As some of you may have noticed, there’s been a pretty long break inbetween updates on this blog. I humbly submit the following excuses:
- My computer gave up the ghost in mid November after I walked around with it for a few hours outside. Turns out they really do mean it when they say that the ‘L’ in LCD stands for “liquid.”
- I bought a replacement laptop shortly thereafter but had to go pick it up…in France.
- After returning from the wedding (you didn’t really think I’d really go all that way just to pick up a computer, did you? You did? Hm…), I promptly set about trying to prepare for and figure out the end of semester system at my university that is, ah, lamentably (if predictably) Russian in execution.
- Marianna got here right before Christmas, and after a brief period of convalescence on her part we set off to see the not-Barnaul parts of Siberia.
This is part one of a hastily written two-part blog post. It will focus on what I’ve been thinking and feeling about my time here so far, and conclude with a curated set of pictures I’ve taken during my first semester here that I like to call the Aren’t-you-such-a-strange-place!-Yes-you-are!-Yes-you-are!-Who’s-a-sometimes-baffling-country?-It’s-you!-Yes-it-is!-Yes-it-is! collection.
Although this ain’t my first Russian rodeo, it is the longest I’ve ever been here in one stint. This is exciting because I’m still only halfway through said stint. Will I get to finally experience real homesickness for my own culture? Time will tell. I miss friends and family, of course. But due to the ambitions and life choices of those (you) people, I’m always stuck missing somebody regardless of where I happen to be. It’s something that I imagine we all deal with nowadays.
My time here has in a completely foreseeable non-turn of events given me further insight into not just the language but also the people. One of the most fascinating things about Russians, especially when juxtaposed with Americans, is no less than their entire worldview. I’m not talking about anything so mundane as differences in opinion re: cuisine, politics, religion, how to raise a child, yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk, or the other kinds of silly things people like to argue about.* No, I’m talking about the difference between svoj and chuzhoj—“one’s own” (in this case, one’s own people), and “strangers.” As Bulgakov once said, “Things are never quite as scary when you’ve got a best friend.”
Pictured: Calvi—Mikhail Bulgakov and his imaginary snow leopard friend, c.1900
I was recently watching an old (~2013) interview in which Putin was asked whether he saw the cultures of the US and Russia as incompatible, and—because he totally did not have these questions beforehand**—he quoted a Pushkin scholar’s work regarding the individualistic society of the US with the more collectivist society of Russia. In short: when the going gets tough in Russia, the tough go straight to their mom’s house. Or their brother’s/sister’s house. Or their friends’ house. Or their acquaintance in the department of motor vehicle affair’s house cause the former’s sister’s mother-in-law knows the latter’s grandparents from way back when. You get the picture.
I’ve understood for some time now what it means to be a Russian’s friend (I have the dubious honor of having literally received the shirt off someone’s back once), but this year even I’ve been surprised by the warmth, care, and loyalty I’ve been shown.
Take, for instance, the promise that a couple of my friends here made me one night. They instructed me to call them—no matter the hour…or city—if I’m ever harassed by someone(s) on the street. It doesn’t even matter, they said, if I’m actually the one who’s in the wrong. That’s apparently the kind of thing that they, as my friends, only bother to find out “after the fact.”
Now, that’s all well and good I told them, but it’s not like I’m gonna have time to call you guys if someone starts harassing me for some reason. Wrong. Evidently, the concept of friendship and help in the time of trouble here is sacred enough that I would be allowed to call for backup and wait for my friends to arrive to “talk” with the hooligans. This is so absurd that it very much borders on the unbelievable. They even advised me to bum a cigarette and to try to get to know my new enemies. Why not, when you’re all waiting on the same taxi?
This is to say nothing about the more mundane but perhaps-more-appreciated things like being shown around town and where to get what (clothes, food, medicine, etc), patient explanations of the ever-confusing Russian university system, colleagues filling in for me unpaid when I’m sick, even my students finding me on social media to ask me if I’m ok during the times that I’ve had to miss class due to sickness.
It’s almost as if they would be upset if I were to keel over and die from a sudden transplant rejection .
This is my “Get it???” face.
Lame jokes aside (other Fulbrighters, I’ve been waiting for a chance to judge some plov as не-ПЛОВ-хо and it is just killing me that I haven’t found one yet), I see the signs of this collectivist attitude everywhere else, too. The verb obmyt’ (or prostavliat’sa, if the former isn’t to your liking) – to buy your friends a round of drinks when something noteworthy happens to you (promotion, new job, new kid, etc). Walking arm-in-arm everywhere because the sidewalks can be slippery. The expectation that on your birthday, YOU pay for everyone else. Black eyes on the faces of even the “good” students (to go back to that whole if-you’re-my-friend-I-will-cheerfully-beat-a-man-down-for-you thing). A stranger in the checkout line searching for 4 rubles in change and me watching the entire line go through their own pockets. A passerby walking down the street past a bar, asking for a smoke and grabbing a literal handful to take back to his friends, with no warning and no apparent annoyance on the donor’s part (apparently, “everyone knows what it’s like to be in this position of needing more than one cigarette, so I just know that someday I will also be able to do the same thing from someone else and it will be ok”). Well, okay then.
In contrast, we (Americans) often seem to be concerned with our own and no one else: friends and family, and maybe the occasional coworker if they’re at least halfway into friend-territory. After all, if you need government assistance and I don’t personally know you, you must be lazy and looking for a handout. Of course, maybe I myself once relied on welfare after I got laid off that one time, and my niece is on food stamps after her no-good husband left her alone with their two kids…but dammit, I hated every second of it, and my niece is just a hardworking single mother who was dealt a bad hand in life. Totally nothing in common with those other freeloaders, with their Mercedes-Benz’s and their lobster dinners!
This is to say nothing about the fact that one of our two parties is about to vote in favor of stripping millions of their healthcare in order to show some uppity outgoing black man what’s what. Though to their credit they do politely substitute for word “arrogant” in official statements. The party of Supply-Side Jesus, folks.
But I digress.
You know, sort of. All this to contrast with the fact that Russians, in my mind, seem to treat their fellow countrymen as distant relatives, and their friends as actual brothers and sisters.
At the same time, in my experience this collectivism and generosity often only extends towards those who are also Russian and of a certain persuasion (that is, straight, and in possession of 1 native’s tongue, e.g., he or she speaks without an accent). This doesn’t always have to mean “white,” necessarily, especially with the often-overlooked republics within the Russian federation,*** and I myself also get a free pass since I’m an American who speaks Russian (“Oh, the novelty!”). But in my experience, immigrants from the -stan countries are looked down upon for pretty much all the (non)reasons that they are looked down on in the US. I’ve heard many Russians claim that they are a post-racial (or even just at least “less racist”) society than the U.S., but after some of the things I’ve heard directed at the “others” in Russian society, I ain’t buying it. To be fair, it’s certainly no worse than what the so-called Alt-Right—that bastion of inferiority complexes and Stats 101 failures—is spewing nowadays, but that’s not the point.
This post has already gotten too long and definitely too self-indulgent but hey, that’s why it’s my blog and not yours. Thanks for making it to the end, dear reader.
*Full disclosure: I love arguing about most of those things.
**Although honestly he really might not have. Russians are fiercely proud of their literary heritage. When was the last time you heard an American quoting Whitman? What about a Whitman scholar? We barely let those people (scholars) exist in the U.S. And we hatess them, so we does.
***Russia is a federation like the US, and has 22 republics in it (in addition to the provinces, territories, federal cities, etc) which are meant to be the homelands of the indigenous populations of the lands which came under Russian control during the expansion of Russian settlement and conquest similar to Manifest Destiny in the US.