We talk some more with our ex-Ekat resident, gaining a deeper understanding of aspects of Russian life – which will certainly enhance your Trans-Siberian experience.
Unknown Territories, part 5
Quarantine lasted around 6 months by all accounts. This is borne out by M’s recollection of his time in Ekaterinburg. Has that changed with the receding past and the rise of a new generation, uncoloured in outlook by adopted Soviet-era survival strategies? Well, arguably yes, in part and yes, by degrees, but it still appears to be intangibly there even now.
I’m referring to the invisible wall of “reserve” that separates “them” (native Russians) from “us” (Western outsiders); the period of “proving yourself” before you can be truly accepted. This is probably easier for me to “get” than say, smiley American tourists. I am a Brit after all, and we too are famous for our “reserve”, even for being “aloof”. I can relate to that. Confession time: I’ve even had someone who lived in the same household repeatedly avoid me in the street just for the sheer “stay away” vibe that I (apparently) radiate. Strange how others see us.
M tells me of the proving-time and the distance that he felt between himself and his Russian counterparts, heightened by the fact that he was an American arriving just after the end of the cold war! These things take time, especially with former “enemies”. Of course, each sides respective stance in this supposed enmity was inherited, second-hand from the propagandist world-power nations that bore, and more significantly educated them.
Then there’s the famous statement, part of the “issue”; that “Russians don’t smile”. Well, here I am, another Westerner telling the world about how others live and why. Apologies to all and another confession: I must point out that although I have dealt with Russians, it has always been through work and always by phone or in writing (not much smiling but occasional “smilies” there).
I’ve never lived amongst them. In the context of my “controlled” exposure I have found them to be reasonable enough, certainly no worse than Westerners and sometimes better, but of course my sample is skewed. Those that I have spoken to already “know the score” with Westerners and are aware of our idiosyncrasies. Like: smiling too much.
Basically, you don’t smile in public, to complete strangers (unless they save your life, or similar!) and certainly not all the time in any case: you’ll look like an idiot with a permanent grin. It can even come across as annoying or offensive to the “wrong” person.
To counter the stereotype: yes they do smile (by their own account), they just don’t throw it around like confetti. It’s a bigger deal saved for situations that warrant it, and then they mean it. Overuse looks (and probably is, frankly) fake. So it’s a cultural norm. There are almost certainly contributory factors: historically Russians have had good reason to be wary of strangers for instance, and not just in the Soviet era.
Historically again; they are also no strangers to hardship or injustice. There’s also the dour formality and (one time) political reach of the Russian Orthodox Church to consider. It even resulted in the expulsion of professional “merry-makers” in the late 17th Century. And then there’s always the weather, though to be fair the country is so vast that it is home to all kinds of weather, whilst the denizens of rainy-season Moscow cloud our view.
Interestingly, I also hear of research that a cultural reason for notsmiling: dour, self-analytical brooding – may even act as a psychic “buffer”. Chewing the psychological cud may allow the re-framing and positive reinterpretation of a person’s perceived problems. In their culture, that is. I’m not sure if Western psyche works similarly: “negative thought loops”, anyone? Maybe we are different after all.
So, trust takes time, M explains and, basically, you just have to ride it out. This ties in with more recent accounts of Russian-exposure too, but the long wait is worth it. He tells me that the French are similar, incidentally. I’ll just have to take his word. Another paradox: once you have served your apprenticeship and “made it” as M puts it, be prepared for the sheer depth of Russian hospitality, the likelihood that you will be embraced as part of the family, and saddled with the obligation to be the “best friend” possible in return for “inclusion” and favour. They certainly appear to take the positive and negative aspects of life seriously. M even used the term “blood-brother” Blood Brother? That’s certainly some “switch” from outsider.
Next time: Unknown Territories, part 6 Gently does it
[Photo by lil’latvian]