Let’s dispel a few myths and misunderstandings about Russia, and perhaps confirm a few others too. If only such matters were like flicking a switch, then life would be so much simpler – but arguably not so interesting. There’s problem with the resolute “on” or “off” approach to such matters: that reality is often complicated and there’s usually some skewed kernel of truth at the centre of a long-held stereotype or misplaced presumption. Alternately, perhaps there was a truth that is no more, but it became so iconic that it simply stuck.
I’m a Brit and I don’t know anyone who goes to work in a bowler hat, suited, with an umbrella and a copy of The Times. However this describes an archetypal look that was once common (with variations) to certain middle class male office workers (usually bankers) in the City of London financial district from the 1930s – 1960s. By the 1980s this style had largely disappeared -and it only described a sub-percentile proportion of the working population in any case. However it became so iconic that it is still instantly recognisable today. Expect similar leftovers and hanger-ons when dealing with Russian “myths” or indeed: legends: Ushanka hats with red Soviet stars, for example.
Those are not “Babushka Dolls”
Those concentric dolls so typically associated with Russia are not “Babushka” – meaning “Grandmother” or “old woman” dolls. Instead, they are called variously: Matryoshka, Matroschka, Matrushka, Matreshka – or variations thereof, in an attempt to Anglicise their original Russian title.
The term has its origins in “mat” -Russian for “mother” combined with “Matrona” (meaning ‘matron’), and also a popular Russian name at the time of the doll’s inception in the late 19th Century. Finally the “ka” at the end of the name denotes a diminutive form, commonly used to refer affectionately to the subject as a “little” (whatever). So, literally a “Matrioshka” is a “little matron”. Incidentally I’ve also heard that the idea was adapted from a nesting Japanese figurine of the sage Fukurama – but that’s another story.
“They” are not Communists
Having asked my tour guide what she thought of the Bolsheviks, I received the reply: “I hate them!”. Others talk of needed reform prior to 1990, or remark on their chosen separation between themselves and those in power during the final Communist years. I still have not spoken with any Russian who considers himself a Communist, though arguably a true Russian Communist may not seek to speak with a westerner in any case.
Russia officially abandoned Communism nearly 30 years ago, with Yeltsin making the Communist Party (as was) illegal in 1991 after the infamous coup attempt against the new government in August of that year. Today Russia runs under a system that we could perhaps describe as democracy/capitalism light; embracing a high degree of movement towards western values but still retaining certain elements and parallels with the previous bureaucracy; -old baggage by any other name.
The process still smacks of transition, or of falling between two stools. Perhaps if Russia hadn’t been burnt by it’s adoption of western values then things may now be different. However, in 1993 a new Communist party was formed: the CPRF. This remains the largest opposition party in Russia today, gaining roughly 40% of the vote. Naturally this indicates that a lot of Communists supporters still remain. Sure enough there are a contingent of people, usually older, who simply want the relative security of “the old days” back again, but the future isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.
“The Russians want…”
This may also manifest as “Russia wants…”, the Russian’s are…” etc. In fact any I’m referring to any semi-informed statement that attempts to turn a massive diverse nation and its government into a single, homogenised entity. First and foremost, the people are not the government and the government are not the people just like your country. As far as politics are concerned; yes there will always be party supporters who have “drunk the Kool-aid”, but there are millions more who have not.
I have even heard comments from a Russian, stating that “we” (the people) keep away from the politicians (and politics) simply because they don’t trust them (it). The political classes are often considered to be rampantly corrupt and interested in personal acquisition above all other considerations, especially the lives of the population.
Russia does not only contain towering, white Slavs. There are still over 40 “recognised” ethnic tribes in SIberia; with darker skin and distinctive Asiatic features – although the number of individuals within them can be perilously low.
There are also former members of various ex-Soviet satellite states that have migrated to the motherland; thereby adding more to cultural diversity. The uniform “Russia” that supposedly wants X.Y or Z on the world stage, are members of the incumbent russian government who individually may have little resonance with the people in the streets outside (except those diehard followers of course).