Today’s "warm hearted" Russia

 A guest post by James Higham

The historical moulding of the modern Russian

Perhaps I’m not the one to ask about Russia on a number of  counts: as foreigners, Tom and I are both relatively sheltered, the mindless bureaucracy tends to be taken care of by those we’re associated with, we live better than the average citizen and we are eternally an object of interest.

Forever questioning and analysing what is out there, forever chatting, I do think though that I might understand a little bit more now about this enigmatic people.

To start with, Russia has emerged from the nanny state and not all was bad. Stalin did get the rebuilding underway and the drab housing blocks, containing up to 120 flats, are functional and workable, especially in the fierce Russian winter, with their pumped hot and cold water, double glazing, thick walls, central heating, lift and rubbish systems.

Despite the western media playing up the food queues, there were always meat, fish, bread, cabbages and potatoes and the gathered summer produce went into sealed glass jars for the winter. The fun drink was fruit juice compote, the chocolate was very cocoa in taste, the icecream without peer and uncompromisingly creamy. Tea was brewed stalks and all and ritually drunk from large samovars.

The education system was as rigid as in Scotland and forever harping on about peace and brotherhood. Russians really did believe the party line about a nation of peace lovers, the film industry produced feelgood films which still stand up today, (I have one or two on my computer) and everyone was encouraged to involve themselves in the simple pleasures of shaslik in the forest, long walks, banya (sauna), reading, studying and austere prudence.

Uncle Joe and his successors could take care of the politics.

What they didn’t see was the GNP poured into defence and the space race to keep up with the western nations, the almost complete wiping out of the intelligentsia from the 30s, the decimation of the flower of manhood in the war, the reduction of people almost to the status of children in a handout State and the rank inefficiency where eggs would be produced locally but to get hold of some required a train journey to Moscow.

Yet there was a fierce spirit of patriotism, the Red Army could do no wrong, the Olympics would always be won if Russia competed. Here there is a Victory Park in every town, whereas we’d have a Memorial Park. As in all countries, children were taught the glorious deeds of the nation’s heroes and foreigners paled by comparison. The State had replaced G-d in people’s souls and though life was hard, there was no choice but to embrace the system – it was all that most had ever known.

When it changed in the 90s, many asked, palms opened in a questioning gesture: “So, we’ve got this democracy; now what are we going to do with it?”

The previously voiceless Church came back, the older generation particularly fervently welcomed the icon reverence, strange foodstuffs appeared in shops, the antiquated purchase system where the 12 items a shop stocked were laid out, one example each in a glass case, you pointed to it, were given a docket, you went to a central payment booth and queued to pay, then took the receipt to the girl who rummaged out the back until she found what you needed – all this made its welcome exit.

I missed Yeltsin astride a tank but caught the remains of Soviet Russia, lived through the ’98 crisis and have seen some changes here. Freedom? Well depends on cash. If you have it, you have freedom and ways to circumvent [never to brazenly break] the sheer weight of regulations. Everything is possible here either if you pay or else you possess some specialized knowledge others are willing to pay for. It’s one law which counts.

Everything is negotiable in the Russian mind. The word ‘no’ has no meaning, as every over-indulged child, loved to bits by his parents, knows. Boys go through the macho ritual and emerge as hunks, girls go through the feminization process and are more feminine than sugar candy, at least on the surface. Roles are almost caricatures, very straightly played and taken seriously. Children’s folktales are full of lovable rogues and fine heroes – a very clean upbringing indeed.

The Russian is artful and designing and yet artless and trusting at the same time. He gives you the benefit but if you cross him, he’s brutal. He admires breeding, especially in a foreigner and he’s polite and respectful to a fault but if you’re a little rough round the edges and prone to bouts of drunkenness, he feels more secure about you. The girls don’t make the play in company – that’s the boys’ job. Their job is to be within range.

One thing which stuns is the propensity of two cars on the road, with no traffic anywhere, to crash into each other. There’s something in the brain, something missing – there are accidents absolutely everywhere, all the time. I asked my friend about it and I thought he’d gone soft.

He said it was after 1917, when the Church had been squashed and generations grew up with no values of self-reliance and no Christian ethic. The Church, such as it was, was compliant with the new regime. He stressed the absence of ‘ethic’. At least, there is an ethic but it is not altruistic. I mentioned that neither was modern western society.

He explained that there’s a sort of ‘straight-ahead-and-be-damned’ attitude and there is really quite genuine surprise and anger to find someone in your space on the road. You don’t stop, wait and avoid. You charge onwards.

Having said all that, the Russians are very warm-hearted and hospitable and are very particular with their cuisine, especially in company. Ideas that cabbage and potatoes are the fare are way off the mark. Russian cuisine is a skill, the preserve of the babushkas and through them the mothers and daughters. It’s also very healthy.

More on cuisine, culture and sex next time.

* This is James’ first guest post on my blog which explains why he moved to the Russian Federation,