The other day I was speaking to an acquaintance from an unassuming Siberian town; comparing notes on the ever-fascinating divide between our differing cultures -and their respective ‘types’. Some of the stereotypes are true, incidentally, on both sides. Their ice and fire (that we touched upon last time) and our manufactured surface politeness are both commonly found examples of such things.
I described my puzzlement at why a significant number of the locals regarded me strangely, nervously even, during my trip to St. Petersburg. I should have been the one ill at ease, out of my comfort zone and clunking through my pidgin-Russian vocabulary. My acquaintance’s response was a little surprising; that many of the city’s inhabitants would be out-of-towners who were still unfamiliar with foreigners. What? Even now? And in cosmopolitan Petersburg too? One of Russia’s main ports of call (literally) for international visitors. Compare St. P. to London, where no-one bats an eyelid at anyone appearing less than extra-terrestrial. What about my proposed visits to other, more remote locales then? I can only assume that my days under icy and uneasy scrutiny have only just begun.
My acquaintance seemed to confirm this, remarking on the novelty value -in the eyes of the locals- of a visitor such as myself; an interloping western ‘alien’ treading her streets. I’d just better buckle-up and get used to it. She also volunteered the view that some of her contemporaries still regard the west – and westerners – as more “advanced” in some respects and therefore worthy of curiosity, wariness and remark. This is an uncomfortable subject to broach, but fortunately she was quite happy to speak her Russian mind plainly.
Well, you do get to know “where you stand” pretty quickly when dealing with Russians. Thank goodness. They have a saying about us (probably several), did you know? “To leave like an English person”. This means to disappear from a party or gathering without saying ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye’ to the hosts, or anyone else. This jibe neatly highlights the difference between their sincere hospitality and our non-committal superficiality.
It’s still odd to me that the longing gaze to the West exists here and now, and that young Russians (and others) can sometimes be found parading “cool” T-shirts adorned with abstracted slogans in English. These often read like punchlines divorced from their original jokes, as if the creators (and wearers) don’t actually understand the culture they are referencing, and just a shallow token will do. Ultimately though – why bother, anyway? Is the English-speaking west such a great example to follow? When Robert Saviano, journalist, author and expert on the Italian mafia, claims that the UK is the world capital of financial corruption (and doesn’t even mention Russia), then you’d better take note.
In part, the scenario is a remnant of Soviet times, when much of Western culture was outlawed by the state and therefore remained intriguing, forbidden and tantalisingly distant, a sure way to inadvertently add mystery and desirability to any item or subject matter. Our culture is home to movie stars, luxuries, disposable incomes, desirable fashions and the like; often elbowing home-grown equivalents out of the limelight. I think, that’s a mistake, especially for a culture that is so inherently colourful and diverse in its own right.
Another significant factor is that we are all rich, (relatively speaking) even though we may not know it. The pound is currently worth about 77 rubles; roughly double its value at the time of my visit. 3 GBP bought me a decent meal even then. There’s inflation to factor-in of course, but frankly, when in Russia, we have money to burn whilst the locals often just ‘manage’. No wonder our lifestyles look appealing or “advanced” to some.
The paradox is that they are also rich, but ostensibly don’t seem to realise it. This isn’t in terms of cash but culture, family, hospitality, friendships and in other intangibles that are often taken for granted. I’m sure that this assessment comes across as nothing more than limpid, wilfully optimistic platitudes, but having gained an insight into some of the above traits, I would say that there is real worth there that often leaves our society lacking by comparison. That’s once you get over that “outsider” wall of course. Crucially, in terms of the above life-enriching criteria, they -and other former Soviet countries- are often more advanced than ourselves. Sadly, they just don’t seem to realise it. Irrespective of money, you still have to tolerate daily living in your neighbourhood, right?
The hardships and insecurities of the Soviet era have undoubtedly sculpted some of this behaviour. Times could be both difficult and dangerous, so an icy outer wall could be a handy barrier. Once ‘approved’, the mutual acceptance on a familial level would be a great way to improve quality of life and even maximise resources. Hardship unites, wealth divides. Of course, the above scenario is closer to the Soviet Union of western film. For most -who avoided Stalin’s years of Terror– Soviet-era life had nothing to do with knocks on the door at 3am, gulags and the like. Someone who lived through the latter Communist period told me how she and her contemporaries just got on with their lives, wryly noting the forced optimism of the daily announced grain yields and smashed productivity targets. It was a often a case of the letting the government do and say their thing, paying some lip service, and then getting on with your own affairs regardless.
There are caveats and downsides to the socially advanced picture that I am painting of Russian culture. It’s no Eden, but there are serpents. The open Russian intolerance of the LGBT community is renowned. There’s even been official advice issued for Russian travelers abroad who may encounter “non traditional” relationships. As the Independent quotes:-
“In France, Russians are advised not to address representatives of the LGBT community with offensive words or gestures … in Canada… gay marriage has been legalised for a long time and there is a serious fixation on gender equality. Accordingly, visitors are advised not to tell off-colour jokes.”
As are criticisms of the Orthodox church or anything that is deemed a sleight towards Russian cultural values or traditions. Corruption continues to be a major problem on all levels, drunkenness is rife, AIDS is brushed under the carpet, heated street disagreements can readily turn violent and nationalism has spawned aggressive racial intolerance – in some quarters. All of this alongside their remarkable hospitality, character and more. Russia continues to be a fascinating paradox.
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