Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,
No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:
She stands alone, unique –
In Russia, one can only believe.
THE MOST COMMON QUESTION I am asked here, in the capital of the Komi Republic, 26 hours northeast by train from Moscow, is, “Why Russia?”
Russians ask me this question with all the sincerity in the world. Why would an American choose to work and make a home in this country?
Russians know that Russia is the birthplace of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; famous for winter temperatures in the double-digit negatives; home of the periodic table and the first man in space; a stage both for revolutions and premier ballet. They know that Russia is the country with the longest borders, the most time zones, the most significant production of oil, the widest swaths of virgin forest, and the world’s deepest freshwater lake.
And yet they don’t understand why foreigners would be interested in living in their country.
Part of this insecurity stems from Russia’s longstanding history with falling in line — several years behind — with European modernizations, beginning with Tsar Peter the Great’s decree that men in his court should cut their beards to resemble their European counterparts and continuing on to Russia’s modern education reforms to mirror the old Soviet system to that of the country’s Western neighbors.
Historically, Russian aristocracy preferred speaking French to their native tongue, and even essential contemporary vocabulary words, including revolutsia, protest, oppositsia, and demonstratsia are all borrowed from non-Slavic languages.
From the historical mandates of Russian tsars to the growing embrace of western entertainment, vocabulary, education, and governmental procedure, these changes have served to inform Russians both outright and subtly that their culture is not enough; they must embrace the superiority of other nations.
The most drastic example of a loss of Russian face and a perceived bowing to other nations was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead of following Western ideologies, Russia (under the moniker of the Soviet Union) developed its own system and recruited and forced neighboring countries to join its experiment.
It was in this way that Russia became a world superpower and stood its ground against the United States during the Cold War. During this time the USSR showed the world smiling, ruddy faced workers on communal farms; scientific advances, especially in nuclear warfare and space travel; Olympic champions; and chess masters, all of which were promoted as beacons of Socialist success.
What the USSR tried its best to hide from the world were the lines of people waiting for food staples to arrive, the persecution of political and intellectual prisoners, the ethnic cleansing of southern Soviet republics, the number of citizens requesting permission to immigrate, and the general frail infrastructure of the union.
When the Soviet Union dissolved, and after several chaotic and hungry transitional years, the country slowly began developing a market economy to match the growing economies of western countries like Germany, England, and America. The Communist experiment had failed.
Russia’s downgrade from a world superpower destabilized Russians’ confidence in their identity and international worthiness. Old and young people alike still praise the Soviet Union to me, remembering (or, in the youths’ case, echoing the words of their parents and grandparents) how everyone was entitled to employment, everyone was entitled to education, everyone was entitled to eat.
My Russian college-age roommate told me that in the USSR, no one was ever hungry. When I brought up the Ukrainian Famine (known in Russian as голодомор, or man-made famine) that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33, she had never heard of it, but told me that story was mostly likely western propaganda to make Americans dislike the Soviets.
When I asked my class of freshmen — majoring in international relations — who was the strongest leader in Russian history, the responses varied, but about a third of the students named Stalin. This support corresponds to a national average. In a 2006 poll conducted by Foreign Affairs, more than one quarter of Russian adults said they would vote for Stalin if he were alive and running for president.
When I questioned my students about the purges, the labor camps, and the general fear of Stalin’s secret police, they agreed that it was a rough spot in Soviet history, but I was forgetting that Stalin won World War II. (Russians hold a grudge against the US for the skewed way American history portrays American troops as the victors. Russians refer to the fighting on the eastern front as the Great Patriotic War, and their causalities totaled around 26 million soldiers and citizens.)
Maybe less freedom was worth the prestige and stability, they wonder aloud.
I was ignorant of these issues when I traveled to Russia for the first time as a 14-year-old member of an international missions organization. I spent that summer (and the next four) in Russia playing with children around wooded campgrounds, on flooded soccer fields, and under brilliantly lit midnight skies.
The Russian kids teased me for my total lack of knowledge about their language. They taught me how to say silly phrases, like one from a Snickers commercial popular at the time — “Eat a Snickers; don’t be stupid” (it rhymes in Russian) — and another rhyming ditty that means “Because I said so,” both of which have remained surprisingly useful expressions in my Russian vocabulary.
The children showed me how to play a Russian card game appropriately named “Fool.” The bond I made with two orphan girls that summer led to eight years of shaky, bilingual correspondence (fueled mostly by stickers and smiley faces).
Before that first summer, my entire knowledge of Russian culture had consisted of vodka, the Russian mafia, the cartoon Anastasia, and something about Communism. When I arrived I was shocked to find that I had flown nine hours east to a city where the summer sun didn’t set until well past midnight, to a country with a dead dictator on display, to a place where the Cyrillic alphabet made it impossible for me to read the most basic sign or newspaper. By comparison, these experiences blew my suburban Maryland childhood out of the water.
Russia enraptured me with her old grannies and their disregard for color or pattern when dressing; their clashing bold floral, animal, plaid, and camouflage prints. The longstanding popularity of the mullet never failed to amuse me; I especially loved spotting whole families with the same haircut. Returning home, I told stories of strange Russian food, like baked curdled cheese and a thick, starchy, warm pink drink called kissel.
To the chagrin of my parents and friends, I went on and on about the hammer and sickle emblems that remain on so many buildings, about boat rides through the canals of Petersburg (which is known as the “Venice of the North”), about the seemingly endless escalator rides into the depths of the metro built well underneath the marshy foundation of the city, and, of course, stories about the Mashas, Dashas, Sashas, and Pashas that I met at camp. This is why I love Russia.
So when Russians ask me — incredulously — why I am in Russia voluntarily, I give them some version of the answer above.
What I didn’t realize as a teenager, but what is clear to me now after investing over a decade into this relationship, is that I have fallen in love with a bipolar country. Everything about this place is contradictory, a point well illustrated by an essential Russian phrase, да-нет, which literally translates as “yes-no.”
In my experience, whether the speaker means yes or no is determined only by inflection. Examples: So you’re in love with him? Yes-no! We’re just friends…for now. So you’re on a diet? Yes-no! I just don’t like spoonfuls of mayonnaise on my food!
Somehow this country accepts both yes and no side-by-side. If I am sitting too close to a window, any older woman might insist that I move to another seat, worried that the cool draft will make me sick. And yet, on the day of Epiphany (January 19th) it is acceptable for me to don a bikini and immerse myself in a cross-shaped ice hole in the nearest river.
Russia is a country that’s instituted universal healthcare, but at the free university clinic my students have the choice of being treated with leeches, suction, and electrocution. Northern Russia deals with almost 20 hours of darkness in the winter and almost 24 hours of sunlight in the summer.
Russian people and politicians refer to Russia as a developed country, not willing to let go of the status it earned during the Soviet Union, but life outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg often means poorly paved or dirt roads, wooden houses leaning at precarious angles or half burned down but still occupied, families living on incomes of less than 200 dollars a month. And this is not only in small villages, but also in Syktyvkar, the city where I live, the capital of the Komi Republic.
Meanwhile, Moscow has been voted the most expensive city in the world by Forbes.com for several years in a row.
Russians might complain about this disparity, but they do not expect it to change. History has taught them that expectations in this country usually lead to disappointment. My students often ask me about the size of American houses, and whether it’s true our streets have no dirt on them, and if we all own cars.
Even though most of their information is gleaned from over-produced TV shows, Russians recognize that other countries have what they don’t, but then take prickly pride in the conditions which Russians survive on a daily basis. Russian women, they say proudly, have learned to navigate the icy, potholed, upturned concrete sidewalks in their spiky heels.
When I express my amusement at the confusion that marks everyday Russian life, Russians smile along, shake their heads, and begin to recite Russian Romantic poet Fyodor Tyutchev’s poem, “Умом Россию не понят…” Russia cannot be understood with the mind. I get extra Russian soul points for being able to recite the remaining three lines, but the last is the most important. “In Russia, one can only believe.”
Within Russia, people may be willing to accept the extreme circumstances of their style of living, but naturally they want Russia to fully transition to a modern state, not only in word but also in deed. Currently, the Russian government is making substantial changes to education and trade policies.
Formally, Russia was the largest economy not belonging to the World Trade Organization, but after 18 years of petitioning (the longest for any applicant) Russia has finally gained a position in the WTO, which sets the rules for 97% of international trade. With Russia’s accession comes strict requirements for the country to make large trading reforms and to be accountable to WTO regulations and penalties.
One of these reforms will require Russia to adjust its lackadaisical views on intellectual property rights, an oversight that allows the Russian version of Facebook, “In Contact,” to openly host free access to music, movies, software, and almost anything else the users might be looking for. The site itself is stolen property; the colors and layout are a direct rip-off of an old-school Facebook design.
Russia is also in a decade-long process of switching over from the Soviet model of higher education to the Bologna Process, which will standardize Russian degree programs with those of the rest of Europe, increasing students’ mobility and the competitiveness of Russian students with their international peers. Right now, that means restructuring the Russian higher education system to match “European standards.”
During this period of transition, half of my students don’t know if they are specializing — a Soviet construction that means five years of study and a resulting degree somewhere between a Bachelor’s and a Master’s — or majoring, a four-year program widely used in Europe and America that results in a standard Bachelor’s degree. No one has explained to them the difference between the previous education system and the new one from which they will graduate. I have sophomores who will graduate in 2016, and freshmen who will also graduate that year because the length of study is being reduced from five to four years.
The Bologna Process may make it easier for students to transfer between European and Russian universities, but from my experience teaching at a state institution, it has yet to influence the way teachers instruct students or conduct classes. Plagiarism is the norm, as is infrequent class attendance. Cheating is often overlooked, and grade inflation is expected, because the reputation of the teacher depends on it.
I am certain that there are better and worse universities than the one I teach at but, for the most part, my students are not academically ready to enter any other university other than a Russian one. (In a 2012 Times Higher Education ranking of international universities, to the disbelief of Russians, Lomonosov Moscow State University — the “Harvard” of Russia — ranked in the 276-300 category.) So while Russia is altering the structure of its education and trade systems, these institutions have yet to reach the competitive level of their western neighbors.
These changes may potentially benefit the average Russian, but they also send the repeated message that the “Russian way” isn’t good enough. What results is a sense of over-protection, defending any outside reference to Russia that could be taken in a negative way (possibly this article, for example).
In Russia’s eagerness to ascend to total modernity and conform Russian culture to that of its advanced neighbors, Russians are willing to leave behind the roots of traditional Russian culture. They want to redirect outsiders’ stereotypes of furry hats and dancing bears to more acceptable points of pride, like the Russian “Silicon Valley” Prime Minister Medvedev is developing outside of Moscow, or Russia’s 2012 world hockey cup championship.
My most recent exposure to this insecurity to outside opinions on Russia came from a picture I submitted to a Touch Russia competition. The organization asked for any picture that literally or metaphorically depicted “touching Russia.” I entered a photo I took at a Komi ethnic culinary competition.
A man’s bloody finger is pointing to the exposed throat of a grouse that had been hunted specifically for the cultural event. Inside the bird’s gullet are whole berries that it had recently ingested. “Oksana” commented on the picture, expressing her outrage, that I — a foreigner — was giving outsiders the “wrong impression” of Russia. “As if there is nothing more precious in Russia to touch.”
I had a similar experience while I was traveling the length of the Trans-Siberian railroad. I was traveling with another American by train from the far reaches of Russia’s eastern border to Moscow in the west. We felt out of place because Russians do not take the train for pleasure, but out of financial or geographic necessity. And here we were, two foreigners who just wanted to experience Russia and had the time and means to do so.
We stopped for a day in the Siberian town of Irkutsk, a place most well known for its proximity to Lake Baikal, home to one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. My companion and I fell in love with the city: the mixture of imperial and Siberian architecture; the old wooden houses alongside pastel-colored palaces. We stopped to take pictures of intricately carved wooden window frames. They looked handmade, with small details of flowers and geometric patterns painstakingly added for decoration. They had aged with grace that, in my opinion, probably made them more beautiful at this moment in time than when they were originally created.
My friend and I were taking pictures, and talking in English, probably about how enamored we were with the city. A middle-aged businessman passed by, and then doubled back. He began loudly reprimanding us in English for taking pictures of the old, dilapidated parts of his city. “Why do you foreigners want to show people the ugly parts of our city,” he scolded.
We tried to explain that we genuinely found these “ugly” aspects particularly appealing. We don’t want the polished structures (he suggested we go to the newer part of town to take pictures of modern monuments and buildings), we want the daily view of mundane Russian life. Because for us foreigners, even the average is interesting. To assume that we only want the newest and the brightest attractions is belittling not only to us, but also to his heritage. He shook his head at us, and walked on seemingly doubtful of our explanation.
Slaughtered birds and ancient buildings do not fit into the modern picture Russians want the world to see. For people like Oksana and this businessman, who are cautious about how the outside world views their country, I can see why “unbeautiful” pictures would threaten the view of Russia that they want to project.
Stamping my feet against the snow-packed ground, I tried to regain feeling in my toes while I joined in the accordion-led songs of social protest on the second largest square in my town. Only a Russian opposition movement would be heralded in with an accordion, I think to myself. This is my first personal encounter with the series of December and January protests in Russia, and unlike the tens of thousands that repeatedly showed up in Moscow to protest the alleged falsification of votes in the 2011 / 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections, there are only several dozen people present in Syktyvkar.
Russia’s recent tumultuous history — in less than 100 years Russia has transitioned from monarchy to Communism to democracy with various interim governments filling the years between these policy changes — makes it difficult for Russians to align solidly with one national identity.
The frequent shift in political loyalties has created a country searching for stability and, according to this winter’s election results, the majority of Russians have found that stability in third-term President Vladimir Putin and his party, United Russia.
Unfortunately, stability comes in the form of a president who is being accused by tens of thousands of Russians of stealing the most recent elections. An opposition movement was born with the rallying cry, “Russia without Putin.” For Putin supporters, he is leading the country forward into the greatness they lost in the collapse of the Soviet Union. For those who are anti-Putin, he represents a return to an authoritarian government in which the people have no place to speak out.
Then there are people who are ambivalently pro-Putin. They voted for him because he is familiar. Life hasn’t gotten worse since he was appointed president by Boris Yeltsin at the turn of the millennium. Putin helped pull Russia out of the economic mires of the 1990s and reestablish Russia as an influential world player, if not global leader, mostly through the use of Russia’s large energy resources.
So the 63% of Russians who put Putin back in power were casting their vote for stability, and for this boon they are willing to withstand the corruption, the unjust imprisonment of political opposition activists, and short-sighted reliance on an energy-based economy.
The opposition movement, however, wants exactly that — movement. In their desire to see this country adopt a valid democracy they are willing for things to get messy. They are willing to not know exactly where the trajectory of their opposition will take them, just as long as it’s a different path than the stagnant leadership of the current government.
Part of me wanted to attend Syktyvkar’s protest, just to have the experience and to make the crowd look bigger. But I was also obligated to be at that Sunday’s demonstration. I had challenged my class of freshman journalists to attend the rally, urging them to be involved with the biggest anti-government movement since the fall of the Soviet Union. Maybe not to participate, but to at least observe what’s going on in their own city.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the biggest political shifts in the 20th century, outdone only by Russia’s adoption of Communism some 70 years earlier. So when the political protest gears started grinding again, I thought my students would want to play a part in this historical event.
True to what I am discovering is normal Russian form, only one of my students made an appearance, and she was planning to come before I bribed her class with brightly colored informational books about America. This ambivalence is a form of acquiescence to Putin’s inevitable leadership.
Russia is caught between a place of outward stability and inward turmoil. Putin’s May 7th re-inauguration exemplifies this duality. The day before Putin swore in as president for the third time, Moscow was teeming with thousands of people protesting the legitimacy of his presidential re-ascension. The military police spent the day forcibly clearing the streets of protesters and arresting opposition leaders.
In sharp contrast to the previous day’s demonstrations-turned-riots, the helicopter footage of Putin’s route to his swearing-in ceremony showed starkly empty streets, devoid of traffic or onlookers — supporters or otherwise. The day’s upheaval was whitewashed into post-apocalyptic silence on the streets the next.
The same stability that has sedated most of the students in my region is the driving force behind the opposition’s dissatisfaction with Russia’s leadership, and instead of facing and addressing these protesters, Putin has simply tried to sweep them under an autocratic rug.
Putin has decided that Putin is the right man to lead this dichotomous country into whatever its future holds. Putin has acquired the task of uniting these disparate parts, through an autocratic and intolerant control reminiscent more of the Soviet era than of the modern, democratized Western one.
In and out of class discussions, my students have admitted to me that they face some sort of inferiority complex when talking about their homeland with foreigners. One student confessed that she often hides her family’s traditional roots and culture when talking to outsiders; she doesn’t want to make her country appear “backwards.”
The fear of embracing the traditions of different ethnic cultures in Russia has become more evident in light of the 2012 Eurovision, the American Idol of European countries but with more strobe lights and artistic fog. Country members of the European Broadcasting Union are eligible to send one musical act, which performs solely for the prize of representing its home country.
In an elimination-style contest, the majority of participants belt out rock ballads in elaborate costumes with fire shooting up around them. In recent history Russia has been represented by tanned and svelte pop singers with slicked-back hair.
This year’s Russian musical envoy is made up of six babushki, or grannies, from the ethnic Republic of Udmurtia. They dress in traditional costumes: red, patch-work aprons, bright woolen tights and wooden shoes peaking from under their multilayered skirts, complete with headscarves and bangles around their necks. Their signature song is called Party for Everybody, and is sung in English and Udmurt, a branch of the Finno-Ugric language family.
They say their sole reason for participating in Eurovision is to raise money to rebuild their village church. Some of the grannies look like they want to feed you cookies and others look like they want to scold you for leaving the house without enough layers on, but they charmed their way through the competition, ultimately taking second place among 42 contestants.
The responses I’ve heard from university-aged Russians about the babushki range from nationalistic pride (full disclosure, I have a few friends from Udmurtia) to deep shame. One student told me that she was aghast that the world (or Europe at least) would see Russia depicted by such a quaint collection of old ladies. She wants the return of the glitzy, modern pop stars because it shows that Russia is on par with the other bedazzled contestants. Maybe the overwhelming success of the babushki will help to ease these insecurities as Russians see how the outside world accepts their past culture alongside their current.
My ongoing relationship with this country doesn’t make me an official spokesperson of how outsiders view Russia; it simply makes me a long-term foreign observer with a serious objectivity problem because of my devout affection for this complicated country. I recognize though, that my words — like my photo of the dead bird — won’t sit well with a certain group of Russians. I am not Russian, so what right, they ask, do I have to make these judgments?
Walking along the banks of the river my town is named for, I asked a close Russian friend how people could tell — without me opening my mouth — that I wasn’t Russian. What about my manner of dress or the way in which I carried myself gave me away?
“You don’t have this look in your eyes,” she replied without hesitating. “You don’t have this look that asks ‘how will I survive tomorrow?’”
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]