A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette
Writing guides is difficult. Writing guides about Russia is next to impossible. An unenviable but noble task of any guide to any country is to thoroughly acquaint the reader with its history, culture, way of life, traditions, customs, sights as well as to give useful information about various aspects of life. A guide must be true and specific. It must encourage a traveller to start for the unknown. It must serve like a compass in a strange world. All this is extremely difficult in the case of Russia. Life here is changing so rapidly and drastically that any guide will become outdated before it is published. Finding one’s bearings with its help is like using a compass in a region of iron deposit.
Only one thing in Russia is changing slowly and reluctantly – it is the Russian people. It is about them, their character, mentality, habits, likes and dislikes, their manner of behaviour and communication that it is worth writing nowadays.
The main principle that any foreign traveller setting out for Russia must bear in mind is that it is the Russian people that make Russia. In his days Joseph Stalin, “the father of peoples” as he was called in the country, introduced a motto still widely spread and used in Russia: “Everything depends on the personnel”. Any leader in Russia knows how true it is. Not infrequently some hopeless projects work thanks to the enthusiasm of the personnel, while very promising ones fail because of wrong partners. Find the right person or a group of people and your problem is settled. It will work by itself.
Times change, black becomes white and vice versa, ‘those who were nobodies, have become somebodies’ as the revolutionary hymn had it, and state and ideological values have been replaced with their exact opposites. In the space of one century, Russia has on three occasions made fundamental changes not only to the state system, but to life as a whole. But whichever system they were living under, an autocratic system, developed socialism or undeveloped capitalism, the people have remained the same, amazingly saving their traditions, ideas and relations to the surrounding world. Furthermore, slowly but surely they are refashioning the latest new world in their own way, and in such a way that it is starting to look very much like the old world.
As it is impossible to foresee all the difficulties, especially while social life is changing so rapidly, one ought to rely on personal contacts and communication on which the whole country depends. While in Western cultures a whole lot of services are at one’s disposal, in Russia all of these may be quite successfully provided by just one person: an acquaintance, your business partner’s wife, a concierge in your block of flats, a woman on duty in your hotel, or an old woman who lives next door. This kind of person, if they like you, will share anything with you: from their richest experience to some cash to borrow. Feminists will be glad to know that under the circumstances it is women who are most useful, efficient and reliable, particularly in all kinds of down-to-earth problems. Like heroines of Russian folk tales, they save the hero from most dangerous situations with the help of a magic mirror or a clue.
Don’t be afraid of coming to Russia. Many foreigners who have visited, come back to Russia again and again, finding in this world something which is lacking in their own. Russia is a country of enormous scale and a successful business here often opens up more possibilities than in other countries. Not surprisingly, the head of Coca-Cola in Moscow, when asked by a journalist whether he wanted to go home, answered that he did not want to as it is much more interesting in Russia than in other countries and each day he had to take up new challenges. Russia is a country with a startling culture full of works of art and historical monuments. Any contact with them will remain in your memory for a long time. And, if you are lucky, you may eventually get to know and make friends with Russian people, and experience their legendary hospitality and heartfelt openness. And even if none of the above meets with success, there is always Russian nature, glorified in Russia’s famous classical literature, which has still retained its God-given freshness (‘thanks’ not least to the decline in agriculture).
Before setting off on this journey through the enigmatic Russian soul there is one other word of advice. It is well known that your own state of mind is extremely important when travelling. If you arrive stressed, filled with doubts, expecting unpleasant moments and dirty tricks at every step, then something will surely happen to you. If your soul is clear of all obvious aversions to the surrounding world, then everything will probably be fine and not even bad weather, everyday annoyances or foreign traditions will spoil your mood.
Writing a book that includes everything about contact with Russians would be extremely difficult. Russia, like any other country, has many different facets. Americans like the scale of things Russian and the Russian soul, but are often irritated by the lack of service. The English are drawn to Russian culture, but the inability to stand in a queue makes them indignant. The Germans like Russian hospitality, but do not welcome dirty streets and public places. Italians like Russian friendship, but are sickened by the over familiarity. The Chinese like the Russian countryside, but cannot understand why things are done so slowly. In a word, everybody has their own “Russia”. But an attempt to generalise and write some sort of overview of the main characteristics of Russian life is still possible.
This work is unique because of the information that it brings together. Its author is Russian, a historian and specialist in inter-cultural studies. At the same time, a wide range of material, – from surveys to diaries and memoirs, from foreign (non-Russian) sources, – has also been included. This has made it possible to do something which is very unusual: to join together the views of both the internal (Russian) and external (foreign) worlds.
THE MYSTERIOUS RUSSIAN SOUL
Life in Russia has never been plain sailing. The weather conditions, geographic location, and unique way in which politics have developed have created difficulties throughout Russian history. Freezing temperatures or droughts have, from time to time, destroyed harvests, resulting in inevitable famine. Or the land has been raped and people killed by the Mongols from the East or Germans from the West. Then there are the revolutionary waves within the country which lead to collapse and ruin. In ‘Chapaev’, one of the popular old Russian films about the civil war, a sad peasant remarks, “The Whites came, and they stole. The Reds came and they also stole. What is a peasant to do? ” Life is difficult in any case.
It was even harder for those observing from the outside to make sense of this far-from-simple life. Russia has never fitted well into the boxes which foreigners know and love. It appeared that the country was just a mass of contradictions: barbarians and high culture, obedient subjugation to a strong government and revolutionary movements, poverty and the aversion of the people to wealth and the luxury of the courts and temples. The only way to explain all of this was to resort to that ‘mysterious or enigmatic Russian soul’. The fact that it was impossible to solve this puzzle irritated some and enthralled others, but whatever the reaction, there were few who remained unmoved by Russia.
The veil of secrecy which has surrounded Russia since ancient times, has not made it any easier to understand the country. Winston Churchill called Russia “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. This quotation quickly became famous, as it neatly summed up the general relation of the world to Russia.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, people flooded both out of and into Russia. Many people’s first reaction was surprise. It turns out that the Russians are not so different from the rest of the world: they have two arms, two legs and a head, they love their children, respect their elders, have long faces when they are sad and laugh when they are happy. The second reaction was doubt. Are they really so similar after all? It turns out that ideas which are well known in the West (democracy, market economy, even freedom) take a completely different form in Russia. And people are sometimes sad or happy for reasons it is impossible for outsiders to comprehend. This acquaintance with the new Russia ended up by reaffirming the traditional view of the mysterious Russian soul that is so hard to understand.
However, and at the risk of disappointing people, there is no particular enigma to Russia. There is just a country and its people which have developed along its own historical path, in its own geographical and climatic conditions, in line with its own social and political traditions. We just need to move away from familiar labels and stereotypes and understand, in a more abstract way, what is behind any particular phenomenon. It turns out that Russians are neither good nor bad, just that in some ways they are ‘different’ and in some ways like everybody else. But any attempt to understand another people is to already accept it, with all its quirks, habits and foibles. Furthermore, travelling in Russia is not only easier than expected, but sometimes even pleasant.
Thus, Russia has always been a mystery for foreigners. And the mysterious always attracts and frightens at the same time. At different historical periods Westerners “discovered” Russia again and again each time revealing some “new” aspects. In the 19th century and even nowadays a Westerner going to Russia is looked upon as half-mad and half-heroic. Even now, at a time of mass media, many foreigners are surprised to realize that Russians experience the same joys and sorrows as the rest of the world.
Historically, there have been two directly conflicting views about Russia in the world. The first is distrust, verging on hostility. Many generations have been brought up to fear the threat of Russian (Soviet) aggression, accustomed since childhood to the terror of this invisible enemy. Now that this threat has been reduced to almost nothing, Russia has become a sort of consolation prize for the West, a place where everything is worse. If, one day, you are feeling down in your own country, you are dissatisfied with your government’s actions or the way the economy is developing, just think about Russia. You are sure to feel better.
But there is another point of view. Some people are enraptured by Russian life, Russian culture, the special spirituality and the relations between people. Some of them, dissatisfied with their own life which is more and more dominated by machines and technology, feel they are living in a world where sincere feelings and emotions are suppressed for the sake of business and profit. They might be fed up with the abundance of individualism in all spheres of human communication, and so turn to Russians now with admiration, then with derision. Russian people, in their opinion preserved the sincerity of feelings and behaviour. Here is how an American woman poet Edna Dean Proctor describes the Russian national character (1866): “The Russian nature, with favourable conditions, is like the forest and steppe in summer, full of peace and grace and charm... But it has also the strength and terror of the steppe and forest; and under the winter of injustice and tyranny and cruelty, its impulses, its energies, its affections, become pitiless blasts and devouring wolves.”
However strange it may seem, both love and hate towards Russia lead to the same result. Firstly, they both give birth to curiosity. Secondly, to a lack of objectivity. Both those who seek in Russia the personification of evil and those who dream about its special spirituality are blinded to the real Russia, the way it actually is, with all its virtues and all its drawbacks.
One of the most widespread reactions around the world, when people learn that you have come from Russia, is to exclaim “Oh, that’s so far away!” Little old ladies in provincial England (and England is the European country furthest from Russia) are surprised to learn that the flight is only about three hours and that some people even manage to drive to England (only 2,300 kilometres separate the Russian border from the English border).
America is both further away and harder to get to, but nobody would have that sort of reaction, were they to see an American in Europe. We are talking about a divide that is more profound than kilometres and the difficulties of geography, a curtain that is more impenetrable than the Iron Curtain. This is cultural incomprehension. Those strange Russians cannot possibly be so close, they are somewhere a long way away over there, in the lands of permanent snow called Siberia.
However, it is not all that bad. Many of those who actually make it to Russia begin not only to love the country, but also to understand it. As with any culture and any people, Russia has its charm, its attraction. This strange, mad, crazy, ever-changing Slavic world opens itself willingly to those who come here without arrogance and prejudice. Russians love it when they are loved and will respond with the most genuine and all-consuming feelings (as is characteristic of that passionate Russian nature so celebrated in classic literature and depicted in cinema).
RUSSIAN FAIRY TALES AS A FOUNT OF KNOWLEDGE ABOUT THE COUNTRY
Fairy tales can tell you an enormous amount about a people and their character traits. In particular, this is typical for Russian fairy tales. Fairy tales are the starting point for the formation of a view of the world, of good and evil, and about moral values. And they have always been popular in Russia. Even during rationalist and materialistic periods of the Soviet Union, folk tales had huge print runs and the country’s best directors brought them wonderfully to life on the screen, as well as creating ballets, operas and other performances based on them. Fairy tales in Russia are like a linking thread through the eras, passing on certain national values from generation to generation.
Another important feature of fairy tales is their universality. They were loved and are loved by all sections of society. Serfs, who formed the overwhelming majority of the population, recounted fairy tales through the long winter nights. Aristocrats heard them retold by their peasant nannies. The intellectual and artistic elite used folk elements in their works. And today, both in the poorest families and in the homes of the new Russian oligarchs, the same fairy tales are told. They are a special social unifier in Russia, teaching general ideals.
The same can be said for all generations. Fairy tales have always been loved not only by children but also by adults.
The national characteristics of fairy tales are particularly obvious in two instances: in the way that they are interpreted by people of other cultures and when they are compared to fairy tales belonging to other peoples. One of the favourite fairy tales in Russia is ‘Morozko’. The subject is simple: a poor stepdaughter grows up in the home of her weak father and evil stepmother who has her own stupid and greedy daughter. The stepdaughter is very unfortunate. She tries to please everybody but, nevertheless, gets in the way and, what is worse, irritates everybody with her mild nature. When the stepmother’s patience runs out she decides to get rid of the tedious girl and sends her out into the forest, in the cruel frost.
There, the girl sits under a tree and is preparing to die quietly when she is discovered by Grandfather Frost (Morozko) who is wandering through the forest. He asks her “Are you warm, little girl? Are you warm, beautiful girl?” She answers him, barely audible “I am warm, father, I am warm, Morozushko.” He increases the frost and again asks, and she, weaker than before, answers in the same way. As a result, Grandfather Frost takes pity on her and rewards her with presents. The stepmother sees all this and soon leads her own daughter to the woods. Grandfather Frost comes by and asks his question “Are you warm, little girl? Are you warm, beautiful girl?”. And in reply he hears “Oh, very cold, I have no strength left, and I shall freeze.” Grandfather Frost got angry and froze stepmother’s daughter to death. And that’s the simple story.
The reaction of American students to that story is very interesting. They just could not understand what the point of it was. The first girl tells a lie, deceives the old man and is rewarded. The second is truthful and open: she is cold and says so. And she is punished. And if that is not the mysterious Russian soul, what is?
Every Russian person understands that the heroine is modest, quiet and gentle, in other words, embodies the favourite national qualities. She does not want to burden the old man with her problems, and accepts her fate as it is, without grumbling and complaining. Her truth is in her patience and humility. While the stepmother’s daughter is egotistical, thinks only about how cold she is, makes a lot of noise and shouts and does not deserve to be indulged.
This Russian fairy tale has a German equivalent: Frau Holle. The story is very similar, but the values are different. In the German version, the good girl works well and is neat and clean, she tidies well in Frau Holle’s house and is excellent at fluffing up her feather bed. While the bad girl is lazy and dirty and cannot, and does not want to, do anything, for which she is punished.
Ivan the Fool is a frequent hero in Russian folk tales. He looks unremarkable, and does what are at first glance stupid and unnecessary things. He is without any desire for wealth or fame, but at the end of the tale, he receives as a reward a beautiful princess and sometimes even in addition half a kingdom. At the same time, his older brothers, who are clever and practical, get into stupid situations. Ivan the Fool’s strength (and this shows the special folk ideal) is his simplicity, his candour, and his lack of a mercantile and pragmatic nature. He gives his last crust of bread to a hungry little hare, an action that is pointless from the point of view of common sense, and then, in a difficult moment, it is the hare who brings him an egg, which is deadly for evil Kashey. That is how charity is rewarded. Nobody takes Ivan the Fool seriously, and that is his strength. He is naive, compassionate, impractical and of few words, so ‘clever people’ think he is an idiot, while for the people he is a hero.
The heroines of Russian fairy tales are wise, hardworking, loyal and modest. Sometimes they are beautiful, but often this is not mentioned, since this is not of great importance. The heroines of European (French, for example) fairy tales are often beautiful. Because of their beauty they are forgiven anything: cruelty, stupidity, emptiness or betrayal of the hero. The clever women in such tales, as a rule, personify evil and their main desire is to deprive the heroine of her main asset, her beauty.
In contrast, Russian heroines are wise. They often save the hero, by getting him out of the most difficult of situations. They give him advice and do his work for him, and not infrequently they are able to work miracles.
The hero may do stupid things (burning the frog’s skin which he was asked not to do) or turn betrayer (as with Finist, the bright falcon), forgetting about his love and devoting himself to another. But the heroine forgives him and remains true to the end. At the same time, she does not get in the way trying to do things and remains in the shadows. For her, love and marriage are always fate, which cannot be changed. A beautiful bird flies to a meadow, lets fall a feather and turns into a beautiful girl. The hero creeps up and steals her feather. She does not see him, but asks him to show himself and says, as a spell “If you are an old man, be my father. If you are a young girl, be my sister. If you are a young man, you will be my husband.” And she keeps her word, because there is no escaping destiny.
The international subjects of folk tales give wonderful examples of the ideas prevalent in society. The subject of the ancient Roman legend of Eros and Psyche has echoes in many Russian fairy tales. The tale called ‘Alenky Tsvetochek’ (The Scarlet Flower) is particularly close. Without question, both works have the same main basis and are undoubtedly similar despite the time and space gap between them. What is interesting is the difference, the interpretation of the subjects which reflect the national characteristics of the two peoples.
In the first case, the main problem for Psyche is her beauty and trustfulness, her enemies the goddess Venus and her envious sisters. At the gods’ wishes, she is sent to a mysterious palace, where an invisible soul lives who instantly starts up an intimate relation with her. When set upon by her sisters, she lights up his face while he is asleep, he turns out to be the most beautiful young man on the earth: Eros. Rescue comes from the God of gods, Zeus, whom Eros, who has fallen in love, manages to convince. Here the basis of love is beauty and rescue is in the hands of the gods.
In the Russian version, the heroine gets herself into trouble by dreaming about the secret Scarlet Flower. She also finds herself in a beautiful palace whose master (it is hard to imagine that they, like Psyche and Eros would have ended up in one bed on the first night) is invisible to her. He talks to her, tells her interesting stories, preys on her pity, and tries to win over the girl’s feelings by intelligence and decency.
Only the sisters seem to be international: they are envious and evil. In the light of day, the hero turns out to be a real monster, and it is he whom the heroine loves with a tender heart. The basis of love here is fate, that they are destined to be married, the eternal principle of the Russian woman “he may be not that good, but he is mine”, and the hero is rescued by her devotion and steadfastness.
BEARS ON THE STREETS
Fur hats & coats, caviar, samovars and enormous shawls have all been considered to be an integral part of Russian life for centuries. To the joy of visitors, some of them still really exist. You only have to travel a few kilometres outside Moscow to be convinced that duck-down shawls are still widely used and that there are many families in which tea is always given to the man in a tea holder. Some of the attributes of Russian life have disappeared naturally but are being cultivated in the country either for commercial reasons (since foreigners are willing to pay good money for them) or as an observance of traditions and ceremonies. Nowadays, the folk festivals (and not those for foreigners, but for natives!) will always include a troika sleigh, a samovar with barankas (round cracknel) and sometimes even a bear on a chain.
First impressions, which are as a rule based on stereotypes already existing in the traveller’s mind, are far from always being false and, indeed, they often contain much that is justified. The first impression, which is very sharp and real, sometimes gives a better picture of the surrounding world. The only thing that is important is the mindset with which you judge other people and their world. It is important to remember that each nation has been formed through specific historical and cultural conditions, which determine its behaviour and actions.
For example, a Russian returns from America or Great Britain and says, “Everything is great, but they are so stingy. They invited me round for a coffee and gave me a cup of coffee and a biscuit, nothing more. And at the party there was only beer with crisps and nuts.” British students, living in Russian families, are often irritated by the persistent looking after them. There are constant attempts to feed them and on top of that, they are offended when you politely turn them down. “Well, why should I eat patties and potatoes in the morning if I prefer cereal and tea? Why do I have to justify myself all the time?” Foreign students may also be forbidden from returning home late. According to Russian tradition, children live with their parents until they get married and are subject to constant surveillance.
Of course, much of what people expect from Russia turns out to be a lie. Bears do not wander the streets and many Russians can live without a hard frost. But Russian hospitality, fur hats with earflaps, excessive confiding and openness with half-strangers live up to expectations.