We’ve been looking at some of the more obvious ways in which the ghost of the old Soviet system still remains present today. The physical edifices are relatively easy to spot and still form the very carved moulds and channels through which the daily lives of Russian people flow around the clock.
Separate from the bricks and the stone is the mindset that prevails; both fascinating and paradoxical. Combined with an outward frost and the blank, unyielding regard with which they eye you as a stranger, -is a hospitality and warmth that can be quite overwhelming, if they take to you. How can so much heat and cold exist in the same space? Then there’s the ‘smiling’ issue (or it’s absence) and the directness that we interpret as rudeness because of our convoluted rituals of double-speak and “manners”.
All of the above makes perfect sense in relation to Russian history, there were many times when it was provident to be wary of strangers, not least during the darkest days of the Soviet era. Similarly, it was a boon to find a good ally, friend or an addition to your personal network of contacts in case of crisis, shortage, problem, whatever. That’s after a period of careful regard of course, so no smiling at first, but an embrace later if you prove your worth. There’ll be staring though; -from passers by in the street, as if you reside within a glass case. I can verify this from experience.
During the Soviet era the affectation of “manners” was officially regarded as an undesirable left-over from the deposed and reviled bourgeoisie. Something that the Communist interlopers would sooner scrape off their boots and discard rather than reciprocate or perpetuate. Hence: straight-talking became the norm, the nature of which may seem a little blunt by our standards. Get used to hearing “how it is”- where “this is right”, “that is wrong” and you have to deal with it. It’s not surprising that this particular trait still hangs around today, having been ingrained into the culture over several generations.
Frankly, it’s tempting to exclaim “thank goodness” when we meet someone who just gives a straight answer sometimes, when that is (if you can take it) all that you really need. I do get the impression sometimes though, that I’m being spoken to differently because I am English (or just “a foreigner”) and therefore must be handled appropriately! whatever that may mean to the Russian mindset. And always the question; why are you interested in Russia? As if it is strange for an outsider to have such a pursuit.
The Soviet system was often slow and laborious in its bureaucracy whenever things needed requesting, completing, rubber-stamping and signing off. I’ve even heard of extreme instances where the “Enter” key would not be pressed out of fear, lest the lowly operator inadvertently commit an error to the system and subsequently have to take the fall. Instead the boss was called in to ceremoniously press that magic button, as if a civic celebrity launching the holiday lights. There were waiting lists for houses and cars, queues for rare stocks of quality shop goods, and at the worst times: bread.
A waited response
The protracted nature of the bureaucratic process still exists where certain institutions are concerned. Here’s my tip: if you plan to just “drop by” a Russian bank for anything other than self-service: take a book. Always a lumbering reason why something can not just be simply “done”, right then and there. Here’s where that network of good connections comes in handy, and another reason to cultivate one, -even now. It’s the stuff of normality, by blatant admission, for instance: “I can’t get a job there because I don’t know the right people”. Yes, I have heard that; as if such a situation was the most normal thing in the world. At other times someone in that network of trust can extricate a hapless citizen from a procedural cul-de-sac via a strategically pulled string, to be subsequently dropped in front of the right individual, or in the desired situation with the correct papers at hand.
Cash or kind
It’s somewhat inaccurate to say that this is the kind of help that money can’t buy, because you quite probably can; convenience is a commodity, as much as detergent. It’s more the case that the average earner has neither the cash nor the prestige to play at that table, so good connections and favour-trades will have to do when hacking through red tape. Just like in the Soviet days, though perhaps a shade less overt (?). It’s corruption, mutual-benefit, ”an understanding” or whatever-else you’d like to call it -masked only by the thinnest of semi-acceptable veneers (at best). At least they are honest about it.
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