Musings of a Russophile: What makes a Russian tick?

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I took a young lady to dinner in Washington, D.C., Paula, who worked for the Riggs Bank, because I wanted to thank her for arranging the visit of a prominent Russian to an agricultural distance-learning symposium in Rapid City, South Dakota. The Russian later became the minister of agriculture.

I took a young lady to dinner in Washington, D.C., Paula, who worked for the Riggs Bank, because I wanted to thank her for arranging the visit of a prominent Russian to an agricultural distance-learning symposium in Rapid City, South Dakota. The Russian later became the minister of agriculture. It was ironic that it was the Riggs Bank that gave me the assistance, for it was they who financed the American purchase of Alaska from Alexander II in 1867.

Paula, a pretty Finnish girl was quiet and, true to the character of Finns, did not exude an excess of enthusiasm. I explained, “I have lots to learn in this new venture, and I want to know what makes a Russian tick.” She didn’t offer an answer, and then to draw her out, I expounded my theory about geography and religion as the forming powers of a people and then she came alive. “Do you know that forty percent of the Finns are Russian Orthodox?” she exclaimed.
I confessed I did not, and she went on to tell of her renewed interest in Orthodoxy. I wondered why she was so excited about the Russian Orthodox Church. After all, the Russians never treated the Finns with a surplus of respect.
The Russians know how to teach geography. American schools give it pitifully low priority, if any at all. The Soviet Union placed high emphasis on understanding the natural forces that shape the world’s economy and politics.
It was too naive to voice during the Cold War, but I always thought Russia, as great a landmass and as colorful a history as it had, suffered from sort of a royal inferiority complex. Look at a map. No warm water seaports. For an empire with a 19th century imperial mentality, that is important. Except for the Don and the Volga, all major Russian rivers run north into the Arctic. The Volga runs into a sea with no exit (although it connects via a canal to the Black Sea), and the Don empties into the Black Sea, to which access from the Mediterranean is controlled by Turkey, Russia’s historical enemy and a NATO member.
The vastness of the country cannot be described, only felt when one stands anywhere in the unending countryside realizing that Russia goes on horizon after horizon. The immensity and the silence are both intimidating and beautiful. Russia always acted like it must prove itself, protect itself, do big and heroic things to be respected. That is what Peter the Great was all about. Russia still expects greatness, almost by entitlement.
Standing in the middle of Russia and wondering what a Russian thinks, I was reminded of the Bedouin. The desert nomad feels his smallness, his intimidation by nature’s emptiness, and he craves a God to fill the void of his soul. For the Russian it was the Orthodox Christian church—mystery, miracle and authority as Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor preaches. What else can explain what happens and what doesn’t?
I also like Pasternak’s words expressed in the ruminations of Dr. Zhivago on the meaning of Russian life: “Just now, I was looking out of the window in the train—I thought, what is there in the whole world worth more than a peaceful family life and work? The rest isn’t in our hands.” And of Joseph Conrad who wrote: “Don’t you forget what’s divine in the Russian soul— and that’s resignation.”
A Russian standing, say on the banks of the Volga, may never have been further west than St. Petersburg on his honeymoon, nor further east than to visit his aunt in Yekaterinburg in the Urals. But this man knows down deep that Holy Russia once ruled from the Baltic to the Pacific Coast of America where the historic Fort Ross was built in California. He knows that Russia is by the right of Heaven a great and noble country and that somehow he is a part of it.
Collective thinking is a phenomenon to the Western mind. Yet it is central to a Russian’s thought. There were communal assemblies of peasants as early as the sixteenth century, a natural reaction to the overburdening central autocratic control. To survive the exigencies of an arrogant bureaucracy, they had only themselves and learned to stick together or perish. The Russian Revolution was fed on the desire of common people to overcome the central control of the nobility by banding together. We all know the outcome of that false expectation, but it does not undermine their congenital desire to group together to face the world, to survive.
A defining characteristic of this communalization is sameness. Not unlike the people of a small American town, to be different or to stand out from the rest is to invite criticism or envy from others. It is a society of the group, not the individual. Of course Russian history is filled with achieving individuals, especially in the arts and sciences. But to understand what makes a Russian tick is to remember that our own tendencies toward individual initiative, achievement, and reward are not mirrored in the traditional Russian psyche. Since they have a historical culture short on individual responsibility, Russians have always expected an authoritative leader to tell them what to do, and through the ages they have accepted as natural the bad with the good that may come with such a government. They will change as appropriate to their own culture and over time. In the meantime, they continue ticking away.

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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.

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