cold. Elderly men and once even a policeman kindly advised me to put on a hat. Others solemnly warned that sitting on stone was certain to cause colds or pneumonia and we had better get up from sitting on cement steps. One American friend had her hand knocked away from her jaw by a Russian woman who sternly admonished that this was a sure way to get pimples. Less pleasantly, babushkas have remonstrated that our children were disorderly because they were running on park paths (where else?) or that other American children we knew were not neatly enough dressed to be out in public.
(Smith, The Russians, p.331; 1977)
‘In every other country in the world, a fellow can smoke or not smoke – it doesn’t matter to the next guy. A fellow can sleep or not sleep with or without whomever he wishes. But in our country, no! Everyone – not necessarily the KGB, not the police, but we ourselves – butts into everyone else’s business…the Great Russian People! It’s really interesting to me to know if this was the way it was before the Revolution, or if it’s just nowadays that we are raised with the sense of social obligation to keep track of everyone else.’ [Yelena Bonner]
(Klose, p.184; 1984)
Yelena Bonner was the wife of the nuclear physicist and later human rights’ advocate, Andrei Sakharov. Sakharov finally gained recognition in Gorbachev’s time for his stand on human rights; shortly before his untimely death in December 1989. He was cast at that time as ‘the conscience of the nation’. Does Russia have a conscience now?
George Feifer asks whether the philosophising about the meaning of life to which foreigners pay so much attention in Russians actually affects the majority:
No matter how small-minded some of their outward goals, no mere material comfort has ever driven Russians. Ten times more intense than the American dream, the Russian one is laced with religious notions of suffering for spiritual salvation. This world’s meanness prompts fantasies of a braver one, for which they allow mad tyrants to starve and shoot them in their striving to attain it…
But…for every Dostoevsky analysing the anguished Russian soul and Solzhenitsyn demanding repentance, ten million Pavel Ivanovichs are troubled only by what movie to see on Saturday…
…Only people who are themselves disturbed work at probing this country’s hackneyed riddles and enigmas. Muscovites pick their noses, haggle over prices, steal everything not nailed down…
The Russian people themselves don’t really care; the endless contemplating of Great Questions – Who am I? What is Society? Whither Russia, and therefore the world? – is camouflage for their indolence. For their inability to cope with the simple things – unpolluted bathrooms, zippers on trouser flies – that the normal majority wants.
(Feifer, pp.435-436; 1976)
And If there are four words which sum up the Russian character more than any others, it is perhaps these, which many Russians agree are their two favourite questions:
‘Кто виноват? Что делать?!’ (‘Who’s to blame? And what should we do?!’)
It is highly significant that the very first question is, ‘Who’s to blame?’ Whenever anything goes wrong in Russian life, someone always has to be blamed. The unspoken part, of course, is that it is bound to be someone else; never ME! Which leads, with tongue firmly in cheek, to this simple summary of Russians uttered so frequently by foreigners…
Oh, those Russians…
(Boney M, Rasputin)
See also: Chapter 9 Language, Kaiser, “Soviet ceremonies…”
Part 2: The Russian Soul
Russians have long held that one thing which marks them out from other people is ‘the Russian Soul’, Русская душа. Vasily Grossman’s novel, Everything Flows, is part history, part philosophy and part fiction, and he engages in a detailed examination of this concept.
In the nineteenth century Russian thinkers looked to the Russian national character, the Russian soul and Russian religious nature for an explanation of Russia’s historical path …
Is the Russian soul still as enigmatic as ever? No, there is no enigma.
Was there ever an enigma? What enigma can there be in slavery? …
The Russian slave soul lives both in Russian faith and in Russian lack of faith, both in Russian meek love of humanity and in the Russian propensity to reckless violence. It lives in Russian miserliness and philistinism, in Russian obedient industriousness, in Russian ascetic purity, in the Russian capacity for fraud on a supreme scale, in the redoubtable braveness of Russian warriors, in the Russian lack of any sense of human dignity, in the frenzy of Russian sectarians and in the desperate ferocity with which Russian rebels rebel.
(Grossman, Everything Flows, pp. 187-199; c.1960)
Zoya Zarubina, in conversation with William Millinship shortly after the collapse of the USSR for his book, Front Line: Women of the New Russia, takes the more romantic approach, which is shared by many Russians and Russophiles.
‘We are a spiritual nation. This is the strength of the Russians: spirit and patience. If the young people lose that, we shall lose one of the most important traits of Russian character. And whatever happens in this country will, one way or another, influence the history of the world.’ [Zoya Zarubina, Educationalist]
(Millinship, p.22; 1993)
George Feifer takes an objective view standing back as a foreigner.
I have begun to sense what Russian writers have long revealed: that this is a place where the human spirit is made to struggle, thereby becoming fuller as well as more repressed. Their nineteenth-century phrases – ‘the vulgarity of life … the meanness of man … the tragic nakedness of human existence’ – still afford the deepest reportage of the Russian scene and soul. The truths they lay bare uplift as well as demean. My senses are sharpened here; I know that I am me. It’s not despite Russia’s fated tragedy that warmth and emotion flourish here, but because of it.
(Feifer, p. 68; 1976)
And in his extraordinary novel, The Yawning Heights, Alexander Zinoviev produces a statement which is seemingly contradictory for anyone who doesn’t know Russia and Russians; but one that’s easy to understand for those who do. (David Willis, in Chapter 6 Population, makes a comment which helps to clarify this point.)
…My place is here. Maybe it’s a waste of time, but it’s here. All my unfortunate ancestors are buried here. My Father died here for nothing. It is here that my Mother was tormented to death by all that crushing work day after day. My own life has been ruined for nothing. It is here that I have frozen, starved, been betrayed by my friends, ill-treated by my bosses, and all the rest of it. How could I leave all this? I cannot. It is mine. I can only exist as long as I stay here.
(Zinoviev, The Yawning Heights, p.674; 1981)
See also: Chapter 2 Geography, Leon Uris, “The Russian lands are cold and morbid…”
Part 3: Attitude to Rules
This section needs little explanation; the quotations all convey the same message: Russians see rules as being there to be broken. And what comes across is that this has always been the case. The following words to my neighbour in 2001 unknowingly reflected those which follow by H M Grove, made nearly a hundred years previously.
Sir Norman Wooding: ‘The difference between Britain and Russia, it has always struck me, is that in Britain everything is allowed unless it is specifically prohibited, whereas in Russia it is the other way around.’
I, turning to my neighbour: ‘Yes, but then the Russian will do everything he can to get round the rules.’
(Dalziel, at a conference in London on Russia, 2001)
You will find this strange objection to abiding by the law prevails everywhere in Russia. If a law exists, everybody seems to consider it his bounden duty either to flatly refuse to acknowledge it or, more generally, to see how he or she can manage to get round it with the least unpleasant consequence for himself or herself.
(Grove in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.241; 1913)
The scientist and former Soviet dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky, puts Sir Norman Wooding’s words directly in a Soviet context.
In creating our laws mainly for propaganda purposes, our ideologists have overreached themselves. Actually, there was nothing to stop them from not bothering with a constitution and simply writing: ‘In the USSR everything is forbidden except what is expressly permitted by decisions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.’
(Bukovsky, p.190; 1978)
Rules are made to be broken, if you can get away with it. Life is a game: we and they. They make the rules and we break them. It is a game of absolutist politics, not of democracy – the individual cheating the system, instead of confronting the powers-that-be to demand reform or a better life. That is the traditional way of Soviet politics – breaking rules, not changing them or relaxing them.
(Smith, The New Russians, p.429; 1990)
The two features of the Russian character which struck me most when I first went to Russia were their great hospitality…and their lawlessness. By this I mean their absolute contempt for laws of all sorts.
(Grove in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.240; 1913)
|(From Dobson, Grove, Stewart)|
Russians with their clothes off at the bath [banya] do reveal something about their country: that it is filled with sociable people who savour their pleasures; that the national diet produces bodies that bulge and droop; and that the Soviet dictatorship isn’t as fierce as it sometimes seems. Signs posted in the Sundonovski Baths in an old corner of Moscow say flatly: NO SMOKING. Everyone smokes. It’s against the rules to drink vodka in the baths, too. For a modest tip, one of the attendants will run out and buy half a litre.
(Kaiser, p.21; 1976)
Russia has more restrictions, prohibitions and bureaucratic imperatives than all of Europe combined, but most are easier to evade than in countries of sensible, and therefore seriously taken, regulations. A law of compensation operates: where the burden of rules is most impossible, petty officials seem most persuadable to ignore them.
(Feifer, p.53; 1976)
…the deep-seated influence of history on Russian character and institutions [is fundamental] – the centralised concentration of power, the fetish of rank, the xenophobia of simple people, the futile carping of alienated intelligentsia, the passionate attachment of the Russians to Mother Russia, the habitual submission of the masses to the Supreme Leader and their unquestioned acceptance of the yawning gulf between the Ruler and the Ruled.
(Smith, The Russians, p.614; 1977)
The quintessential Soviet gesture is what the Russians call the fig v karmane, the sign of the fig – the thumb thrust irreverently between the second and third fingers in a clenched fist, meaning roughly, ‘nuts to you’ or ‘screw you’ or stronger, depending on the force of the gesture and the circumstances. But v karmane means in the pocket of one’s pants. In other words, making this defiant little gesture secretly, privately, out of sight. The urge to defiance is thus overcome by fear and by the pressure to conform, and so the protest is hidden in the pocket, figuratively speaking.
(Smith, The Russians, pp.367-368; 1977)
Conformity had a special role in the Russian psyche, anyway. ‘The tallest sunflower gets harvested first,’ peasants said in tsarist times, and the adage still held true in Soviet times.
(Klose, p.78; 1984)
Part 4: Friends and Guests
Ask any foreigner who has managed to penetrate beneath the surface of Russian society what appeals most about the country and they will almost certainly talk about the warmth, hospitality and deep friendship you encounter. Martin Walker, former Guardian correspondent in Moscow, sums it up in one sentence:
They [Russians] are a marvellously warm people, and it has been a privilege to get to know them.
(Walker, p.ix; 1986)
Hedrick Smith of The New York Times goes into more detail (while basically coming to the same conclusion as Walker), but adds why foreigners who don’t get beneath the surface are often amazed to hear this.
To American travellers who have found Russians on the street to be brusque and impersonal, who have found Soviet officials cold and rigid, and Soviet waiters exasperating in their imperious and surly indifference, this generous side of the Russian character often comes as a surprise. But the Russian character is made up of both coldness and warmth.
Over the years, I have found Russians generally to be a warm and sentimental people, more like the Irish or the Italians than like most Americans. One reason why many Russians don’t especially like the Baltic peoples – Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians – is that they find them too cool and reserved, too self-contained, too Nordic. Russians are more emotional, more likely to strike deep friendships, less superficially gregarious. They make great sacrifices for those within their trusted circle, and they expect real sacrifices in return. Their willingness, indeed their eagerness, to engage at a personal level makes private life in Russia both enormously rich and incredibly entangling. Close emotional bonds are part of Russia’s enchantment and also its complexity.
(Smith, The New Russians, pp.181-182; 1990)
G Dobson’s words from a century ago still ring true –
A Russian is always glad to entertain a guest. Improvised visits, therefore, without any previous invitation, form one of the most characteristic traits of Russian life
(Dobson in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.99; 1913)
– as Smith found when he was The New York Times correspondent in the 1970’s.
Russians invest their friendships with enormous importance… They will visit each other almost daily, like members of the family… ‘Friends are the one thing we have which are all our own,’ a mathematician confided. ‘They are the one part of our lives where we can make our own choice completely for ourselves. We cannot do that in politics, religion, literature, work. Always, someone above influences our choice. But not with friends. We make that choice for ourselves.’
(Smith, The Russians, pp.140-141; 1977)
Dropping in on friends unannounced is the norm. When a Russian mother at my children’s school in London heard about another Russian mother at the school, she simply called round – and the one who opened the door to this new arrival was thrilled: ‘That’s the first time that’s happened in England! It was like being at home again!’ was her response.
As in the previous section, the rest of the quotations in this section are all in agreement. Yes, the public face of Mother Russia is cold, brusque and unappealing. But being in a Russian’s home is a very special experience – as long as you can reciprocate the warmth of the friendship.
Quick to volunteer information on aspects of their lives which others would regard as private, Russians also demand similar information in the opposite direction. Hence the impression of inquisitiveness which they can make on those schooled in other conventions.
(Hingley, p.69; 1978)
Many’s the foreigner – Britons especially – who has felt very uncomfortable when a Russian he hardly knows has made ‘How much do you earn?’ one of the first questions asked. For Russians, this is normal.
It is true that Russians, especially Muscovites, often come across as gruff, cold, mulish, and impersonal in public. But in private, within a trusted circle, usually the family and close friends but often embracing new acquaintances very quickly if some personal chord of empathy is touched, they are among the warmest, most cheerful, generous, emotional and overwhelmingly hospitable people on earth.
(Smith, The Russians, p.136; 1977)
[This is] a point tourists in Russia often miss because of the grey sameness of Russian crowds and the blank expressions on Russian faces. These are extraordinarily warm and sentimental people. Russians place enormous value on personal relationships and family connections. They invest psychic energies in private worlds which we in the West often apply to careers or hobbies.
(Kaiser, p.272; 1976)
…visitors who are truly welcome in Russian homes are usually ushered immediately to that most humble and yet most homey of places – the kitchen table, if the kitchen is large enough to accommodate more than a couple of people. The table, whether in kitchen or sitting room, has a central place in the Russian home, a tradition carried on from country life. Unlike Westerners with their cocktail hours and their drawing rooms, Russians go right to the table when friends call.
(Smith, The Russians, p.139; 1977)
When they finally open up, Russians are looking for a soul-brother not a mere conversational partner. They want someone to whom they can pour out their hearts, share their miseries, tell about family problems or difficulties with a lover or mistress, to ease the pain of life or to indulge in endless philosophical windmill tilting.
(Smith, The Russians, p.143; 1977)
Part 5: The Peasantry versus The Intelligentsia
Few countries can have done as much harm to their own people as Russia did in the twentieth century. Given the huge inequality in pre-Revolutionary Russian society, the weakness of Tsar Nicholas II and the strains put on the country by the First World War, it is not difficult to see why the country was ripe for revolution in 1917. But it is Russia’s great tragedy that the Bolsheviks who seized power in November of that year were driven by a fanatical ideology which held that if you weren’t for us you were against us and you must be eliminated to protect the revolution. Perhaps Russia was unfortunate that someone as brutal as Stalin came to power; but the premise behind the Bolshevik Revolution allowed for that; indeed, it is possible to say, it demanded that. “Compromise” is not a word which featured in the Bolshevik lexicon.
When you wipe out the intellectual elite in a country you create massive problems. For any society to function, you need people who fulfil different roles. Destroy the intelligentsia and you decapitate society. And that is what the Bolsheviks did. Like in a garden, it takes time to cultivate that layer of society once more; generations.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the peasant tradition. The vast majority of Soviet citizens are one or two generations removed from village life. Though there were sophisticated urban populations in pre-revolutionary Russia, the Bolsheviks and Stalin wiped them out. Many left right after the Revolution; most of those who stayed were killed in the purges or in the war. Even the more enterprising and successful peasants, the kulaks, were wiped out during Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture. Soviet society was inherited by a crude, uneducated lower class of peasants and first-generation urban workers who had no models of refined behaviour.
(Kaiser, p.257; 1976)
Worryingly, something similar is happening in Russia today. Many of the best brains – scientists, entrepreneurs, artists – are choosing to live abroad because of the corrupt nature of the state. Too many promising businesses have been stolen by the state or by its bureaucrats, creating an unhealthy and stifling atmosphere for anyone who displays creativity. For the individuals, it is better to take their talents to the West, where they can freely express themselves without fear of being ‘raided’ (taken over). As a result, the individuals live better, while Russian society atrophies.
Emotionally the country, the village and the farm are still closer to the Russians than the towns and the cities.
(van der Post, p.187; 1965)
|Country and City are like different planets in Russia - more so than in many countries|
The gap between town and country is felt particularly keenly in Russia. Hedrick Smith’s comparison of Moscow and the village, made 40 years ago, is just as true today:
In sophistication and lifestyle, a university student from a prominent, foreign-travelling Moscow family is a world apart from a young factory worker in Ryazan, only about 100 miles down the road but still provincial and isolated; let alone the rough youth in the Far North or a Siberian village.
(Smith, The Russians, p.218; 1977)
It’s as if the Russians have invented time travel. You can turn any car in Moscow into a time machine, simply by driving 50 miles outside Moscow: you feel as if you go back 50 years in time.
Some – a few – sophisticated Muscovites are descendants of the true intelligentsia of whom Hugh Stewart wrote a hundred years ago (spelling the word “intelligentia”):
Standing out from their drab surroundings are the representatives of the intelligentia, the real windows, as P Struve remarks, which let in light from Western Europe, the heirs of the Cossack tradition of stimulating popular struggle against the Government. This term is not applied to the educated classes as such. These include priests, officials, and the aristocracy, whereas the intelligentia was middle-class, and distinguished by its hostility alike to State and religion.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, pp.393-394; 1913)
But, as Kaiser observes, so many of the intelligentsia were wiped out by the Bolsheviks that their place was taken by ill-educated and corrupt officials, who enjoyed their status because of their position in the Communist Party. This truly is George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
The true intellectuals must co-exist with a pseudo-intelligentsia which enjoys the advantages of Party patronage. The rich Russian intellectual tradition still survives, but it competes with a corrupt new tradition of no redeeming value. Those who maintain the old tradition in this uncongenial new era must be as appealing a group of people as could be found anywhere. The worst of the pseudo-intellectuals could not be much worse.
…Those who uphold the old traditions belong to a silent alliance whose objective is to frustrate the cultural bureaucrats enshrined by the Party. Their values and convictions are not taught in any school or university; instead they come from self-education, from reading and rereading the great Russian classics and many foreign writers. Most of the members of this brotherhood live in Moscow, Leningrad and a few other large cities. They are far removed from the Soviet masses, and they know it.
Their most attractive quality is the ability to lead private lives of the mind, lives whose rewards are primarily spiritual… They think of a good friend as the most valuable personal possession. A good conversation is one of life’s richest opportunities. In a truly private world, pretence is superfluous, as it is among the best of these people. They can speak openly, frankly, with a new acquaintance in a matter of minutes.
(Kaiser, pp.333-334; 1976)
Ronald Hingley prevents us from becoming overly sentimental about the intelligentsia:
Another feature of cultural fancying is the idealisation of Russia’s pre-1917 intelligentsia, that amalgam of muddle-headed and often murderous idealists so often apostrophised by journalists and scholars of the present day as ‘superb’, ‘magnificent’, ‘uniquely gifted’, ‘noble’ and the like. The intelligentsia has been defined as a ‘milieu of earnest, dedicated, passionate honest, fiercely principled scientists and thinkers, writers and philosophers’ – which is not altogether misleading, especially the ‘passionately’ and the ‘fiercely’. But is all intellectual effort to be disparaged unless conducted in this frenzied spirit? And is it really true that ‘like a phoenix’ the unique spirit of the intelligent [member of the pre-revolutionary Russian intelligentsia] has survived the purges and repressions of the police state?
(Hingley, p.138; 1978)
But I return to Kaiser again for the last word in this section.
I used to visit a two-room apartment which would make the ideal setting for a play about this class of Muscovites. Its wooden floors had never been varnished or waxed, and in five years had become a hideous dark grey. The beds were never made, and the disarray was always just about total – clothes, toys, books, cassettes for a tape recorder strewn about; a window broken, the walls streaked with crayon, the wallpaper peeling. The only respectable piece of furniture in the apartment was a bookcase. Life was conducted mostly in the kitchen, a small room perhaps eight feet square. Laundry hung from strings across it; the undersized sink was invariably piled precariously high with dirty dishes; on the stove a pot half full of yesterday’s kasha (a hot cereal made from grain) and the teakettle, usually boiling. More people than a fire marshal would allow were usually crowded around the small table, drinking tea out of a variety of unmatching containers and cutting slices of bread from a stale white loaf. The woman of the house had come into a pair of Levis, and wore them constantly, day after day for months at a time. It was a wonderful place to spend an afternoon or evening …
But the greatest pleasure comes from conversation. A Russian intellectual is most comfortable with himself, I decided, when he is sitting at a crowded table in someone’s kitchen, talking across a litter of cheese and salami, pieces of bread and cucumber, glasses, vodka, vodka bottles and teacups. Visitors may come and go, hosts brew more and more pots of tea, the salami steadily shrinks and the talking goes on and on. This is the setting for what the Russians call ‘a real Russian conversation’. I first heard the phrase from an old man, and asked how he defined it. ‘A Russian conversation,’ he said, ‘is one that touches on every subject there is.’ He winked. In the nineteenth century Vissarion Belinsky, a famous critic, protested when his wife called a group of friends to the dinner table. What, he said, you want to eat before we have decided whether or not God exists?
(Kaiser, pp.365-366; 1976)
The scene he describes is very familiar to anyone who has spent time in the homes of Russian intellectuals. Vissarion Belinsky may have lived in the nineteenth century, but his spirit is indeed still alive and well in Russia in the twenty-first century.
Part 6: Russians en masse
Few, if any, nations are attractive en masse. Think about it. English football fans abroad. Large groups of American tourists. German holidaymakers reserving the best pool-side places before anyone else is out of bed. So if the picture which is painted of Russians en masse suggests that they leave something to be desired, this is not unique to them. In 1980, Eric Newby wrote about his experience on the Trans-Siberian Railway; and as anyone who has made even an overnight train journey in Russia will know, it does have a particular smell!
Over all hung the smell of Russians en masse; no worse than the smell of an en masse of English or Italians, or inhabitants of the Cote d’Ivoire, or any other nationality; but just different. A smell that one traveller compared, I think inaccurately, to that of a laundry basket on the weekly collection morning; inaccurate not because it is impolite – it is impossible to describe smells of people en masse politely – but the smell to my mind is more pungent, and I think comes in part from eating the strong, black bread. I wondered what we smell like to them.
(Newby, pp.14-15; 1980)
I remember, too, being immediately struck by the smell the first time I boarded an Aeroflot ‘plane in 1974. That became for me the smell of Mother Russia; it was largely a combination of Moscow Nights perfume and Russian cigarettes. I experienced it time and again in the Soviet period, and not just on aircraft.
Michael Binyon also singles out a peculiarly Russian smell.
…when the inevitable cold comes, Russians drink quantities of tea with spoonfuls of jam, apply mustard plasters to their chests and chew berries, onions or garlic which are meant to keep the germs away as well as flushing out the kidneys and helping the heart and liver. They also tend to give Soviet buses and trains their distinctive aroma.
(Binyon, p.53; 1983)
But something else which marks out a crowd of Russians is the way in which they will bump into or touch each other in a totally unselfconscious way. Not for them the British sense of ‘my personal space’, where we try to avoid touching each other on the London Underground, and then apologise if someone knocks into us!
The Russian merges with those around him less self-consciously than the Anglo-Saxon. I was struck by how they bump into each other, touch each other, lean against each other in public quite naturally and without concern. In communal worker apartments or student dormitories, Russians live in closeness that many Westerners would find claustrophobic.
(Smith, The Russians, p.376; 1977)
Many Soviet-era apartments are cramped. But there are two places in particular where I have witnessed the closeness with which Russians can live. A student hostel where one room was shared by 16 inhabitants; and a Russian Army barrack block where there was less than 30 centimetres between the beds on one side – they were pushed together on the other side – and the area opened out onto a corridor with no walls or doors dividing one section from another. But as George Feifer and Hedrick Smith point out, the group mentality seems to be something which Russians accept without fuss.
Russians can be as selfish and snobbish as anyone, and their inequality of wealth and life-styles are often enormous. But when pushed together in the business of living, they display a natural egalitarianism whose source must surely be older than the Soviet propaganda they ignore. At some level, they are joined by a common history and fate: the intense experience of being Russian, which pulls people together like soldiers under fire. All belong to the continental family nourished by the Russian earth.
(Feifer, p.49; 1976)
Historically, Russians have been a people of great social cohesion. They are comfortable attached to the group, uneasy cut off from it.
(Smith, The Russians, p.375; 1977)
Perhaps the communal nature of Russians comes from their Asiatic side? As David Willis points out, there are undoubtedly sides of the Russian character which suggest Asiatic behaviour rather than European.
…the Soviet Union today remains what Russia was before 1917: not only a land bridge between Europe and Asia, but a collection of peoples who often display cultural traits and economic behaviour that are more common in Asia than in Europe. Russians are more communal by nature, more family-centred, more ready to barter than to buy, slower to change in social affairs, than most Europeans. Their hygiene (or lack thereof), their penchant for open bribery, their preference for dealing with family and friends rather than with strangers, their emotion and openness within family-friend circles, and their hostility to those outside them…all this smacks of Asian, and often Middle Eastern, ways rather than Western European ones.
(Willis, p.319; 1985)
This chapter on the Russians’ national characteristics started with a quotation from Michael Binyon’s highly perceptive book, Life in Russia, from 1983, written as he came to the end of his time as Moscow Correspondent for The Times. It seemed appropriate to end on a note of caution from the same author.
When you are confident that you really know how Russians think and react, that is the time to beware, for you can be mightily deceived.
(Binyon, p.3; 1983)
See also: Chapter 8 Sex; Chapter 16 Everyday Life
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