I’m fascinated by the differences in the cultures that I have met, both at home and abroad. That’s in comparison to my own culture of course. It’s one of the joys of diversity. Inevitably when we move between cultures we trade one set of positive and negative traits for another; with various weightings on each elements of the set, as seen through our own subjectivity, naturally. We may also bring the good and the bad of our own culture with us too, of course; perhaps even without being aware of doing so. ‘Normal’ is simply what we each know as such, after all.
In St. Petersburg, I had problems with air quality, but equally: you may not. It depends on what we are used to, including inherent physiological factors too. I also experienced greater extremes in the reaction and response of the locals to my presence than I usually experience back home. This may seem obvious to some, as I no doubt look like a foreigner (yes, they can tell), but wait: this is a major city not a small, provincial town. Foreigners (and locals alike) in London – by contrast – can usually go on their way without receiving a second glance, so the unabashed, unselfconscious staring that penetrated to my very soul was unexpected. Though to be fair it came across more quizzical than hostile.
In some respects, the everyday surface of Russian culture seems much like our own, but somehow with the “contrast” turned up. Folks who are stand-offish, are extremely so. It was as if a palpable wall of ice stood between us, whilst they gazed sternly – silently through in stony disdain. One on the other side of the ice-barrier; hospitality is almost overwhelming in its embrace. That’s a wonderful thing, if you can ride the outsider/insider rollercoaster and tolerate the probationary period before the big switch. That’s if they do eventually decide to let you in, of course, otherwise you’ll be waiting a long time. Oh, and it’s a two-way street; once accepted and bestowed with family-like hospitality, food, gifts, entertainment and consideration – you’ll be expected to reciprocate. So, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for; you may end up going from one extreme to another. I think it’s safe to say that Russians are not a superficial people, whereas we cast out smiling platitudes in abundance; with all the surface sincerity of a pre-recorded answerphone message.
Speaking of superficiality; when someone states that “Russians are unfriendly”, – it immediately raises a red flag for me; that this person has only had the slightest exposure to Russian culture. That’s fair enough, of course (I’m still learning); but too early to make a judgement about a nation as a whole. You’ll find bad ones, -we have them too- but a little more perspective helps. There are the issues of formality and a wariness of strangers (historically with good reason) that the Russian mindset has to contend with. As Julia Ioffe wrote in her New Republic article, back in 2012:-
“I won’t miss the fact that there is no trust in the Russian system: not in institutions, not in people. I will miss the strength of the bonds it breeds when you find that trust.”
In keeping with the above, you will also find that there’s no superficial gloss when it comes to speaking their minds generally (sometimes identified by us as “impoliteness”), in the street, socially and even in professional spheres too. So expect to hear some definite straight-talking if you block a bus aisle when people are trying to board, touch/photograph something that you shouldn’t, or make some behavioural faux-pa when visiting a church. Emotions are largely worn on the sleeve, with opinions voiced assertively, even bluntly, irrespective of the setting. Whereas we expect some diplomatic, uniform, corporate-speech presented in android-like tones when we transgress a protocol in the west; over in Russia you can quite literally expect nothing less than a proper telling off whether in a place of work, in the street, a museum; wherever. ‘Best to roll with it and not take it personally.
On a darker note; I believe that they are also more likely to talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk, to coin an Americanism, so if you are the type to provoke/insult others -especially over issues of national/personal pride and respect then -frankly- don’t go to Russia. Whereas here, we are used to loud posturing and hollow insults routinely masquerading as strength: over there you’ll readily find someone to take direct, physical issue with your nonsense. Although I have no interest in football; I’m wary of what may happen in 2018 when the World Cup is held in various Russian cities. I fear that some of our “ambassadors” are likely to experience a kind of reality that they are not expecting. Tragically this may spread beyond the minority if some of the documented threats against English supporters manifest themselves. As I’ve already intimated; I believe that’s likely.
Returning to safer ground; the general “matter-of-factness” is less likely in establishments that are used to dealing with the international tourist trade. Here, staff have obviously been schooled in our ‘funny little ways’, and know how to respond in a manner that’s appropriate to our culture. However, in independent “Produkti” stores, on public transport and in other institutions largely designed for the locals (and better because of it); expect short shrift when you “mess up”. It’s a directness that’s weirdly refreshing though, after temporarily exiting our gutless PC society. Sometimes, we’re just idiots who need a metaphorical kick in the rear to jump-start our common sense. There; I said it.
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