Although nearly 30 years in its grave, the Russian Communist system still affects much of the ‘normal’ (ie: acceptable) behaviour of modern Russian citizens. This takes the form of behavioural hang-overs and elements of a mindset taken from the previous era and passed down, as if by some form of social-genetics. Many traits that we would consider “Russian” stem from (or were accentuated by) life during 70 years of Communism, but others have a longer lineage.
Citizens under fire
The citizenship has frequently endured hardship -both in living memory and historically. As a friend who has seen life during and after Communism repeatedly reminds me: “Russians know the dark side of life.” They are also typified by a stoic acceptance of such darkness and their ability to pragmatically cope with whatever history has thrown at them.
It takes a special mindset to survive (and recover from) invasion by the Mongols, Poles, Swedes, Finns, French (Napoleon), Germans (Hitler) and the Japanese. Plus: the hardships of serfdom, two world wars, civil war, revolution (and the eventual disintegration of the newly imposed structure), collectivisation, political purges, societal restrictions, famine and a reliably brutal winter climate. “Keep calm and carry on,” the famous English motivational phrase issued publically just prior World War 2, could apply equally – or even more so – to our Russian counterparts.
I have reservations
One of the most typically “Russian” behaviours is (by our standards) a public stand-offishness and an invisible social barrier when dealing with strangers. Or, as the western stereotype crudely reports: “Russians are unfriendly and don’t smile”. The subtext to such a statement can be accurately translated as: “I know very little about Russians and their society.”
You aren’t obliged to know the inner mindset of any culture of course; but if you are going to meet it head-on (or make judgements about it): it certainly helps.
Whilst often interpreted as openly antisocial, such “hostility” seems more accurately to be a form of reserve. I know this to be true from the valued connections that I have made after traversing the aforementioned barrier and often finding laudable qualities that lay behind it.
So, most Russians do smile, have a good time, laugh, and are friendly – just not in front of random strangers in public for no particular reason. This is partly due to the strictness of Soviet era behavioural norms and of not knowing who can/could be trusted (a very real problem under Communism).
Unsurprisingly this has fostered an accompanying desire not to stand out or draw attention. I asked a Russian colleague why making a spectacle of yourself could still be problem today:
“Because of 70 years on Soviet power!” he stated, adding that he would have to explain the history of Russian Communism in order for me to understand. Perhaps “old habits die hard” would be good shorthand? At any rate, I ask for the shortened social history.
“In your ‘frame’, you had a very narrow (range of) freedom” he says, somewhat enigmatically. We go on to establish that your ‘frame’ was the freedom left to you after societal controls had taken their (larger) share. “In such a social organisation” he continues: “you should not be an individual, but be like many others. Like a soldier in uniform: a small detail of a greater mechanism.
You should behave according to the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism – a codex similar to Christian laws, but modified for Communism. Yes it was borrowed from religion and you should follow, answer to -and comply with- it.” He then adds, unsettlingly: “Everybody was a Builder of Communism” – the externally imposed personal standard against which everyone in society was judged, ‘like it or not.
There’s something chilling about abandoning your individuality to become a uniformed “small detail”, especially in the context of a pseudo-religious series of “commandments” issued by those who would seek to destroy religion itself.
Then I remembered a prior, similar conversation: “You don’t understand,” said another Russian friend: “they wanted to become religion”. The adherence to Communist standards paralleling religious devotion and obedience wasn’t, after all, a curious paradox: just ‘good business practice’ by those who wished to control every aspect of existence.
We’ll examine the codex -and more, next week.