Monday, October 31, 2005

Russian Jokes

YUKOS gas station.

Khodorkovsky 12 years. Lebedev 9 years. Shakhnovsky 5 year.

Picture by Zhgun

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Putin Is Tired

Moscow News published a very interesting interview with Helene Carrere d'Encausse. This belongs to a tiny group of experts on Russian affaires who (judging from the interview) is smart and open-minded. There some lines from the interview I liked most:

But I rather suspect that he is already tired of working. He goes to different places a bit too often and practices sport a little too much.

It’s evident to most of Russians. Putin is not a politician and never was. Every politician should love power above all but he doesn’t. Putin is doing his job as if he was appointed to be a president. And that is the main reason why Russians like him. It’s also a reason why so many Western experts simply couldn’t grasp the idea that a person with so much power doesn’t want to use to become a president for a third term. Maybe they think it’s an axiom that only power mongers can be politicians as it always was in the West? Money and Power is ueber alles.

This may sound a bit harsh, but I get the impression that our [French] elites are irked by the fact that Russia has extricated itself from Communism on its own, without any outside assistance.

Exactly. The Russian revolution of 1991 was probably the only one in the modern history that happened without “help” from the West. Not a single NGO or a “freedom-in-the-world” foundation played any role in the process. No Western politicians showed their support on Moscow squares. Not a single dollar was spent on training “democratic” youth organizations. They didn’t even consult with the leaders of the free world on what is the most appropriate candidate to lead the revolution. Russians overthrew the Communist regime and established democracy in this country all by themselves. They had the cheek to do it! Barefaced impudence!

Yes, we see that Russian television reports on every step that Putin takes, to the exclusion of all else. But then French television is so PC that it is simply a nightmare. We have laws that not even Stalin could have devised. A person risks being sent to prison if he says that there are too many Jews or blacks on television. People may not speak their minds on ethnic groups, World War II, and many other things. This is a statutory offence.

Political correctness on French television is probably the same as media censorship in Russia. But Russia has some terribly interesting newspapers, while in France, all major newspapers write more or less the same stuff.

Again I agree. I don’t know what is more boring: watching stupid coverage of every step Putin makes on TV, or being hypnotized by irrational and distilled PC stream from CNN or BBC. France is not an exception. It’s like watching a castrated old lion in a zoo playing with his tail. When I need good political analysis I read Russian newspapers. When from time to time I feel pessimistic about life in Russia I read Wall Street Journal or Washington Post. It gives a real boost of patriotism. If Putin only wanted to make his power much stronger and chances of liberals puny, he only needed to start a daily show on TV “What European and American mainstream newspapers write about life and politics in Russia”.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Russian Chronicles

Thanks to Jane Keeler I found this wonderful travelogue “Russian Chronicles”. Lisa Dickey and David Hillegas come back to Russia and make the same trip they did in 1995 visiting the same places and interviewing people that met ten years ago. Apart from being a very interesting story teller Lisa Dickey is also very open minded. She is probably the first American mainstream journalist that is sincerely friendly towards this country. Her criticisms do not sound as mean finger pointing. No meaningless rants and preaching. Then she is probably the first journalist that openly accepts that life in Russia became much better in general. Not the usual ‘rich Russians are obnoxiously rich but most of the people live in poverty’ stuff one reads in Washington Post or Wall Street Journal.

My previous post was about Russian rudeness. Lisa Dickey’s last post is about Russian railway trains and over the top Russian “friendliness” one finds there. I prefer to travel by air but from time to time as I take a train I meet the same problems as JJ. Only she had to stand for America and answer questions about Bush politics but I have to defend Moscow and ‘filthy rich’ Muscovites who grab resources from all over the country.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Russian Rudeness

Usually statements (usually made by Americans), like “Russians are rude” actually mean “Russians don’t smile.” In other cases it could be translated as “I behave in Russia as I’m used to behave back at home. I view my behavior as universally accepted all over the world. Then there people in Russia who find some aspects of my behavior insulting and when I refuse to adjust it they become rude.” In Russia one should be very careful about adjusting the everyday behavior to dozens of sensitive norms and regulations. This is true for every culture that is different from American or European. Only in Japan or in India cultural differences are visible and felt immediately. Unfortunately, Russia “looks” like a European country and Russians look like ordinary “white” people.
Rudeness could not be a prevailing trace of national character in principle. Every culture is a stable self-organized system. When most of its elements are “rude” it would disintegrate. In every culture people become rude when they want to give a strong and definite signal to the offender that his/her behavior would not be tolerated. I would say 99% of Russians live their daily life without being rude to each other. It only takes some openness, readiness to throw away some intercultural clich?s and a strong will to understand.
I try to illustrate this idea with one typical example – how to deal with rude shop assistances or waiters in Russia. First, let us dig deeper into Russian history. Only 80 years ago Russia was a predominantly rural country. Only 150 years ago most of Russians were serfs. Serfs are not slaves. Russian peasants never thought of themselves as slaves. They truly believed that they belonged to the land, that they were an integral part of the land. But the land belonged to the landowner thus making them also belong to the landowner. When in 1861 the tsar granted personal freedom this news was met with hundreds of peasants’ revolts. There’s no paradox here. Peasants simply couldn’t grasp it – they are free but their land stays with the landowner. It meant no freedom.
Landowners were “tolerated” by peasants just because by the evil fate they happened to possess peasants were bonded with by the God’s will. Doing obligatory part-time work for a landowner personally (barschina) was a God’s ordeal – a hard cross to bear. One couldn’t escape it so it was morally justified to revenge the landowner by doing barschina poorly, sabotaging the work, breaking instruments or stealing. Anyway, God wouldn’t treat it as a sin – stealing from a person whose ancestors grabbed our land ages ago. The most despised people among peasant were house-sefs – serfs who were taken from their land to serve at a landowner’s house: cooks, butlers, coachmen, etc. Those people were degenerated to the lowest rank – doing personal services for someone. Below were only prostitutes, thieves, and homeless – people whose bond with the land was broken forever.
Is it so surprising that nowadays people who work as waiters or shop assistants feel that they are doing a very humiliating job – serving other? I remember one American movie with Demi Moore playing a role of a strip dancer. She hated that job, hated customers, hated her boss but was still working because she was poor, she was a lonely mother and she needed money. In that movie Demi Moore looked at the strip bar patrons exactly like many Russian waiters look at their customers. “You see how humiliated I am. I degraded to being a restaurant-serf. Don’t you dare to humiliate me more by your stupid demands! I’m still a free man and can rebut your insults”.
Have patience with Russian service people. These people found themselves in this position not of their own accord. Evil fate forced them to do this degrading work.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Russians and Europeans

The All-Russian –°enter of the Public Opinion Studies (VTSIOM) presented to the public the results of it poll about how frequently Russians and the citizens of the European Union think about the sense of life.

As a study showed, 43% of Russians and 35% of Europeans frequently think about the sense of life and its ultimate purpose, while 32% and 39% respectively do it from time to time.

Russian women (49%) think about the sense of life more frequently in comparison with men (37%). It seems that philosophizing is closely correlated with the level of income. Only 39% Russians with higher incomes contemplate on the purpose of human existence.

On average, Russians are as religious as Europeans. 53% of Russians believe in God (plus 25% believe in the existence of life after death). Respectively, 52% of Europeans believe in God (plus 27% believe in life after death). In Russia there are 16% of atheists comparing to 18% in EU.
45% of Russians and 54% of Europeans practically always or frequently have trust in other people, sometimes 31% and 34% respectively.
Rarely or almost never trust other people 23% of Russians and 11% of the EU citizens. Russians over 60 years of age trust other people more often – 55% of respondents. Almost as Europeans in general.

The poll was conducted in September 2005, 1,6 thousand respondents were in almost all regions of Russia. The results were compared to the results of the poll conducted in the countries of the EU in June 2005.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Why Russians Do Not Smile

Russia Profile published an article by Olga Nikitina “Combining a Rude and Very Hospitable Reputation” on a very interesting topic about Russian culture. How can the same people be so rude and so hospitable in different situation?
Olga Nikitina writes:

Foreigners who come to Russia are often struck by the indifferent, closed, or even hostile looks from people on public transportation and in the streets. One widespread opinion is that Russians rarely smile. On the other hand, Russians are also well known for their hospitality, and have a reputation for being extremely generous friends.

There are sociological reasons behind both types of behavior. According to Elena Zdravomyslova, a professor at the European University in St. Petersburg and research coordinator at the Center for Independent Social Research, the apathy demonstrated by Russians in public could be a means of psychological defense. “In post-Soviet Russia, the level of personal security has decreased dramatically,” she said. “If you are attacked in the street, the police cannot help you. Nobody can really defend you. The instability of social structures also makes people avoid contacts that could jeopardize their safety, or even develop aggressive behavioral strategies. Being autonomous is safer.”

This conclusion is very surprising and to my mind unprofessional. I don’t think it’s correct to explain a cultural phenomenon that is at least 500 years old by some 15 years post-Soviet period. The opinion about Russians as at times unsmiling and rude but in other circumstances as very friendly and hospitable one easily finds in the accounts of European travelers on Russia already in the 15th and 16th century. For example, E. de Corte compares French peasants who are friendly when they are sober and very aggressive when drunk to Russians – when sober they are sullen but when drunk hug and kiss each other.

One only needs to read about Levin’s relationships with his peasants in “Anna Karenina” to find the “secret” of this paradoxical behavior. Bezukhov’s adventures during the French retreat from Moscow in “War and Peace” also give a lot of insights.

Russian culture is basically the culture of Russian peasantry communes. I believe hundreds of ethnographers wrote about it. Commune here is a key word. Why is this culture so prevailing today? In 1917 before the Communist Coup 87% of Russian population was rural. At the beginning of 1970’s only 18% of Russians were engaged in agriculture. Most of Russians can live in big cities but they still behave as if they belong to a small community and the nearest village is a hundred miles away.

When you live in Siberia in a small rural commune you should be very distrustful of every stranger. Moreover – strangers should feel immediately that you are hostile towards them. Only when a stranger proves beyond doubt that (1) he wants to belong to the commune, (2) he accepts all laws and traditions of this particular commune, (3) he can be trusted; only then he is accepted. And an accepted member of the commune enjoys so much trust, friendliness, openheartedness and sincerity that is very surprising to Europeans and who think that Russian openness is over the top.

Actually the “secret” of Russian democracy is also rooted in the culture of peasantry communes. Inside the commune people have their own laws, traditions, judges, principles and values. Every time the government tries to impose its laws, its attempts are met with peasants’ revolts and revolutions. On the other hand people delegate the tsar and the Orthodox Church all the problems outside communal life. The tsar can make any laws he likes as long as such laws help keeping this huge country together and do not contradict the laws of the commune. Not “commune” in general but every particular commune with its particular laws, be it in Siberia, in the Far East, in the Northern taiga or in the Southern steppes.