My global travels have convinced me there are two forces that shape a people: geography and religion, and in the end, it is the defining power of geography. After all, it is the oceans, the rivers, the mountains, the wind, the temperature, the land, that confines people, supports their sustenance, directs their movements, shapes their beliefs, and determines their wars.
Americans are short on geography. It is not taught in the schools as it should be like it is in Russia. Looking at the maps explain why. The United States lives on a virtual island, protected by two giant oceans and two nonthreatening neighbors. Russia and its history are all about geography.
Russia is a nation of many peoples ranging from the Baltic to the Pacific. They are diverse in culture, religion, language and temperament, and have suffered throughout history from an inconvenience of geography which has placed them generally too far north and neither in Europe nor in Asia, but instead subjected them to the conflicting influence and continual invasions by both. It was an empire once and many are convinced it still is.
To the Europeans, Russia is represented by mysterious and unpredictable Asians. To the Asians, Russia is seen as aggressive and unmannerly Europeans. This dichotomy of identity has fostered in the Russian characterization over the centuries an insular diffidence towards and distrust of the rest of the world. This is expressed in various degrees of xenophobia and nationalism, all the while yearning for the substance, if not the spirit and the productive self-discipline of the West. They seek a place in the world as Eurasians—as indeed they are by both blood and geography.
It was Kipling who said: “Let it be clearly understood that the Russian is a delightful person till he tucks in his shirt. As an Oriental he is charming. It is only when he insists on being treated as the most easterly of western peoples instead of the most westerly of easterns that he becomes a racial anomaly extremely difficult to handle.”
Russians have for centuries strained to define their national identity by claiming themselves a bridge between East and West. But the opposing pulls on this role make it difficult to give the metaphor any practical meaning or benefit to them. After all, in today’s “borderless” world, it is telecommunications, the Internet, and to a degree the English language that are building bridges that bring the disparate parts of the world together. A telephone call from Moscow to Beijing goes via VOIP (voice over Internet), the global cloud. In a twist of irony so typical of Russia, Russians may find that they are not in the center of the rope binding together Europe and Asia, but just the opposite—at the far ends of the globe circling the East-West rope trying to keep from being torn apart. This is changing as Moscow reaches more seriously to the East and their Chinese neighbors.
The momentum of change, painful in the extreme, cannot be deterred even by failing to heed the screaming social needs thrust upon a nation that was kept in the dark about them for three generations. I hope Americans will understand this anomaly of history and maintain a firm, consistent, and patient relationship, understanding and respectful of the special circumstances of this huge and rich country, encouraging those forces which will move Russia, however hesitantly, toward a more normal place in the family of modern nations.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.