Russia, its people and the government have a pretty rubbish rep. After Mike was chased by Russian thugs at the Euros earlier in the summer, I wasn't sure what to expect but we did try to go with an open mind and in the end met some really great and welcoming people. As we leave Russia, I feel like three weeks isn't long enough to really get under the skin and understand the mindset of Russian people. We aren't experts and we aren't pretending or trying to 'get' Russia but below are a few thoughts based on the conversations we've had and the books we've been reading.
Cold and stoic on the outside, warm and hospitable on the inside:
Russians in public don't smile. We experienced this many times. If we walked into someone's shop to buy something, the staff often didn't even look up and people seemed to say 'Nyet', [no]' to things we hadn't even asked for yet. In the pictures below, I'm getting big fat 'nyet' regarding photos. In the second one, I actually thought the train conductor was waving at me to say hello. I was so happy and was frantically waving back at him until Mike realised he was actually telling me to stop, not waving at all.
People didn't seem comfortable to show their true feelings or selves in public. From reading a bit about this it seems to hark back to Soviet times when talking to strangers was dangerous and you couldn't be sure who you could trust.
Thanks to time spent on trains, we were lucky enough to get quality time with Russians and learn a little more about the Russian way. Often those on our trains have been overly helpful, hospitable and generous, sharing their food,vodka and stories with us.
You can also admire Russian warmth watching the scenes of family members and friends together at the railway stations. Whole families come to pick up and drop off family and these moments are always full of love and closeness. Even as an observer I could feel the warmth of those hugs. When there is a lack of faith in the justice system or government, it seems people turn inwards looking to their family and communities for support and stability. Family is everything and, thanks to traditional Russian hospitality, you can quickly feel part of someone's family here. Like Milla who, after four days on a train, called us her 'English son and daughter.' Read more about Milla here.
Sticking to the rules:
We're at a Palace outside of town and I wanted to buy some fruit that was sitting out. Despite the fact I was holding the orange in my hand, I couldn't buy it because it was only priced as part of the various waffle treats available. It wasn't on the menu and so it wasn't priced as an item on its own, the man serving me couldn't make up a price and therefore no orange for me. In the workplace or perhaps in everything Russian people do there seems to be a great respect for rules, structure and predictability. When the outside world is chaotic there seems to be a craving for stability and us asking for things off the menu seemed to totally throw this off. As we came to realise, you can't rationalise Russia, don't ask why, just accept the way things are and it is far less frustrating and tiring.
Authority and strength vs democracy:
We were lucky enough to spend an amazing Friday night dinner with a Jewish family in Irkutsk. The mum was originally from Australia, the Dad from Israel. Neither are Russian but they have been living in Russia for 13 years. After an amazing dinner (Mike ate his body weight in hummus) conversation turned to Brexit, the refugee crisis in Europe and democracy.
According to this family and it is hard to believe but not all Russians despise Putin. They know what he is capable of but he is a strong leader, he shows authority and at the moment there is no better alternative. A strong leader creates a strong country and economy and this in turn means communities can thrive and families survive. Some Putin souvenirs Russian dolls below chilling next to the Bush ones:
The family go on to tell us that Russians are at their most united when their backs are against the wall, and the current sanctions imposed by the West has only served to antagonise the Russian people, fuel the fire, and unite them behind their leader.
This couple, living in the middle of Siberia, were openly questioning the idea and perhaps our assumption that democracy is the 'right' way. Everyone knows there is huge corruption here and a justice system that often works against rather than for the people. For us it's hard to see why and how Russians would put up with this and why they wouldn't fight for something more open and fair. But coming to Russia, more than anywhere in the world, has made me realise how often I, we, put the values we know and believe in, ahead of understanding others, their history and culture.
Russians are different, as people are different in all countries, our friends in Irkutsk tell us. They would have stability and strength rather than take a risk on democracy and face hardship. Many people, even young people, admire Stalin and his strength and leadership despite the fact that he killed millions of his own people.
They were extremely negative of the European Union and what it is trying to achieve - they asked how countries like Greece and Germany, with different cultures and mindsets could possibly have the same set of rules and I agree.
This Jewish family, thousands of miles from everything MIke and I know, felt they were watching something awful and scary unraveling in Western Europe. Although I didn't agree with much of what they said about immigration, they felt the West was giving up on its Christian identity and with it its pride and integrity. Why would you let others in that do not want to integrate but instead want to change you? In the name of democracy, human rights and political correctness, have our own identities become so diluted that we aren't sure who we are or what we stand for anymore? They seemed to think so.
I'm not sure I agree that Europe is in as much danger and turmoil from being taken over as this family fear (at least I hope not!), but spending a few hours discussing this over Shabbat gave us a lot of food for thought, a lot of food to eat, and a deeper and much needed insight into Russian culture and mindset. A lot of what we heard made sense - maybe not for us but for Russia and Russian people.