During my recent trip to Asia, I observed a rather peculiar scene on the newly built Bangkok subway. It was a rush hour, the subway was packed, but while waiting for the train, the locals nevertheless formed themselves into neatly organized lines. They stood patiently one by one, making sure there was plenty of space for the passengers stepping out of the train. I immediately thought of a Moscow subway rush hour where Darwin's "survival of the fittest" theory always comes alive, and one often needs to apply real fighting skills, both verbal and physical.
And why we, Russians, are so averse to order, I thought then to myself. I don't want to talk about corruption now - it's too mammoth an issue to tackle in this column. I am talking about our following or, more often, - ignoring basic social conduct standards on the everyday level (although corruption and the latter are surely connected).
Traveling abroad and seeing other, more civilized societies, doesn't seem to help us much so far. I have to confess I am no exception here. Having lived in the West for a number of years by no means did I turn in to a proper, rule-abiding individual. Not that I break laws on a major scale, but when it comes to small, socially incorrect things - like, say, not hesitating to take unoccupied, better and thus more expensive seats at a cinema or theater, or not paying utility bills on time, or sometimes free-riding on a bus, or crossing the road when the red light is on, or playing special "negotiating" tricks to avoid standing in line... I tend to do those without much remorse.
It seems to me that the liberty that I and many of my countrymen take to disobey the rules could somehow be part of our DNA.
"We don't trust the state and don't respect it much, therefore we might even get a kick when we manage to 'beat the system,'" said one of my closest friends who is an editor at a reputed business monthly. This girl, who is one of the most dignified people I've known, also admitted to breaking the rules once in while, including when she is driving. "There's still so much corruption out there, so you don't care much when you also do something slightly illegal," she said.
Perhaps not following the rules is indeed ingrained in our mentality. A friend of mine whom I met for dinner when I was in Hong Kong complained to me that he hasn't been able to avoid paying the sizable fine received for a minor violation. He wasn't bribing the authorities, just trying to "negotiate" with them, he said. They didn't comply - dura lex sed lex. ("The law is tough, but it's the law" - this ancient Roman principle seems to prevail in today's Hong Kong as well.) But my friend who's the South China bureau chief for a leading Russian news organization and has lived in Asia for more than a decade, couldn't possibly agree. "They wouldn't listen to me, those hopeless robots," he lamented.
Still, back in Russia, things are changing. We are gradually becoming if not more proper, definitely more civilized. Thanks to the increased fines and some anti-corruption efforts, drivers, at least in the large Russian cities, behave much better on the road now. They respect fellow drivers and pedestrians as well, gallantly letting them pass (a non-existent attitude just a few years ago). In public places, apart from such extreme situations as the rush hour, we've also become more relaxed and polite to each other. Business etiquette is also on the rise. Social responsibility is growing too, slowly but surely.
And while there's still a whole lot of stuff to work on in this area, there are a few things about my countrymen which are quite inspiring. Russians might not be very punctual and they hardly smile at strangers but they'd do everything for you once they get to know a person just a little bit. In public transportation, they would always get up when an elderly person or a pregnant woman comes in, which I haven't seen that in the West much. Those and many other unique parts of our national character should really never change.
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.