Last week, I announced a new series on the importance of acting, live theatre, and the FUTURE of the American theatre. Someday I may actually write those essays, soaked through (as they no doubt will be) with enough self-importance to choke a moose, but that day is not today.
Let’s talk about Russia.
Russia has, thanks to our recent election and the subsequently ratcheting levels of international tension, itself been the subject of much spilled digital “ink” of late. Now, I will not claim to know much about these international tensions, per say. I am not an expert with up-to-date, insider info on the hopes, dreams, aspirations, and potentially evil schemes of various leaders of State. But I did begin visiting Russia in 1992 at the age of 4. No, I was not a globe-trotting, independently-operating C.I.A. spy as a TODDLER (although – ding, ding! – MOVIE PITCH). I was simply tagging along with my parents on cultural exchange programs held after the fall of the Soviet Union. These summer trips continued until the year 2000, when in a fit of religious fervor, my father relocated us permanently to Russia, where I continued to live until 2007 when I left for college. So, I CAN make the humble claim to understand SOMETHING about Russia as a country, and something about the way Russians see the world.
Allow me to lay a few facts before you. If this topic is of interest, let me know with a comment below, and I may continue down this path with a part two.
Let’s begin with a simple difference between Americans and Russians.
RUSSIANS FROWN FIRST AND SMILE LATER.
This may sound minor, but if you think about it for even a short stretch of time, it will begin to hint at how differently our two cultures see the world. As Americans, we are raised to always present a friendly, smiling mask to the world. We are told that this is polite. Later, after we know someone, it becomes culturally appropriate to act grumpy if we are really having a bad day. Russians are raised to think the exact OPPOSITE. There is no cultural pressure there to pretend to happy. Everyone walks around Russia, therefore, looking grim and glum and as grumpy as can be. Later on, when you know someone in Russia, when you trust that they are a friend, THEN you can act happy if you want. Consequently, when Americans arrive in Russia, grinning and acting friendly to try to be polite, Russians think they look insane at worst and silly at best. This is simply the result of having completely opposing expectations in our two different cultures.
RUSSIANS ARE ALL OR NOTHING.
Russians are indescribably passionate people…. once you crack into that gruff, grumpy exterior that they present to strangers. As such, they either care more deeply about a thing than you ever imagined was possible, or they could not possibly care less.
One funny example of this is the fact that in Russia there is no such thing as high school sports. At Hinkson, the private, English-language academy I attended in Moscow, they did their best to mimic the experience of high school sports for our mostly international student body, arranging for soccer and basketball games with neighboring Russian schools. What this meant, particularly in the case of basketball, was basically that we would either be playing the equivalent of that school’s gym class, a group of rowdy young Russians just looking to goof off and show up the international students, or we would be playing the Young Olympian School, a group of towering future stars. That is the essence of Russian effort. They either don’t give a fig, or they are hell-bent on being the best in the world. There is no middle ground.
Another funny example of this all-or-nothing viewpoint is the fact that Russians find our American obsession with being thrifty and bargain-hunting hilarious. This is a thoroughly foreign concept to them. Americans, even rich Americans, will always brag about finding a deal. If I find a leather coat that is normally $275 and I get it for $99, then I, as an American, will brag about that, even if I have a cool 25 million in the bank. Russians believe in CONSPICIOUS consumption. If they can afford it, they will buy the most expensive thing in the store and parade it around. They want it all, or they will settle for nothing.
Let’s wrap up with one more difference for now.
RUSSIANS ARE LITERALLY STUCK (CULTURALLY) IN THE AMERICAN 50s
Until the 1990s, the U.S.S.R. was entirely cut off from the rest of the world by the so-called “Iron Curtain,” a term which I believe was first coined by Winston Churchill. The metaphorical construction of this wall began shortly after the end of WWII and reached its full flowering by the mid-1950s. THEREFORE, in a way that is hard for us in America to comprehend, Russia is in many ways STILL IN THE 50s, culturally speaking.
Picture an early episode of Mad Men, if you have ever seen that excellent AMC television series. THAT IS RUSSIA. Modern feminism has yet the arrive there. Men are real “men”; women are real “women”. The men all buy into a notion of tough, rugged manhood, drinking hard, never showing pain. The women are all out to get married, all dressing to impress, all accepting the inherent misogyny of the system with alarming alacrity. Most people still smoke, as though cancer did not exist. And, on an even sadder note, racism is scarily prevalent, to an extent that makes our racial woes in the States seem tame, and there is precious little regard given for the rights of the LGBTQ community.
I certainly cannot defend this strange backwards streak in Russian society, and I will make not attempt at the feat. I would simply point out the strange, time-capsule nature of their world. They are a society that was frozen on ice by a repressive regime while a lot of positive change happened elsewhere in the world. This does not make their views acceptable, but I hope it gives you a little insight into how their views came about. After all, it was not so long ago that the majority of Americans held the same views. There, but for the grace of God, go we.
I am tempted to write an essay next week explaining the popularity of Putin. Placed into the context of his culture, country, and time, he makes more sense than you’d expect. Please let me know in the comments below if this is of interest. If not, I will return next with a decidedly different offering. I will make no effort to predict what this will be. I tire of writing myself into corners. Have a pleasant Friday, and enjoy your weekend.