Tuesday, 5 August 2014
Before I got here, I don't think I could have answered that question accurately. I mean I have Google maps and street view I could have done all this research sitting at home. At least those were my thoughts prior to getting here. Now I know it would have been a very bland account. Russia has a very rich and complicated history and culture. Even now after three months in the country I am just scratching the surface of this. My grasp of the language is still minimal, but my understanding of the culture is much better. Like a deaf person who is able to see better because of his lack of hearing my ability to understand body language and glean meaning via these observations are far superior to how it used to be. The Russian people and country are, for the most part, very misunderstood in the western world. Simple things like eye contact are ruled by culture. There is an old Russian saying. "A person that sees less lives longer." This saying and behavior is carried forward into the day to day interactions on the street. You can look at the person coming toward you but if your gaze does more than linger you force the person you're looking at to access why. Eye contact is supposed to be only brief with strangers. These behaviors may be similar in certain subcultures in Western society, like gangs, but unlike subculture modalities it is common here.
Sometimes as a foreigner I forget. A very tall women wearing five inch heels on very uneven streets may catch my attention if I look too long she is forced to figure out why I am "staring." Now in western culture a stare is a look that lingers for say twenty seconds. In Russia, that time frame drops to about seven seconds. So I am trying to keep my thousand yard stare while allowing my perception to record the subtle observations and nuances of the scene I am viewing. As in the above example; how can she possibly walk on these streets with those heels and what kind of pain is she going through for fashion?
Fashion and dress are another culture difference that was hard to get a grasp on. Neither women nor men just toss something on to go out. While it is a stereotype that Russians overdress for everything, it is partly true. But it is through our eyes and western perception that we judge this as overdressed. The importance of being successful and taking pride in what they do is part of this. The change Perestroika forced on them created a world that was hard in judgment. If you weren't successful, it was because you were lazy or not trying hard enough. You were all of a sudden free to pursue whatever dream you had and could rise above your birth station in life. We in the western world have long understood that while every child born in America or Canada can rise to be the leader of the country time has tempered this ideology with understanding. Perestroika is still fresh and that temper has yet to take. While we in the west see it as a great thing here, the jury is still out.
This was one of the hardest things for me as a westerner to understand. I mean freedom is held as one of our most-sacred things. So as I was doing research and came to suspect that the average Russian didn't value the new Russia as I did, I had questions.
I asked this question to my good friend and, brother from another mother. He said simply; "Go walking in a graveyard and look at the ages of the ones you find there." I have done this on a few occasions now and I understand what he meant. Russia was handed this freedom without a "how to" manual. It tore a bloody swath through the youth of the land. That revolution was hardly reported on in the western world and the price for these new opportunities was huge. An entire age group barely survived the change.
Now it is oddly karmic that it was Marx that said "only true change comes through violent (and bloody) revolution." But what was stranger still to me as a westerner was most local average Russians do not view this as the Great Event it was touted as in the west! They are happy for their new-found freedoms and opportunities, but direction is still missing. The west is still viewed in less than accurate light. When I explain our taxation system and size of our government, I am greeted with stares that reflect a disbelief. Canada is still viewed by Russians as the land of great riches and opportunities. While this is partly true explaining the reality of taxes and houses priced in multi-millions of rubles is greeted with astonishment. Long waits for healthcare and surgery are openly viewed with suspicion. Education and post-secondary grants and structure are past easy translation. Like explaining to a colourblind person what is the colour blue.
Simple and very obvious questions about supporting tomorrow's leaders and researchers are past my ability to explain. The actions of my government in these regards are basically an embarrassment and something past my ability to convey. How do I explain to someone that respects the elderly and supports the efforts of children to learn that we in Canada spend over a hundred thousand US dollars a year to incarcerate a bank robber while allowing our pensioners to live below the poverty line? That highly trained Officers in jail check on these pieces of social garbage every forty-five minutes overnight to ensure they are alive while my grandmother in an old age home is checked only twice during the night? These are concepts past easy understanding in my culture, yet they are reality and the reality that I can't explain. I mean does the average Canadian actually support this? No! But we lack the ability to change it. While our elected and appointed leaders are supposed to listen to the people there is a severe disconnect. In comparison; Prime Minister Putin actually has a time he takes questions and suggestions live on the air from average Russians. I would love to see my own Prime Minister Harper respond to questions from average Canadians. I mean he is responsible to us the taxpayers, right? These disconnects between the people and the government are far more vast at home than here in Russia.
Some other observations that are not so politically loaded are the Russian Peoples acceptance. I have discussed this a little bit in other blog entries but let us spend some time exploring this idea. I speak very little Russian and while I am initially viewed as Russian when the truth is discovered it is viewed with a mixture of panic and interest. Panic because the person I am interacting with is now concerned they can't understand what I need. Compare that to the exasperation or outright contempt when most westerners encounter someone who doesn't speak English. When they get past that initial panic and understand that however we need to work it out, we will the interest sets in. They want to know where I am from and how I like it here in Russia. They don't assume that this is the best place on earth and I find that so refreshing.
At this point the broken English, Russian, and Google translate is mixed with a dynamic game of charades and, working together, we understand each other and get past the barrier of language. This is viewed as fun for my Russian counterparts and they actually delight in the sounds and motions I have to go through to get my point across. The perception is joy interacting with another culture, rather than being inconvenienced by a fucking foreigner that is taking up far too much time.
This is not to say Russia or Russians are perfect. Lots of things are different or get under my skin being here. Time and boundaries are issues for my new Russian friends. The basic infrastructure of things and the way of doing things are different and as such a challenge. But perhaps most of all is the simple clearing of tables. You have to hang on to your drink as glasses left mostly consumed will be taken away. Sometimes it's the little things in life that irritate you and can't we all be thankful for that!