Every time I mention that I am Russian, I can always register some fascination mixed with deep suspicion on the face of my interlocutor. Russians are considered to be weird and big. It’s the biggest country in the world, with long history, enormous culture and habits that leave the rest of the world population always slightly puzzled about us.
It was Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873) who said the following about my native land:
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.
Russia is considered to be big in everything but also weird. Russia has big writers read by many, such Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. It has world-famous composers, such as Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, leading chess players, famous ballets and trains. The trans-Siberian train takes 7 days of travel from Moscow to Vladivostok and spans eight time zones and 9,289 kilometers.
But this bigness runs in parallel to misunderstanding. Russians do appear as strange from the look of outsiders. We celebrate the New Year twice, we like vodka, and we had the revolution, the Soviet Union and the communist dream. Russians are often considered to be cold and distant, but few realise that if you probe more, you will discover a great romantic behind the façade of what looks like aloofness. You will discover a passionate spirit, capable of marking a page in the history books. Behind the initial impression of coldness, hides an eccentric.
Scratch a Russian, and you will encounter a great predisposition to deep philosophical debates, a penchant for nostalgia and great ‘terpenie’ that means patience. Because of the history of the country, Russians learned that bad times always end, that good things are meant to happen, and that for everything there is fate.
The misunderstanding of Russians is often due to the fact that we know how to remain silent. Russians rarely do small talk, and don’t chat. They like meaningful discussions about life, about the meaning of existence, about literature and art. If you go to Moscow and take the metro, you will see that many Russians read books while on their journey to work or study. They read a lot, and go to the theatre. If you want a good conversation with a Russian, don’t talk about the weather but ask about the latest theatre piece a Russian saw. Russians like theatre, books, and poetry.
Being a Russian is a tough job. I often think about our own strangeness and came up with the list of some of our weirdness. These are:
- We celebrate the New year as others on the first of January and then again, on the 14th of January, because of the old calendar.
- We love poet Pushkin. We learn about him from the moment we are born. He is the best poet. Truly, the best. We learn a lot about Pushkin. We grow up listening to his poems and we know lots of his poems by heart. We even have an expression when we want to be sarcastic that goes like: ‘Right, who will do that for you, then? Pushkin?
- We are very superstitious. Spilled sault brings quarrel. Money discussed in the evening brings trouble. An empty bottle should be removed immediately from the table, or it will lead to financial difficulties. If your ears or cheeks are hot, it means that someone is talking or thinking about you. An itchy nose signifies that you will soon be drinking, etc, etc. We have a lot of these weird traditions, like really a lot.
- We believe in Domovoy. It’s the household spirit of a given kin. This little man lives (he is invisible) in your house in order to protect it from the evil spirit. You need to respect him. Never talk badly about Domovoy.
- We have the salad, called ‘Olivier’, originally from France, as the main dish for every celebration.
- Most of us are Christians, but, and I am myself stupefied by this strangeness, we also believe in astrology, palm reading and other manifestations of magic.
- We are great at computers and technology. If something is hacked, Russians are blamed.
- We have great education at schools and universities. We learn mathematics at school at the level of what is taught at the master level in the universities in the west. School is like a marathon in Russia, and you do come out of it extremely knowledgeable.
- We like to think big. We think about fate, about true love, about justice in this world. No wonder, revolution happened in Russia.
- We eat fried sunflower seeds for pleasure.
- We drink lots of tea, and many households can make their own ‘liquor’.
- We are obsessed with jam. Each summer we make our own jams, and we stock it for the year ahead. There should be lots of it. There is never enough of jam.
And so many other things that make Russians slightly weird, but I will come back to it in the following posts.