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Russian National Character

Russians always support winners and side with the strongest. Americans have a completely different attitude.

Russian classical literature, from Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky is full of references, sometimes sardonic, sometimes extraordinary, but never banal, about the Russian soul. Russians have a certain belief in the "Russian soul,' and that this is a set of beliefs that are shared among people. It is an outcome of the history, literature, traditions and some of the experiences they have, and some of the ways they live their daily lives, mixed in with some of the mysteries that surround Russian traditions. Russians do think that this exists, kind of like a faith in certain beliefs, and this ‘Russian soul' that they have is seen by them as setting them apart from people in other countries, from people in western Europe and the United States.

This comes up in daily life, in conversations that Russians have. Russians believe in spending a lot of time with each other, they believe in forming groups, collectives, and when they are together, they share the Russian experience from all angles. They share both the difficulties and joys of life in Russia because this is a country that has gone through hardship, but which has emerged from it. They are very decisive and very impulsive.

There is a revival going on of Russian culture, of things that people believed in before the revolution, which is the music, the art, the pull that everybody living in Russia experiences, to get out of the cities and into the countryside, to try and feel an authentic Russian agrarian past. There was a resurgence in 1992 of the Russian Orthodox Church, of music, dance, both traditional and adapted, and also a celebration of the fact this is Russia, not a part of a Soviet whole.

Businesses in Russia are often run by individuals and are often highly centralized, as far as the decision-making processes are concerned. When Russians sit down and cement that relationship, during work, after work, they do it in a way that brings up the whole topic of the ‘Russian Soul'. And this is cemented quite often; people will sit down with a few shots of vodka and look each other in the eye and make sure that they are on the same page and that they are brothers in arms.

A special working group, headed by Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov, was created by a presidential order to develop “principles of state policy in the field of culture." Presidential Adviser on Culture Vladimir Tolstoy was appointed as executive secretary of the working group. The draft document is based on numerous speeches by Putin over the previous two years, according to Tolstoy. Discussion of the document began in April 2014, after it was submitted to parliament before being passed on to the general examination. According to Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, the main thesis of the draft document states that “Russia is neither Europe nor Asia,” and characterizes the country as “an ancient, independent, original civilization”.

Mikhail Antonov wrote "The character of a people is a strong factor to define the fate of a country and the nation's government. A national character, which can partially change during the course of time, basically remains unchangeable within the people’s historic life. When authority understands the people, it is the main chance for the country and the authority itself to survive.... Russians are never effective under European democratic conditions, as they require a severe tone. It is not strange that an ideal leader in Russia is usually characterized as a tough but fair tsar. Like anyone with an imperial consciousness, Russians understand their predestination; however, Russia’s destination drastically differs from that of Europe."

"When Russia gains strength, when they [the West] realize that they have overlooked important things, then we witness all those movements of the body… The West sticks to its own logic. True, Russia is part of Europe, but we are Eastern Europe, which inherited Byzantine traditions rooted in Orthodoxy and universalism. That’s the main difference between us and the West. The ‘iron curtains’ installed by the West will make Russia focus more on its own interests," said Sergei Panteleyev, Director of the Institute of the Russian Diaspora.

Woody Allen's 1975 film Love and Death was a parody of Russia’s brooding national character, deeply distrustful of happiness andeager to indulge every distressing thought and melancholy emotion. Russians tend to be more communal, more focused on interpersonal harmony, and able to see their own personal needs in larger context, from an outsider perspective. Critics long blamed the pre-Revolution sterotypical fatalism, improvidence, dishonesty, sexual immorality, lying, and drunkenness of the Russian people on the blighting influence of a Government of absolutism, arbitrariness, and excessive paternalism. Russian historians, recognizing the low standards of the Government and the nation, were at a loss to determine whether the nation had a Government that it deserved, or whether the latter is to be considered the cause of the former.

Russian Xenophobia

Projection onto “the other” is a hallmark of paranoia. Psychologists use the term `xenophobia' to describe those who have a fear of strangers, or a fear of anything foreign. Over the long and troubled history of Russia, and then the Soviet Union, one of the driving forces in that culture was xenophobia -- terrible fear under the czars of any kind of Western influence somehow creeping into Russia; terrible fear under the commissars, or Communist dictators from Lenin and Stalin all the way down through Khrushchev and Brezhnev of anything that they considered to be foreign. It was one of the major problems of the Soviet Union and one of the major difficulties that they had in becoming an accepted part of the world family of nations. In the spirit of glasnost -- or openness -- Gorbachev led the Soviet Union into an atmosphere of much less xenophobia. But later there was a clear return to the days of xenophobia -- fear of anything from outside.

Xenophobia basically means hatred. It means hatred for what’s foreign. It means hatred for what’s strange or alien or different. It means hatred that’s so powerfully felt that it sometimes turns to violence. Over the past several years there has been an increase in the number of hate crimes and violent attacks against immigrants and foreign students in Russia. The blame for these acts generally falls on local "skinhead" and extremist groups. The passivity of the Russian public makes it possible in many of Russia's regions for "close ties between the police and skinheads to continue.

The Eussians suffered more than any other European nation from the geographic factor, so far removed from the foci of civilization that Greek and Roman culture and the activities of the Medieval West had but faintly and at a very belated time penetrated the country, never affecting the masses deeply and leaving them to their elemental forces. Here paganism and barbarism survived until recent centuries, strangely mingling with the highest achievements of the human mind. Meekness and brutality, communism and the most advanced individualism, the strongest state and the weakest political consciousness, absence of race hatred and the most cruel "pogroms," the deepest religious nature and the most abject superstition, an all-pervading democracy and the most absolute monarchy, all these and more contradictions were the result of a unique jostling of mythical antiquity and stark reality, an eternal and inextricable enigma to the Western observer.

Russian Depression

There are over a dozen reasons for why being depressed is a distinct possibility for a Russian: terrible roads; uneven standards of healthcare and education across the country; social isolation up north, coupled with cancer risks in industrial cities; provinces living without hope of development due to rampant corruption; a climate that is both uneven and unpredictable, with people often staying indoors when cold; early nights and huge open spaces. Depression can run high near the Arctic Circle. Sweden, Norway, or Finland have among the highest rates of depression in Europe, despite the high standard of living. Russia is attempting to fix a massive inequality gap left in the wake of the breakup of the USSR, when more than half of the country’s reported GDP was focused in the hands of underground crime lords who bought off our industries amid the shock reforms of the early 1990s. With communism behind us, what economists call “gangster capitalism” had come to replace it. In order to get through a tough time, the Russians had to become tough, morose. The culture of machismo never went away. As with many countries in the former Soviet bloc, that denial of pain forms part of the cultural core. The hopelessness is palpable. But it is a happy, resigned - comic - hopelessness. It then mixes with a lack of faith in prospects for improvement.

Russian Dishonesty

Much was made of Eussian dishonesty in commercial, political, and social life. Already the Hanseatic League found it hard to deal with the cheating Eussians, and 19th century newspapers were full of accounts of common transgressions, such as would not be thinkable in Germany, England, or the United States. But commerical honesty is the sine qua non of nations with a strongly developed industrial system, and grows with international relations.

The student of medieval economics knows only too well that the Hanseatie cities and industrial centers in the Lowlands were given to far more objectionable practises than what they described in the Eastern staples. They had constantly to legislate against the use of inferior materials in the manufacture of cloth, and false labels and imitations were an art of which the simple-minded Eussians were totally ignorant. But it is significant that the Eussian word for "fool" is derived from an inferior woolen cloth which was foisted upon them by those very Lowlanders who accused them of false weights and impure wool. The long recital of illegal transactions, winked at by public opinion in Russia, were a tame affair as compared with the gigantic swindles of the Western commercial world.

The Westerner had too much training, and too much respect for the law, to show dishonesty in little matters, and where it did not pay handsomely in returns. He consulted the law before committing the crime, and he generally managed to keep "within the law." The Russian who is obsessed by similar criminal tendencies went about his business in a coarse and vulgar way. He did not cover his tracks long, and he was stupid enough to cheat in small and insignificant matters. If foreigners got worsted by such Eussians, they must not forget that "caveat emptor" was not discovered by a Eussian legislator.

Russians are thieves. Viatcheslav Yatsko argues that "This national trait originates from customs and traditions of Russian peasant commune.... In the commune all property was common, private property didn"t exist. The Soviet power abolished private property and brought up deep disrespect for it. Currently to steal everything that is not taken good care of is a kind national sport." The most prevalent crime reported to the RSO in St. Petersburg continues to be theft, primarily in the form of petty street crimes such as pick-pocketing. Street criminals are known to operate in areas and establishments frequented by tourists and business travelers. Most of the reported incidents occur in high pedestrian traffic areas such as the train stations, public transportation, markets, underground crosswalks, shopping malls, crowded restaurants, and popular tourist areas.

Russian Alcohol

Russians are coping as they have historically – dulling their senses with alcohol. Zhuo Na observed that Russians "... drink in order to be drunk. Therefore, it is needless for you to try to persuade a Russian to drink when you treat him because he thinks it is good to drink and he enjoy himself in it. However, after he finishes wine he will become very sad and talk about the sorrowful story of his own. Sometimes he will burst into tears. In the drink, the greathearted and fragile character has been fully displayed."

Before the perestroika times, drunkenness was the background of existence. It did not surprise anyone and was not considered anything criminal. No, of course, not everyone drank - and not so fatally. But the pre-lunch "shot" was considered the norm and did not seem to anyone reprehensible. But in this case there were certain rules that were considered to be a bad form to break. A hangover was not a reason for being late. While life expectancy for men has improved slightly to 64 years, up from 59 years after the collapse of communism, that still puts Russia 166 in the world, one rung above Gambia. The World Health Care organization ranks Russian health care at 130, a precipitous slide from the low 20s in the 1970s. Alcohol kills one out of five men who die in Russia each year; Russian males consume a staggering 35 liters – almost 10 gallons – of pure alcohol a year.

Dillon summarized the inherent contradictions as follows: "By nature the Eussians are richly endowed: a keen, subtle understanding; remarkable quickness of apprehension; a sweet, forgiving temper; an inexhaustible flow of animal spirits; a rude, persuasive eloquence, to which may be added an imitative faculty positively simian in range and intensity, constitute no mean outfit even for a people with the highest destinies in store. But these gifts, destined to bring forth abundant fruit under favorable circumstances, are turned into curses by political, social, and religious conditions which make their free exercise and development impossible, and render their possessors as impersonal as the Egyptians that raised Cheops, or the coral-reef builders of the Pacific. In result we have a good-natured, lying, thieving, patient, shiftless, ignorant mass whom one is at times tempted to connect in the same isocultural line with the Weddas of India, or the Bangala of Upper Congo, and who differ from the West European nations much as Sir Thomas Browne's vegetating 'creatures of mere existence' differ from 'things of life.'"

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Page last modified: 17-11-2019 19:08:27 ZULU